The Ontario provincial election is coming up on Thursday, June 7th. Progressive Conservative candidate Jeff Yurek, who is currently seeking re-election in the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London, sat down for an interview recently with STEAM City Media journalists (L to R) Jenn Klassen, Alex Popen, and Maddie King.

Voters in Ontario head to the polls on Thursday, June 7th. For most, this will mean choosing a candidate representing one of the four major parties: the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, or the Green Party.

Recently, our team of student-journalists at STEAM City Media had the opportunity to interview Jeff Yurek, the Progressive Conservative candidate and incumbent in the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London. The questions covered a wide range of issues, including why Doug Ford would be a good Premier of Ontario, why mental health issues have increased significantly among young people, and how the education system could change given the way in which technology is transforming how students learn.

This is an interesting interview! Three sixteen year-olds pose questions to an experienced politician, and the answers are illuminating. There was a small audience on hand in STEAM City Media headquarters to observe the conversation. Here is the transcript of the interview:

Jenn Klassen: Why do you think Doug Ford would be a good Premier for Ontario?

Jeff Yurek: That’s a good question. Doug is bringing to the table experience with regards to running his own business. He has some experience in municipal council. What he is bringing to the party is his leadership in the terms of how do we bring businesses back to the province? How do we run an efficient government so there is less waste – there’s lots of waste in the government – and repurpose that money into the front lines? So, I think Doug will do a great job coming forward as Premier of this province, and making a change in the province so that we can compete with not only other provinces but Michigan, Ohio, New York, so that jobs stop leaving our province and start coming back, so that we start growing the revenue in the province again to spend on the programs that we like to have — our health care, education, agriculture, environment. That’s why I think he’ll be a great leader.

Alex Popen: So, something we’ve been talking about here is lowering the voting age. Would you support lowering the voting age to sixteen? If so, why would you, or why would you not?

Jeff Yurek: That’s good [laughter] — that’s throwing me! There was a private members’ bill that came forward near the end of the session with that idea of lowering the voters’ age. Usually private members’ bills are hard to get passed. Usually it has to be the government to make that change. I don’t have an opinion on that yet, because I don’t think when that decision comes that it’s up to me. It’s up to who I’m representing, and I haven’t really had that discussion with constituents. That hasn’t been an issue that’s come to my office yet. So, if the law is proposed to change the voting age, you would have to have that discussion with the constituents.

You also have to see what else is attached to that. You can’t buy cigarettes until you’re 18 [Ed. note: 19 in Ontario], but is that going to lower the age of purchasing cigarettes or anything else? Usually society has deemed you an adult at 18. I think voting is a very, very serious responsibility to have. So, I think it would be time to have that general conversation.

Maddie King: You’ve been very critical of the Liberals not putting enough money into mental health services for children and youth. Why do you think there is a growing need for these services, and what would you change if your party was elected?

Jeff Yurek: Sure. I guess the first part would be services. If you look at Elgin County alone, there is really only one agency that provides services for children and youth, and the wait-list is long. Too often kids have to go to London, and sometimes they’re turned down. I think the wait-list in London is nine months for any type of treatment. Imagine – you broke your leg, and you get your leg treated the same day; if you have a mental illness, you’re told to wait. That’s wrong.

The reason why I think there’s a problem, other than there’s very little services here in Elgin County – they just released some statistics last week, which shows that over the last ten years, children and youth experiencing mental illness have gone to the emerg — that number has increased seventy-one percent. It’s increased seventy-nine percent for those children and youth who have been hospitalized because of mental illness. So, the statistics show that it’s headed in the wrong direction. All other illnesses that affect children and youth have gone down for their use of the ER and / or hospitalization, where we’ve seen seventy-one and seventy-nine percent increases for the other. Our party is proposing an investment on top of the current services of $3.8B over ten years with mental health, addictions, and housing. What we are going to do is build up the community mental health agencies. They’ve had a base funding freeze for over ten years. We need to build up the supports in the community so that children and youth seeking mental health help, it’s there for them, especially in rural and northern Ontario. That will decrease the burden on our emergency departments so the wait time isn’t hours upon hours because the children and youth who need the help actually have the services.

