Student candidates in federal election balance classes with campaigning

·5 min read
Meghan Piironen, 19, with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, is one of several student candidates running in the federal election. The second-year political science student at the University of Ottawa is running for the party in Ontario's Haldimand-Norfolk riding, balancing studying with campaigning. (Submitted by Meghan Piironen - image credit)
Meghan Piironen, 19, with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, is one of several student candidates running in the federal election. The second-year political science student at the University of Ottawa is running for the party in Ontario's Haldimand-Norfolk riding, balancing studying with campaigning. (Submitted by Meghan Piironen - image credit)

Meghan Piironen isn't just studying political science. She's doing it — running for the New Democratic Party in Ontario's rural Haldimand-Norfolk riding in southwestern Ontario, where she lives with her parents.

Her election run has impressed her classmates at the University of Ottawa.

"They're like, 'Wow, you just like completely jumped the gun!'"

The 19-year-old is one of several student candidates running in the Sept. 20 federal election. In Ontario, all major parties have at least one student running, except for the Liberals.

Piironen says she knew she wanted to run for office since before she could vote. She turned 18 just before the last election in October 2019, so this is only her second federal election where she's old enough to do so. Going to school in Ottawa helped inspire her, too. She lived there last year during her first year in university, taking trips to Parliament Hill.

"Oh my goodness, it fills me with so much joy ... just thinking about how many great leaders have stepped into that building," she said. "Me and my political science students are like 'This could be us one day. We'll be here!'"

Class during day, campaign at night

Piironen is trying her best to juggle school and the campaign. She's booked off mornings and afternoons for school, attending classes online from her parents' home near Cayuga, Ont. By four or five o'clock, she's out knocking on doors.

But as election day creeps closer, it's meant making tough choices — such as playing hooky to take part in debates or go to candidate meetings.

Eric Frydman, 28, is running for the Green Party in Toronto's Eglinton-Lawrence riding while working on a joint law school-business degree at York University. Like Piironen, it's his first time running for public office, so he didn't know what to expect.

Submitted by Eric Frydman
Submitted by Eric Frydman

"It's pretty hectic," he said. "Every moment I have is either studying for class at law school or planning the next debate or the next public meeting."

Frydman says he knows he'll have a lot of catching up to do after election day — he predicts working a string of 18-hour days. But he knew he didn't just want to sit back and not run.

He says the things he cares about — climate change, housing, mental health — are reaching crisis levels, and he thinks running as a student helps him bring a unique perspective to these issues.

No school rules for student candidates

Neither York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto nor the University of Ottawa has rules for students running for office. Osgoode says a student can ask for a leave of absence if elected — allowing one year or more on a "exceptional basis." The school wouldn't say whether being an elected MP would be exceptional, saying it would consider absence applications individually.

The same applies at the University of Ottawa, which says it encourages "civic engagement."

Cole Squire opted to take this semester off so he could run as the candidate for the People's Party of Canada in the Brantford-Brant riding in Ontario.

A member of the Six Nations reserve, he's about five classes away from finishing his political science degree at McMaster University in nearby Hamilton. The program piqued his interest in politics and helped him decide to run. The 26-year-old was even going to start a young PPC club on campus, but the pandemic hit.

Squire says he also chose to take this semester off because he's opposed to McMaster's vaccination policy, a crucial sticking point for his party in this campaign.

Like other schools, McMaster's policy requires anyone coming onto campus to upload proof of vaccination or an exemption. Squire says he's not against getting vaccinated, but he doesn't want to be required to show proof.

Submitted by Cole Squire
Submitted by Cole Squire

"I'm not going to be coerced into disclosing my private medical information to anybody, besides my health-care provider," he said.

Squire says he plans to finish his degree online if the policy is still in place in the winter semester.

Mattias Vanderley, a business and law student at Western University in London, Ont., is running for the Conservatives in London-Fanshawe. He wasn't available for an interview.

What happens if they win?

Students have been elected to Parliament before — perhaps mostly famously during the 2011 federal election, when the NDP's Orange Wave swept Quebec.

Laurin Liu was just 20 when she was elected an MP in a riding the party didn't think it could win. At the time, she was studying history and cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal, part of the famed "McGill Four" elected while still enrolled or just graduated from the school.

The university let her suspend her studies, and she returned to finish her degree after she lost re-election in 2015. She knows what it's like for these student candidates.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

"My biggest piece of advice is just to fight for something you believe in," she said. "Knowing that I was in it for the right reasons and fighting for something that was bigger than myself was really what kept me going."

The student candidates in this election say they have thought about what happens should they win next week.

Squire says he hopes to finish his degree online, perhaps part time if he becomes an MP — although Liu warns that's pretty much impossible. Frydman says he would negotiate with his school but thinks it would love having a student in public office.

As for Piironen, she says she knows she's going to Ottawa either way — whether back to school in person or as a new member of Parliament.

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