Canada’s democracy is facing some real challenges—especially in the youth department. In the 2011 federal election the voter turnout for youth (aged 18 to 24) was 38.8 per cent (compared to 70 per cent for those aged 55 and older). We know that this decline in voting started back in the 1970s. There are many ideas about why this disengagement persists, from technological distraction and educational design to unemployment and mobility.
I myself was once was a very disengaged 19-year-old. I’ve heard this same sense of disengagement from students across the province when I’ve spoken to them about their thoughts on voting, and I’ve seen this when youth choose to read celebrity gossip instead of newspapers. I can, however, also pinpoint the moment when I went from being a disengaged youth to an active citizen. It involved a faculty strike during my time as an undergrad. Witnessing how a three-year budget freeze and new budget cuts (imposed by the B.C. government on the university) could result in potential program cuts and faculty layoffs made me realize how political decisions impacted my everyday life. Luckily, it doesn’t always take labour unrest to pique a sense of civic interest, but what it does require is the opportunity to become engaged in some way, to feel part of a process and connect with how policy affects our lives. Some people get engaged by volunteering during elections; other people join clubs. Some people take part in public consultation meetings; other people join political parties or neighbourhood associations.
In gearing up for the 2015 election, Elections Canada has decided to tap into the power of those who are already developing a sense of youth civic culture, and have launched a series of “Inspire Democracy” workshops in 13 different cities across Canada.
I recently attended the Vancouver session, and at the workshop we heard from John Beebe (manager of outreach at Samara) and Taylor Gunn (the very candid president of CIVIX), who are both true innovators in the world of youth democracy. We learned about youth engagement challenges from Elections Canada’s perspective, and why they launched Inspire Democracy—a space for organizations and citizens to find research and share information on anything related to youth civic participation. Their overall goal is to figure out how to better inform youth on where, when and how to vote. During our session, participants were given time to share strategies on how to get youth back to the ballot box. This information will be collected and published by Elections Canada (stay tuned for a link to the report).
By spearheading this initiative and taking it on the road, Elections Canada has created a powerful opportunity for organizations across the country to work collectively to inspire the youth vote. They clearly understand that it is going to take a mobile and active coalition of community partners to change this now seemingly systemic problem of youth voter disengagement.
Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 33 per cent have a post-secondary qualification and 60 per cent currently attend school. Regardless of educational attainment, young people have a lot to contribute. It is clear that young people still are not participating in the political arena in a substantial way. They continue to face real and perceived barriers that limit their willingness and ability to participate in our democracy. And as a result, we risk failing our organizations, our cities, our provinces, our country and—most importantly—our future.
Organizations like CityStudio not only understand this, but help mobilize youth action in the civic arena. Student societies organize their members to pull the vote. SFU Public Square works to activate the voice of youth in a public forum. I’d like to know what you are doing to change the culture of youth civic engagement, and how you think we can better encourage youth involvement in politics. Tell us about other organizations you think are doing important work in this arena so we can spread the word.
Katelyn McDougall is a graduate student in the SFU Urban Studies program, and engagement and programming coordinator for SFU Public Square.