Students need a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs before they can study — that's why P.E.I.'s housing crisis and food insecurity are among the top issues students on Prince Edward Island will be paying attention to as politicians ramp up their campaigns in the countdown to the 2021 federal election Sept. 20.
Samantha MacLean is the president of the UPEI Student Union, and Zoe Pocock is president of the student union at Holland College.
CBC News spoke with them to find out what students will be looking for from Island candidates and their parties.
Federal university advocacy group CASA, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, does advocacy and lobbying for the UPEI SU, MacLean said. CASA already compiled a list of priority issues for students across Canada, and she pulled from that the most relevant issues to P.E.I.
Financial aid for students tops the list of important issues for the UPEI student union.
"Students face enormous barriers in paying for their education," said MacLean. "And after a year of studying and living in the pandemic, these challenges obviously only worsened."
Students want to know about changes to the government's student financial aid programs, including student loan repayment assistance.
Statistics Canada's latest figures from 2019 suggest the average student debt upon graduation for college students is $15,300 and for those earning a university bachelor's degree, it's $28,000.
"As we know, Charlottetown is in a housing crisis," MacLean said. She noted that last school year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, most students did not attend classes at UPEI in person, so the need for student housing was reduced.
But this year most students will return to campus for in-person classes.
"We believe that this problem is only going to go back to what it was looking like in 2019," MacLean said. "We'll be looking out for platforms that look how they'll alleviate this problem.
"Students need a place to live, but there's certainly not enough places for them," she said.
New housing has been developed, but Pocock said the rent is beyond reach of most students.
"And housing directly affects other issues like food security ... where we'll see a rise in people using food banks," Pocock said.
The pandemic dramatically affected the world's economy and millions of jobs along with it.
"I believe that job creation, especially for Holland College students, where we are specifically more so a vocational school and trained to apply our skills directly out of college, we do want to see more jobs," said Pocock.
She notes small and medium sized businesses on P.E.I. create a lot of jobs, and many of those were negatively affected by the pandemic — some even closed for good.
"Providing money and funding towards those jobs can only boost our economy even more," Pocock said.
She said the pandemic downturn made many young people realize how expendable they and their jobs were, and lit a fire under them to forge their own paths to success.
Programs and policies to help young people start their own businesses using innovative ideas may help create even more jobs in the long run, Pocock believes.
Balancing the budget
A lot of students will be looking at how politicians plan to tackle the federal budget, Pocock says. She is studying accounting and business.
"That's part of our future, we have to keep that in mind, that we're the generation that will be affected by an increased deficit," Pocock said.
"I think that having a solid plan in place to be able to create a more sustainable economy is at the forefront of a lot of our minds."
She said she realizes that creating economic growth will be even more tricky post-pandemic, but that makes government's job that much more important.
Supporting Indigenous learners
"Indigenous people in Canada face enormous barriers to accessing post-secondary education," MacLean said.
The UPEI student union would like to see candidates endorse digital infrastructure and dedicated student programs for Indigenous learners, "just to break down these extra barriers that these students face," she said.
Getting out the vote
Getting students and young people in general out to vote is usually an uphill battle, as they have historically low voting rates.
And this election, that will be even more difficult, as Elections Canada will no longer be providing polling stations at UPEI as they did in the last two federal elections in 2015 and 2019. MacLean said those worked well.
UPEI will be mounting a campaign on campus to encourage students to vote, called Get Out the Vote. Representatives will visit classrooms to speak to students about the importance of voting, and where and how to do it.
The student union also plans to hold a debate on campus Sept. 8 for the candidates seeking election in the riding of Charlottetown, as well as inviting the candidates to Pints With Politicians pub nights on campus where they can mingle with students and answer questions.
The UPEI Panther Patrol will also be offering to drive students to the polls to vote on Sept. 20., MacLean said.