I spoke to a paediatrician in town just a few months ago. She’s at wits’ end because she can’t get her clients the help she needs to. So, this investment is new, and it’s really going to build to fix the mental health system — not only for children and youth, but adults as well.

Alex Popen: Being our current MPP, what do you think your biggest accomplishments are so far?

Jeff Yurek: I would say my biggest accomplishment, that I personally think has been, was that I was able to get a Private Members’ Bill — I mentioned that they don’t really pass; mine passed — Ryan’s Law. That changed how students are treated at school with regards to asthma.

A few years back, a child died of an asthmatic attack at school because he couldn’t get to his puffer, because the old rule was that teachers kept it, or the office kept it, because it was a medication. There wasn’t really enough thought to that, the fact that it’s more like an epinephrine pen, where if you have an asthmatic attack, you need your medication. So, my bill allowed kids and young adults to carry their asthma medication, their ventolins, their bricanyls, on them at all times, provided that their parents said it was okay. It also had principals create a file on kids who have asthma, so they understood and had an emergency plan for them in case there was an emergency. Personally, I think that was a good accomplishment because there’s too many kids out there – there’s twenty percent of kids, apparently, from what I’ve learned — who have a form of asthma. It’s important that they have access to medications.

Maddie King: The Liberals have changed OSAP so now some students can access free tuition. If your party was elected, what would you change, or would you change anything?

Jeff Yurek: No, we’re not going to change what’s already in the system, for now. We’re going to review OSAP to see how we could streamline it and make it easier to access, and make sure it’s meeting the needs of the students.

Jenn Klassen: With the way that school is changing, like with WiFi, with our phones, who do you think would be most ready to reimagine this new generation of school coming up?

Jeff Yurek: Yeah, that’s good. We have had the promise of working with not only the teachers, but I think you raise a good point that I think — you’re making me think here — that I would advocate for it, is actually having some student-tables, too. I was just talking to you about Instagram, right? I’m lost at Instagram. So, I would think the younger generation, maybe some of the newer teachers who are just graduating into the role need to play a role. We say that we want to bring the value of the teacher to the table, and usually they pick teachers who have been well-experienced, and they do have have great knowledge and experience and that’s valuable, but maybe you need the younger students to be there.

We’ve already talked about re-doing the math curriculum. We’ve talked about financial literacy in the school system. One of our MPPs put forward a bill, that we support, for farm literacy, especially in urban areas. If you don’t experience a farm, you don’t really understand what farmers undergo to bring the food to the table. We’re lucky to live in this riding. We kind of get a sense of it, but in some of the larger urban areas in Toronto, they don’t understand.

We could probably try to dovetail into how we change the system to be competitive, and definitely say somebody at the STEAM Centre had a good idea! I’m going to push that idea of having some sort of student involvement with that. I don’t know what it would look like, but that’s a great idea.

Jenn Klassen: So, last question … where, other than your home or office, do you feel most at home in Elgin-Middlesex-London?

Jeff Yurek: Elgin-Middlesex-London, where do I feel most at home other than home and office … could I say my parents’ house?! Or do you want something else? That’s a great question. You know, I would have to say I like Pinafore Park. It’s peaceful. I used to bring my dog out there to walk and go to events there. It reminds me of my childhood. We used to have, on Labour Day weekend — oh, what was it called, anybody remember? Shivaree weekend! It was a big parade, much like the Fire Muster that goes on there, but before it was ‘Shivaree’.

It was the only time that really we went out as a family in the community because my Dad worked all the time. We have six kids in my family, so my Mom liked to be at home because it was a good way to control us, but we would all go to Shivaree and have fun there. Nowadays, just going to the park, they’ve done a wonderful job of keeping it up, I think. It’s nice. It’s relaxing.

Date of Interview: May 14, 2018, at the STEAM Centre in St. Thomas, Ontario