Canada's Democracy Week Blog
My First Time
Youth Sector Development Officer
YMCA of Québec
My first time was in the basement of a church. I had been anticipating the moment for a long time. It was around 6 p.m. on a beautiful spring day and the sun was just beginning to set. I entered the church alone, walked down the concrete steps and nervously tried to find my place. I had just turned 18 and I couldn't wait for my first time.
Do you remember the first time you voted?
Ten years later, I find myself at the YMCA surrounded by 17- and 18-year-olds who will experience their first time in the 2015 federal election. I spend the day chatting with them about their motivation to vote.
To my great surprise, they all say they are going to vote in the next election. In 2011, two thirds of eligible first-time voters didn't go to the polls. I wonder if these youth are only saying yes because it's what I want to hear. But as we keep chatting, I realize that they really mean it.
Why are you voting? I ask them. Without missing a beat, Emma, a 17-year-old of Philippine descent, answers: "For me, voting is like choosing your future." She explains to me that her mother has told her all citizens must do their "job." Her best friend, Olivia, continues, saying that she is voting "to influence decisions in my society." This young woman has just returned from a trip with her family to Boston and is proudly wearing the Harvard University sweater she bought as a souvenir. Despite her family's precarious financial situation, she dreams of going to university one day.
And what would you say to a friend who, on election day, says they aren't going to vote? This time, I'm in the company of Liam, a young man of Chinese descent. "I would tell him: it's our future at stake! If you want things to change, get up and vote. And if you don't vote, and you're not happy, then don't complain!" Liam just turned 18 and recently graduated from a school for young dropouts. He tells me he passed with a grade of 60.1%.
Alexis, a 17-year-old of Ukrainian descent, is more pragmatic. He acknowledges that his vote might not make a difference, but he concludes that "it makes even less of a difference if you don't vote!"
Are they excited for their first time? Olivia smiles and immediately answers "Yes!", but Alexis has a mixed response: "I've seen my parents vote and it doesn't seem very exciting. But being able to make a difference motivates me to vote." As for Liam, he simply says: "I don't know if I'm excited, but I know I'll get off my butt that day to go vote!"
Of course, Emma, Alexis, Liam and Olivia do not represent all young Canadians. But they do represent that slice of young people who will vote for the first time in fall 2015. In 1968, the first-time voter participation rate was two thirds; 45 years later, that rate had dropped. Today, only one in three first-time voters go to the polls. If nothing is done to reverse this trend, it could get worse. Studies show that youth develop the voting habit when they vote in the first two elections for which they are eligible. If these first times are missed, it is less likely that these potential voters will vote as they get older.
Is it because youth no longer see politics as an avenue for change? Because they have lost their sense of civic duty? Regardless of the answers, the youth I met today have given me hope. For a moment, I dream of gathering them all onto a bus so they can get out and motivate other young Canadians to experience their first time in fall 2015.
My democracy: Own it, engage it!
Taking ownership of democracy means that I take action: first by getting involved with things I care about, and second by seeking opportunities to work collaboratively with others. I've always believed that taking ownership of my democracy also meant creating space for collaboration. For example, during my time working with the Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia, I helped with their Rock the Vote campaign, where I got to engage in a dialogue with students across the province about youth voting.
However, democracy is more than just voting in an election. Of course, voting is a tangible way to measure the health of a democratic society. But a truly healthy democracy is dependent upon ongoing engagement with civic culture and the active dialogue that takes place between citizens, friends and strangers alike.
Another way that I have taken ownership of my democracy was by choosing to attend a post-secondary institution that aligned with my core values. When I decided to come to Simon Fraser University (SFU) to do my master's in urban studies, it was because I saw a university that was committed to interdisciplinary collaboration and to civic engagement (and as an urban studies student, this is pretty important!). SFU's mission of engaging the world helps create a more democratic society, specifically with the work of SFU Public Square, and I knew that was something that I wanted to be part of!
SFU Public Square is a signature initiative designed to spark, nurture and restore community connections, and is considered a go-to convener of serious and productive conversations about issues of public concern. Our work is more than a single place or program, and – in true democratic fashion – it assembles the hearts, minds and talents of diverse communities to promote inclusive, intelligent and inspiring dialogue.
