Political engagement has become something of an oxymoron for many young Canadians. Youth have no trouble engaging with each other on issues that we care about, but many of us fail to convert our online and in-person social interactions into political participation. Without political participation – namely voting, interacting with political parties, and staying informed on current events – we cannot meaningfully shape and inform the future of our country.
I spent a great deal of time grappling with the gap between how youth communicate their political ideas and how they participate in formal political processes during my four-month tenure as a Jaimie Anderson Parliamentary Intern. The internship was established in 2011 to honour the memory of Jaimie Anderson, a young woman who was deeply passionate about politics and public life and died of neuro-endocrine cancer at the age of 23. Each year, three young Canadians are given the opportunity to work with a member of Parliament for the summer, to carry on Jaimie’s legacy and make a positive impact on Canadian politics.
I had many questions at the beginning of my time on the Hill. Some were technical: How do committee meetings work? How many words is an average SO-31? Where are the washrooms? Many, however, were less tangible and, therefore, more difficult to answer in a few short sentences. Among the most important of these normative questions was, What, if anything, can already-politically-engaged young people do to get our friends, peers, and colleagues excited about politics?
Perhaps one of the most interesting observations I made while working on the Hill was that most – if not almost all – parliamentary staff (executive assistants, legislative assistants, office administrators) are under 30. Many are fresh out of university – recent political science graduates looking to gain some practical experience before law school or a master’s degree. It is no secret that these young people work closely with their MPs, senators, and ministers – or, as some staff affectionately call them, “political overlords.” As such, they play a not insignificant role in national affairs.
I witnessed first hand the central role that political staff play in our democracy during my four very eye-opening months on the Hill. Questions and briefing notes for committee meetings, consultations, and Question Period strategies are often researched and drafted by people who were in diapers in the 1990s. Policy briefs and the pamphlets MPs send to their constituents (called “householders” and “10 percenters”) are compiled and distributed by people who grew up listening to the Backstreet Boys. Expense claims, administrative work and data entry are carried out by those who have no living memory of the Cold War. In a very real way, the day-to-day functioning of the federal government is almost entirely contingent on the hard work of youth. Yet, somehow, our demographic appears unable to marry soft forms of engagement – such as sharing an article on social media or starting a new hashtag – with tangible modes of political participation.
The notion that a small group of young people plays a central role in perpetuating a system that youth are notoriously disengaged with is puzzling, to say the least. While earning my undergraduate degree, I learned about the challenges that modern democracies face, as well as the theories and philosophies that underpin these challenges. In the classroom, I was shown data that suggests millennials are inherently incapable of checking off a name on a ballot; that we are the ungrateful benefactors of a cushy liberal democracy. Outside the classroom, however, I witnessed something radically different. After countless discussions about political engagement with friends, peers, and colleagues, I was reminded that Canadian youth are incredibly curious and do not lack the analytical tools to care about politics. What we lack is the relevant education and resources. The sad reality is that most Canadians are systematically alienated from politics, because provinces have failed to implement a comprehensive and engaging curriculum for civics education. As well, there are factors such as unaffordable post-secondary education, embedded racism and environmental degradation that further alienate young people from engaging with politics.
Perhaps it is time for the young people who work on Parliament Hill – those who are already interested in and excited about politics – to do their part in empowering and educating youth. They can do this by engaging in face-to-face conversations; however, in an age where a Pokémon app can capture the imagination of millions in a matter of days, I would suggest that the millennial generation is positioned to be far more innovative in how we close the gap between politics and engagement. For example, a group of Canadian university students recently created an interactive, online political newsletter, PoliPerspective, where readers vote on the partisan perspective they agree with most. Poll results from each issue are shared on social media, which allows readers to see where people lie on the political spectrum on a given topic. Initiatives like this do not replace voting; however, they do encourage positive partisanship, spark informed political debate, and ultimately bring political participation into the 21st century.
The solution to the engagement deficit may not be readily apparent. What is clear is that the onus is on young Canadians to work together in search of a way forward. From my short time on Parliament Hill, I believe that this is best achieved when those who are already involved in politics – namely political staff, young journalists, and the youth wings of political parties – reach beyond the well-worn political circles to inspire other young Canadians to see themselves for what they truly are: an innovative, passionate, and curious generation that thinks and cares deeply about what that “X” on the ballot really means.
Photo: Mike Loiselle / Shutterstock.com
This article is part of the Public Policy and Young Canadians special feature.
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