| By Galvin Zaldivar
This year will be the first time millennials – that is to say those born between 1980 and 1995 – will form the largest voting cohort in the 2019 federal election. However, whenever young people make their first forays into the political arena, they are often underestimated.
Whether it’s Doug Ford calling student protesters “good little Marxists,” for opposing tuition changes, the students of Parkland being accused of being “crisis actors,” or British students protesting climate change being scolded for truancy, the voices of youth are ignored or suppressed. Still, every election season, editorials and think pieces are published with worries of capturing the youth vote.
It is, therefore, not surprising to find many young people are cynical about politics, labelling all political parties as corrupt or if they do support a particular candidate and party, are quickly disillusioned by the perceived failure to keep their campaign promises.
If political parties and governments want to earn and keep the votes of young people there must be a change around how we talk about youth in politics and their engagement.
Jon H. Pammett, a political science professor at Carleton University, said that there is a generation gap between politicians and youth and the way they engage with one another.
“I think that older politicians may have difficulty in relating style-wise to young people,” he said, “and also have difficulty figuring out how to appeal to them.”
This principle applies in reverse too, Pammett said.
“Older politicians have trouble with statements by the young that the issues aren’t relevant to them, since by and large they are the same issues,” he said.
It comes down to why people choose to vote, said Pammett, which differs between older and younger voters.
“One approach is to consider the factor of citizen duty to vote,” he said. “For older people, the duty is strong and related more to feelings of citizen obligation. For younger people, the feeling is more instrumental.There is a duty to vote if the vote can accomplish something.”
This means the vast majority of young people see voting as an instrument to either change a government or advance an issue, said Pammett.
Andre Gauthier, a former member of the Conservative party, said this could be clearly seen in the 2015 federal election.
“The Liberal party engaged with younger voters in a way that the Conservatives and NDP just hadn’t,” he said. “And I think a lot of it had to do with building a manifesto and a series of policies that really engaged and was in corollary with what younger voters wanted.”
Nour Alideeb, Chair of the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario (CFSON), has had many meetings with politicians and officials. She said the current relationship between young people and politicians isunfortunate.
“I don’t think it’s fair to imply that people who are optimistic are out of touch,” Alideeb said.
She said that because young people are on the whole more progressive than the generation that came before, they are the main drivers in changing society and culture.
“These people come forward with well-researched proposals and want to create change. A lot of the things that we have seen change over generations were once thought to be unheard of and not possible,” Alideeb said.
In her work with CFSON, Alideeb said she has had many experiences where she felt politicians were dismissive of young people’sconcerns.
“I think there’s sometimes this feeling that students are too optimistic,” she said. “They don’t quite understand how the economy, or how the government, or how the world works, that we just want everything sort of handed to us on a silver platter.”
Yet this attitude seems to persist right through the political class. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has not only referred to student protesters as “good little Marxists,”but has also characterized the work of student unions, as “crazy Marxist nonsense.”
“I’ll be honest with you, I thought it was a joke because the email was so poorly written and I didn’t actually realize it was a real fundraiser email and now that I realize that it was, I thought it was very unfortunate that the government was treating students that way,” she said.
Alideeb said the comments telegraph the government’s acknowledgement of the mostly progressive attitudes of young people. According to her, Doug Ford’s comments only highlight his dismissal of students and young people.
“It helps emphasize the fact that a lot of what the government’s doing is a political agenda … it’s really showing that they don’t want students who disagree with them to have a platform to speak,” Alideeb said.
Alideeb said that during a meeting with an MPP, it was noted that the only poll they lost at was located on a college campus.
“We asked them why . . . and they realized that they don’t really appeal to students because the platform isn’t made for students,” she said.
Alideeb acknowledged that many parties try to pander to young people during elections, but said that some don’t even try to court their support.
“They don’t think that it’s worth creating platforms and priorities around them to engage them and I think that’s why people often say, ‘oh students never go out and vote,’” Alideeb said.
Gauthier said that young people feel their issues and concerns are often ignored by certain politicians, especially on the right.
“We’re seeing a lot of lip service made by Andrew Scheer to a lot of social issues – dinosaur issues – like gay marriage or abortion or family values and a lot of kids, young people, who are involved in the conservative movement or the right-wing movement don’t really care,” he said.
This focus on the older generations of their base, said Gauthier, is what turns off many young people from voting conservative.
“Personally, I feel that candidates like Andrew Scheer, federally speaking, and people like Patrick Brown or the Fords, are not really hitting or touching upon issues that young conservative voters or conservative minded or maybe even like libertarian minded voters are worried about,” he said.