This year, SFU Public Square has focused its lens on the theme of innovation. Our 2014 Summit is titled Innovation: The Shock of the Possible and will take place October 19 to 24 in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey. For me, events like SFU Public Square's Summit help bridge the gap between academia and the community by transmitting the value of public discourse and discussion. With this, students can be taught the principles of democracy through a spirit of open inquiry, which itself is an important democratic value.
Working with SFU Public Square, I get to help set the stage for conversation and in turn begin to build a culture of democracy. While Plato once argued that beginning the work is the most important part, I'd actually disagree and say that sustaining participation is where the work actually lies, and this requires a little bit of effort from everyone. This is because active participation is required in a democratic system for it to function. If we – as citizens – fail to engage in our democratic culture, then we fail to have a democracy at all.
D'ailleurs, je suis aussi d'ici!
Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie is helping new Canadians take ownership of their democracy through a new program in the Québec City region. The program helps new Canadians better understand Canadian democracy, the democratic process and how to be informed and involved citizens. In essence, it puts the Canada's Democracy Week 2014 theme of "Democracy: Own it." into action.
Detailed description: The Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie (GFPD) is offering this training to francization organizations in the National Capital region (Québec City – Charlevoix – Portneuf) to reach out to immigrants near the end of the francization process. We are also offering this training to integration leaders who have expressed an interest in the past.
The awareness workshop's main objective is to help people from various cultural communities integrate into their social environment, particularly into community organizations or regional civil society systems.
Using the documentary and book D'ailleurs, je suis aussi d'ici!, the workshop aims to educate both immigrants and the general population on the issues and challenges of immigrating to the National Capital region and foster citizen engagement through first-hand accounts.
The training aims to share knowledge about democracy, particularly citizen engagement, about various ways and places to get involved (local and regional) and about tools to make citizen engagement part of integration.
The training will help participants understand how citizen engagement can help people integrate into their new society. The first part presents a few facts about immigrating to Canada and paints a picture of immigration in the National Capital region. The second and third parts address citizen engagement using the documentary and book. These are followed by reflection and a group discussion on the ideas of engagement, convergence and belonging.
The training targets the following groups:
- Newcomer integration leaders
- Immigrants near the end of the francization process
- Education workers (CPE stakeholders)
- Place aux jeunes organizations
- Recreational organizations
- Business development stakeholders (CLD, CFDC, CLE, unions, CDC)
- Community health and social services organization round tables
- Community organizations (areas of women, health, family, public education, shelters)
- Québec en forme organization
- Carrefours jeunesse emploi stakeholders
And others who are interested!
How to schedule a presentation
Contact Clara Benazera by e-mail at email@example.com. Presentations are free for schools and organizations. We assume travel costs and bring all the necessary materials for the presentation. You need to provide the meeting place, ensure there is a screen, and assemble your target audience.
Project runs until December 2015
Operates with the support of the Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ)
In democracy, as in life, it's the little things that count
What does it mean to be political?
If we were to only take cues from House of Cards or West Wing, we'd assume that politics is just the high-intensity sport of getting elected and the adrenaline-fueled game of governing. In the worlds of CJ Cregg and Frank Underwood, every discussion is world-changing and every decision is monumental. But, this democracy week, it's worth remembering that politics is more than backroom dealings and masterful power plays. It takes hundreds of people to get one person elected. Trust us, we've asked. We regularly interview folks with interesting political jobs to learn more about what it takes to get there.
What are the two things that they tell us got them to where they are today? It's something much simpler than the diabolical maneuverings of House of Cards. The first step for almost every one of the Members of Parliament and Parliament Hill Staffers we interviewed was talking about politics at the dinner table with their parents. The second was volunteering to help get someone else elected.
Those simple acts – talking about politics, and volunteering on political campaigns – are the sorts of everyday activities that keep democracy alive. Knocking on doors, writing petitions, and talking about important issues, these are all less visible acts of politics that make the bigger, more visible acts such as elections and decision-making possible. In fact, there are plenty of ways to engage in politics beyond just voting or running for political office.
That's exactly why we've decided to celebrate people who do these little things by running a contest we call the "Everyday Political Citizen Project." Here are some of the people who've been nominated for their work:
- Israt Ahmed is a mother in Toronto who will cook her daughter's favourite meals on election day to make sure she's in town and ready to vote.
- Pascale, Tristan and Cayley are students in Whitehorse who started a petition to save their high school gym and inspired other students to help them take the cause all the way to the provincial government.
