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Blake Desjarlais and Janis Irwin speak on student issues at federal NDP town hall

Member of Parliament Blake Desjarlais and Member of the Legislative Assembly Janis Irwin spoke to The Gateway on student housing and affordability during a town hall in Inglewood.

The federal New Democrat Party (NDP) held a three-day caucus retreat in Edmonton, which involved a town hall on January 23 in Inglewood about the cost-of-living crisis.

At the meeting, The Gateway spoke to Member of Parliament (MP) Blake Desjarlais, who serves as the federal NDP critic for post-secondary education. The Gateway also spoke to Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Janis Irwin. Irwin is the Alberta NDP‘s critic for housing.

Irwin says she’s advocating for affordable student housing, rent struggles are “shocking to hear”

A particular topic of interest at the meeting was housing costs. Federal NDP leader and MP Jagmeet Singh called out corporate landlords and large corporations as primary concerns.

“One of the ideas we have is an acquisition fund to keep affordable homes affordable, [because they’re] owned by the community. There’s things we can do right now to keep rent affordable, and then we have to build affordable housing,” Singh said.

The Gateway spoke to Irwin specifically on housing issues for students. Irwin has visited the University of Alberta North Campus multiple times, as well as the University of Calgary.

“It’s shocking to hear from some of the students just struggling with rent,” she said. “I’ve been clear all along. We need a whole lot more safe, affordable housing for all Albertans, but particularly for students. And that’s what we’re pushing for.”

Irwin said that the housing crisis affects both domestic and international students. She added that she wants to ensure that all students are supported.

“We’ve called on the United Conservative Party (UCP) to make those investments in affordable and rental housing, and they’re not doing that. We’re going to keep pushing.”

“I want international students to know, it’s not your fault that Canada is in a housing crisis,” Desjarlais says

The Gateway asked Desjarlais for his thoughts on current issues in the post-secondary education sector. Desjarlais spoke on the newly announced two-year cap on international student study permits. The cap will not affect international students that currently hold study permits or are seeking renewal.

According to Desjarlais, this cap is a response to the housing crisis. But, the federal Liberal Party government is putting the “blame [on] international students.” Instead, Desjarlais said that the market is the problem. He said that “when the Liberals and Conservatives back in the 90s ended the national housing strategy,” the private market became “the only actor [left] in the housing sector.”

“I want international students to know, it’s not your fault that Canada is in a housing crisis,” Desjarlais said. “It’s an unfortunate reality. It’s a market that’s designed to make people rich. And ultimately, that kind of system results in people who are poor.”

As of January 1, study permit applicants have to prove that they can pay for tuition, travel costs, and have access to $20,635. This financial requirement was last revised in the early 2000s, when applicants had to prove they could access $10,000. Desjarlais said that this decision will have to be studied further to fully understand its impacts.

“But, we do know it’s going to discount people who really need to be able to access higher education,” he said.

Reduced provincial government funding for post-secondary “harms our economic outcome as a province”

The Government of Alberta placed a two per cent tuition cap, effective starting 2024-25. The U of A is currently proposing a two per cent tuition increase for domestic students in 2024-25, and a five per cent increase for international students in 2025-26.

The U of A Students’ Union (UASU) Students’ Council discussed the proposal on November 28, 2023. Melissa Padfield, deputy provost (students and enrolment), said the university doesn’t expect “any increase at all” in the funding it receives from the Government of Alberta through the operating and program support grant. The government reduced the grant by $222 million from 2020-23.

Desjarlais said the reduced funding has “harmed the U of A, educational outcomes, and our economic outcome as a province.” He added that the province is currently experiencing deficits in nurses, doctors, and trained health care professionals.

“That bottle-neck starts at universities. We need to ensure that there’s more spaces, more dedicated room, [and] more grants. Young people are graduating with historic debt. We’ve got to put an end to it.”

Desjarlais hopes that students who are concerned about cost-of-living or are struggling themselves, get involved politically.

“Canadians have used our democratic institutions to fight for better change. It’s going to take engagement [from] young people. Take your future into your own hands — participate and define what the policy of our generation will look like.”

Lily Polenchuk

Lily Polenchuk is the 2023-24 Managing Editor at The Gateway. She previously served as the 2023-24 and 2022-23 News Editor, and 2022-23 Staff Reporter. She is in her second year, studying English and political science. She enjoys skiing, walks in the river valley, and traveling.

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