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Ignatieff at the University of Calgary last year.
courtesy Craig Windrim

Liberal leader talks post-secondary

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Michael Ignatieff became Leader of the Liberal Party in 2008 after being elected to Parliament in 2006. As Leader of the Official Opposition, Ignatieff plays a prominent and influential role in Canadian politics. He was in Calgary last week for a fundraising luncheon and I had the opportunity to sit down with him and ask a few questions.

Gauntlet: What do you think the federal government should do to help recent graduates, or those going to be graduating soon, get jobs in a tough market situation?

Michael Ignatieff: About a year ago we proposed EI premium rebates for employers-- small or medium size employers-- who hire young workers. That is, I just think we need to create incentives for employers to hire young people out of university because, as you know, the rate of unemployment for young Canadians is double the national average. So we think the federal government ought to make it easier for employers to hire bright people out of college, and we've said so more than a year ago and the Conservatives have done nothing about it.

G: Do you think it is feasible or desirable for post-secondary education to be free?

MI: No. I think that if you benefit from post-secondary, you should contribute to it. Otherwise someone else has to pay for it for you and the people who have to pay for it may not get the benefits . . . but there is a real issue about affordability and there is a real issue about student debt. Our platform for the next election will have a very specific and very ambitious attempt to help students with the cost of post-secondary education.

We think this is a hugely important priority. Every speech I give talks about the importance of education for the future of the country. I am increasingly worried by the debt load that students are carrying and it's beginning to slow down entry into post-secondary. The federal government has got to do something and we believe we have the solution.

G: Canadian universities have recently found themselves in conflicts over freedom of speech, specifically Carleton and the U of C. What is your reaction to these conflicts?

MI: I've been a university teacher and I've taught people from every race, religion and culture in my classroom and I've been able to keep the discussion civil. The one that we've stood out against . . . is Israel Apartheid Week. I felt that comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa is actually just incorrect and it creates an atmosphere in which Israel and those who support Israel are delegitimized-- I don't think that's appropriate.

I think that there has to be freedom in an academic environment, but people should not feel intimidated, pressured or prevented from freely stating their opinion. You don't want to have a campus where there's any atmosphere of intellectual intimidation. Freedom is a chilly virtue. Everybody likes freedom until it starts going against your own prejudices. But that's what a university is for-- to stretch you and change you.

I don't think politicians should try to regulate this. Speech should be free.

G: Developed and developing countries have heavily invested in their learning and innovation programs. How is Canada faring in comparison?

MI: I think we're slipping behind a little. We have world-class universities, but we're going to have to sustain investment in post-secondary education. Fifteen to 20 years ago, India was way behind us-- China wasn't even in the play. Now . . . it's clear these two great societies are pouring money into post-secondary education and we've got to keep up the pace. I'm strongly committed as a federal leader, education is my number one priority. Not just for post-secondary but for early learning and child-care and life-long learning and training for school workers. I don't care where the learning goes on-- the university is only part of it. It might be in a union hall, it might be in a company, it might be in a non-profit, but we have to have a national sense of that as a priority and put the resources in.

G: If elected, would you re-introduce Martin Cauchon's marijuana decriminalization bill?

MI: The decriminalization for small amounts of possession, yes we would, we've committed to that. But I want to make it clear that I don't endorse drug use of any kind. Our priority is simply to make sure that young lives aren't ruined by criminal prosecutions and criminal records. I want kids to get a clear message that I think we've got a lot better things to do with our lives than recreational drug use.

G: What is your view of the role youth currently play in the political process?

MI: Well we've just won a by-election in Winnipeg North and it was made possible by young people-- it was the kids who did it. So there's a lot of cynicism about "young people aren't engaged in politics; they don't care." But actually, when I look at the people who work for me, people who were on the Liberal Express with me, people who run all our social networks, people who do the data analysis [and] the people who work in my office-- they're all under 30. I wouldn't be here without the people under 30. So the idea that the kids are disconnected is just not true. Your generation has been great to the Liberal Party and we want to keep drawing you in.

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