- Arezoo Najibzadeh spends her evenings knocking on doors, talking to neighbours about a candidate she believes in.
If your parents don't talk about politics at the dinner table, don't worry, you aren't doomed to forever be outside-looking-in on politics. When we interviewed Toronto city councilor Mike Layton about his job, he told us the best path to getting involved in politics is simply caring about something.
Take Everyday Political Citizen Leesee Papatsie, for example. Leesee cared that food prices were incredibly high in Northern Canada, which made it difficult for her to buy food for her family. She started a Facebook group called "Feeding My Family" which helped her to connect with others who had the same concerns. Eventually, she ran in Nunavut's general election. She wasn't elected, but she and her team put the issue of food prices on the map.
This year the theme of Democracy Week is "own your democracy". And the best way to do that? Care about something. Anything. Then act on it, in even the smallest of ways. That's what democracy is. It's not hard, but it's also not easy, because acting on the things you care about takes time. that's why we think that people who make time to do it are worth celebrating.
Do you know someone who takes the time to get political and act on the things they care about?
This is how we keep democracy going
Project Assistant, Young Women Civic Leaders
In late January of this year, I stood in front of a class of Grade 12 students at North Surrey Secondary School. My fellow Young Women Civic Leaders (YWCL) committee members and I were giving a workshop on equal representation in government and youth engagement. Although this is a complex issue, the students caught on right away. They told us why they think it's important to have young people in government, and what they would change in Surrey if they were elected officials. They knew their city and they knew what mattered to them.
But when I asked how many of them were going to vote in the election after they turn 18, less than 10 out of the 40 students raised their hands.
For most people, democracy is fundamental to what it means to be Canadian. However, if you talk to youth, it seems to be the government's responsibility to maintain it, not theirs. Making political decisions is something that is seen as separate from them, because they are "too young" or "too inexperienced". Anyone who has worked with youth would know that these are myths that young people are told about themselves, instead of being encouraged to value their unique experiences as young people. Detachment from formal governmental processes is a big reason why young people aren't as involved as they could be, and why many seem apathetic when it comes to voting. That is exactly why initiatives such as YWCL which educate, involve and provide meaningful opportunities for Canadian youth are so vital.
YWCL is a two-year project run by the Justice Education Society of BC and funded by the Status of Women Canada. It was developed to promote and encourage the full participation of young women at all levels of civic, political and community life. Through research done in partnership with students at Simon Fraser University, we found that while all youth face barriers to being civically engaged, young women in particular face a more diverse set of challenges. Our committee of 10 young women and 3 staff members creates opportunities for youth and young women in Burnaby, Surrey and the Tri-Cities to get involved and take a stand on the issues that matter to them. In other words, YWCL is helping youth and young women own their democracy.
YWCL promotes civic engagement through a variety of youth-led activities. Committee members interact with community members at YWCL events, present workshops in high schools and universities, and work with stakeholders in city halls and various community organizations. We have a social media campaign called #MsMayor, where young women say what they would do if they were the mayor of their town through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Our website called Youth City lists opportunities for all youth to get involved, and has resources about civic engagement and women's representation in government. Activities and tools like this help youth take the first step in realizing the importance of civic participation.
After the workshop at North Surrey Secondary, I could have felt deflated by how few students said they would vote. But what kept me optimistic were the students who said they would, and they explained to the whole class why. "It is our right as Canadians." "This is how we can have our say." "This is how we keep democracy going."
What made that dialogue so special? All of the students were already engaging in one of the most important conversations you can have as a Canadian citizen, about their right to vote. And they were passionate about it. They owned it.
Canadian Democracy is Changing
Young Women Civic Leaders committee member
Canadian Democracy is changing, and in this particular respect, it's changing for the better. Why? Because Canadians of all ages and backgrounds are taking ownership of their political participation. They are choosing to make Democracy their "own" by engaging with the "system" as they see fit. One demographic that has been especially successful in shifting traditional definitions of political participation is that of Canadian youth. In particular, Canadian youth have played a large role in adding the Internet – and all it has to offer – as a new medium of Canadian political participation. From signing online petitions, to sharing links on social media, to publicizing events through the Web, youth are at the forefront of using the Internet as a means of voicing political feedback. Although youth participation in municipal and federal elections still has a long way to go, it's good to know that youth are still largely involved in giving feedback on how their country is run. Of course, the effectiveness of engaging politically through youth's medium of choice, the Internet, can be up for debate.
