The latest debate of Ontario Liberal leadership candidates circled around the degree of independence that the northern part of the province should be given to handle and resolve the challenges it faces.

The group of seven Liberals vying to become the next premier of Ontario debated education, economic development and aboriginal issues in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Sunday afternoon.

But the questions about how the north should be able to respond to regional economic and social issues brought out differences among candidates on how much freedom they believed the region should be granted.

Glen Murray, the Toronto Centre MPP who was first to declare his candidacy for the top Liberal job this fall, said the north should have its own regional government to give it greater say on key issues.

"If you look at what's happening in Britain with devolving power to Scotland and Wales, why is this happening all over the world?" Murray said.

"Because this new economy is regional and decisions have to be made much faster."

Fellow leadership contender Kathleen Wynne expressed concern about where that concept could lead.

"My only caveat and caution is, that sometimes in this conversation, it starts to sound like we're talking about a separation process, and I don't think that's where we should go," Wynne said.

"I believe we're one Ontario. I believe we should stay as one Ontario."

All but one of the candidates running for the Ontario Liberal leadership hold or have held seats in and around the Greater Toronto Area.

Murray and Wynne, as well as Eric Hoskins each represent Toronto ridings. Charles Sousa and Harinder Takhar each hold seats in Mississauga, to the west of the city.

Gerard Kennedy, previously held a Toronto seat when he served in the government led by Premier Dalton McGuinty before leaving provincial politics in 2006.

Only Sandra Pupatello, a former cabinet minister, has held a seat outside the Toronto area, among the candidates in this leadership contest.

She was a Windsor, Ont.,-area MPP for 16 years, but did not run in the last provincial election.

Education challenges

The candidates were each asked what the next "wave of reform" needed to be in Ontario’s education system. Several candidates pointed to the post-secondary system.

Murray and Takhar focused on the cost of post-secondary education for students, with both men having different for suggestions for how to improve access.

Murray wants to defray the requirement for students to pay tuition up front, while Takhar proposed that the private sector could help provide funds for students by sponsoring them.

By offering a tax credit to businesses, it will encourage them to help put students in programs "for which they will have a demand moving forward," Takhar said.

Sousa said he wanted to expand the number of post-secondary campuses across the province.

Hoskins said his concern was what happens to students once they finish their formal education and try to get into the work force.

Wynne said the focus should be on students in the public system who aren't achieving at the level that they should be and ensuring the province is doing "absolutely everything" to help them reach their potential.

Kennedy had a similar perspective, saying that in the long term, the goal is to have all students work towards a "good outcome."

Pupatello said the province’s education system has been much improved under the McGuinty government.

"Our education system has gone really from the middle of the pack to the top of the list," she said.

But Pupatello said the system needs to get its students more interested in math and science at a younger age.

January convention

Sunday's debate was the second held so far in the leadership campaign, following a debate in Ingersoll, Ont., last weekend.

The Liberals will select their new leader at a convention in downtown Toronto in January.

The current leadership renewal process was triggered by McGuinty's surprise resignation in October.

McGuinty agreed to stay on until his party names a successor. He first became the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party in 1996.

The premier has said that the next leader will make a decision on when to recall the legislature, which was prorogued when McGuinty announced that he was stepping down.

With files from The Canadian Press