Gauthier also said that the Conservative party blamed young conservatives for potentially splitting the party following Maxime Bernier’s departure from caucus to form the People’s Party of Canada in September 2018.
“At the big Halifax convention for the Conservative party, Andrew Scheer however made a long speech of how much we suck, how we’re splitting the vote, how we don’t know anything,” he said.
Pammett said it’s a myth that young people who go out to march, don’t go out to vote.
“Empirical evidence shows that all forms of participation are positively correlated with each other, and this is true for all ages,” he said. “This means that young people who participation in protests and demonstrations are more likely to vote.”
In light of this, Pammett said, “participation is participation is participation, and this goes for group memberships too.”
The image of young people not being engaged in politics, said Alideeb, is directly related to politicians’ unwillingness to meaningfully engage with young people. And for those who do, a lot of work still needs to be done.
“I think that they can be more intentional in their ways to engage students and make sure that they’re part of the decision-making processes that exist,” said Alideeb.
She said that it can be frustrating to meet with an elected official, only to be treated as a statistic, so a minister can say they have consulted young people. Integrating more young people into the decision-making process will eliminate the problem of only engaging young people during an election.
“I think that we need to ask why and how to engage folks and we know the reason why,” said Alideeb. “Again, it’s because people are not taking students seriously and they don’t see them as a valuable member of society, that they’re not contributing.”
Pammett said, however, that this does not mean that young people are more cynical about politics.
“There is no evidence that young people are more cynical than the rest of the population,” he said. “In fact, there is some evidence that they are less cynical. The middle aged are cynical.”
One conversation that Alideeb wants people to move away from is the common and stereotypical portrayal of millennials.
“We really need to get away from this conversation about, you know, ‘millennials are all angry, they just want avocado toast and all that.’ It’s a real problem because we’re painting people in a certain way that’s not true,” she said.
The most visible indicator for the political engagement of young people is their voter turnout. Between the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, turnout for voters aged 18 to 24, and first-time voters increased from 38.8 to 57.1 per cent and 40.5 to 58.3 per cent respectively.
According to Pammett, the approach that young people take to the ballot box is also a factor.
“Some are obviously totally disengaged, but others are simply operating instrumentally,” he said.
Alideeb acknowledges that people have also been turned off, disillusioned, and lost faith in the system, and a multipronged approach has to be taken to restore that trust.
“So, what are the ways that we can actually find hope in the places that we have made change … to remind people that the government is supposed to represent and serve us and we need to remind them who the people are,” Alideeb said.
Even if the conversation that occurs when young people become engaged in politics is changed, Alideeb said the mechanisms that allow young people to participate in the electoral process still have to change.“
In 2015, the Canadian Federation of Students actually lobbied Elections Canada to implement polling stations on campuses and that’s the year we actually saw a spike in voter turnout from youth population,” said Alideeb.
It’s not just the availability of polling stations that can help bring out the youth vote said Alideeb. We must also look at when people are allowed to vote, and said that young people face more barriers to being able to vote.
“Students are commuters and we’re commuting two hours one way to get to campus and back and we’re bouncing multiple jobs,” said Alideeb. “So, when are we going to find the time during the advance polling stations or on voting day to go out and vote?”
Alideeb said that by removing these barriers, either by extending period of advanced polling or moving election day to the weekend will ensure that young people and other disadvantaged groups will be treated as serious stakeholders by politicians, and that their platforms will reflect that reality.
If that happens, Alideeb says there would also be a change in the political discourse.
“I think it’s going to be a lot less polarizing because oftentimes when we have these conversations like oh, you’re conservative, or oh you’re a liberal and that’s it,” Alideeb said.
She says that if young people can participate more fully in the electoral process, then perhaps the conversation can move beyond party and look more closely at issues.
“What I think will be really important is for us to elevate our political consciousness around issues and not focus too much on political parties because no matter what government [is] in place and we want to see good public policy, right?”
Gauthier said the biggest problem with excluding the voice of young people is that the political discourse doesn’t lend itself to vigorous policy debates.
“We have what’s called consensus politics and that we have two sides. We have the opposition as basically parroting or mimicking the current government,” he said.
Pammett agrees that because of the approach to voting that many young people take, they are not as firmly partisan as others.
“The Canadian electorate in general is quite ‘flexible’ in its partisanship,” he said. “Young people are perhaps even more flexible than older folks.”
Even if governments and politicians continue to be dismissive of young people Alideeb said they shouldn’t let that discourage them.