It can be argued that complete Democracy, as an ideal, is something to be continually pursued rather than ever fully acquired. As such, each step that a country takes in meeting the true definition of the word "Democracy" – roughly described as the adequate and equal representation of all of society in the political process – is a step closer to ideal engagement. Accordingly, the fact that Canadian youth have begun to engage in political subject matter through the Internet, and the fact that the Internet in general has become a new and highly accessible way to engage in politics for the general public, is a step forward for Canadian Democracy. In fact, perhaps the most robust Democracy is one with the greatest variety of means for public political feedback and engagement. The more diverse these channels are, the more reflective they are of the needs and preferences of a diverse society, within which different people may choose to engage with the system differently.
Of course, praising the virtues of online participation does not amount to saying that all means of political feedback are created equal. It is a reality that, at least at this point in time, democratic participation through traditional means of public feedback is often more effective in creating tangible "change". For instance, youth cannot have a direct say in how an election turns out if they choose to not go to the polls. At the same time, the impact of online participation in politics cannot be ignored. It is a fact that online movements, whether they be campaigns, petitions or protests, have successfully resulted in affecting the behaviour of elected officials. Can online participation replace voting? That's a whole other question.
Furthermore, it is also true that we'd be doing Canadian youth an injustice if we assumed that their choice to often designate the Internet as their primary means of political engagement shows any inflexibility on their part. Canadian youth have not in any way limited their democratic participation. There's no shortage of youth making themselves heard in more "traditional" venues of democratic participation. For instance, Canada has a record number of youth under 30 sitting in Parliament at this time.
Overall, Canadian youth are more engaged in Canadian Democracy than we give them credit for in general, and have done a lot to bring the Internet in as a new medium of engaging in Democracy in particular.
Engaging youth in democracy: fundamental reform
The decline in youth voter turnout is a pronounced and profound trend that has reached a critical threshold for democracy. Why do young people not feel they have a stake in the democratic process? If they abstain from voting in such large numbers, it is due mainly to a lack of interest in politics, which itself results from a lack of civic education. What can be done?
To reverse the trend of non-voting among youth in a sustainable way, what is needed is fundamental reform. The Institut du Nouveau Monde (INM) is proposing to debate an audacious strategy comprising five major reforms, based on a renewed concept of democracy in which voter participation is not just wished for, but expected and encouraged – and where voting is no longer just a right, but a duty and a responsibility.
1) Mandatory civic education course in Secondary III
Civic education is the surest way to interest young people in politics. The main reason they do not vote is that they cannot see the relevance of politics to their lives. A compulsory civic education course given in Secondary III (Grade 9), when school attendance is mandatory, would help to ensure that everyone is made aware of that relevance. As well, voting simulations should be systematically offered to students whenever there is an election.
2) Right to vote at age 16
Lowering the voting age to 16 makes sense in this context. Young people will have just received civic education preparing them to cast an informed vote, and they will be motivated and accompanied in that process. Here begins the civic rite of passage that we are proposing. All 16-year-olds, while they are still in school, will vote at the same time and for the first time in an institutional context (school) that supports this engagement. A celebration of acquiring the right to vote, similar to citizenship ceremonies for immigrants, should be instituted.
3) Voluntary civic service for youth aged 16 to 24
It has been shown that engagement and participation bring about more engagement and participation. Civic engagement leads to voter participation. One way of sustaining youth engagement and participation once they have left high school is to offer them the opportunity to serve their community through volunteer civic service (or citizen service) between the ages of 18 and 24. Accordingly, civic service could be offered at the end of high school.
4) Mandatory voting with a blank vote option
To bring home the message that voting is not just a right but a duty, we believe it is appropriate to consider making voting mandatory. This is already the case in about 30 countries, including Belgium and Australia, countries comparable to our own. Mandatory voting should also include the option to cast a voluntary abstention through what is called a blank vote: this makes it possible to express one's rejection of all parties on the ballot if none satisfies the voter's ideals. Mandatory voting would also have the effect of forcing all the parties to reach out not just to their base, but to all citizens – youth included.
5) Semi-proportional voting system
Finally, research indicates that one of the reasons for youth non-voting is the sense that a vote for a third party, or for a major party whose chances of winning in the riding are remote, is a wasted vote. By instituting a new voting system allowing for some measure of proportionality, citizens would feel that their vote counts.