“Do any of your parties have a vision beyond the 20th century idea of wage and labour, especially because of technological unemployment – machines taking over and freeing up time for other ways to participate in the world?”
The question, raised by a young voter at a riding all-candidates debate, seemed to perplex the party representatives on stage. All but one candidate – who answered in part by talking about a shorter working day introduced in parts of Europe – defaulted to their “youth vote” campaign notes: tuition, student debt, wages, affordable housing.
The young man behind the question, 21-year-old Karlis Hawkins says, “Pretty much the only thing I’ve heard from politicians is something about post-secondary education. In terms of an actual different vision of the future or new value system, it’s not really on their radar; they’re kind of just interested in the status quo and the bigger voting population.”
This is his first federal election. He participated in last year’s Toronto mayoral election, (“the person I voted for didn’t win”) but declined his ballot (along with 31,000 others, he points out) in the Ontario provincial election because, he says, “none of the candidates inspired me.”
The fact that 60 per cent of people aged 18 to 30 don’t vote is a much discussed phenomenon during election campaigns. Despite efforts to eke out the vote, the number hasn’t budged much in the last ten years.
Just because under-30s may not vote in every, or any election doesn’t mean they aren’t active in other ways they find important. A new film suggests two distinct ways young people come to conventional politics: through an initial interest, education then volunteer and/or paid work on a campaign. Or the circuitous route, through grass roots activism, such as protesting.
The Drop: Why Young People Don’t Vote, a documentary produced in association with TVO, provides ground-level views into the disconnection, or intersection, between conventional politics and today’s youth – covering everything from apathy to activism, protesting to campaign volunteering and, even showing up on election day.
Dylan Playfair, the documentary’s wide-eyed narrator, starts off in his hometown Vancouver during a provincial campaign many of his interviewees are barely aware of; travels to Ottawa to speak to party leaders about how they engage youth; to Toronto during the municipal campaign to talk to a fanatic young Ford volunteer; then on to Nevada’s counter-culture festival Burning Man to find out how art and activism collide; to North Carolina where millions of dollars are raised and at stake in a mid-term election campaign; and finally to Ferguson, Missouri to talk to protesters turned campaign volunteers celebrating their municipal victories.
The activism path is one taken by Tommy Taylor, the Green Party candidate for Scarborough Southwest. The 34-year-old describes his political life in two slices – before the 2010 G20 Summit, and after. An interested onlooker to what he saw as peaceful protests, Taylor ended up as one of the 900 people arrested and detained by Toronto police. Consequently, he shifted his career focus from theatre directing and acting to fundraising for non-profits like Amnesty, MSF and OpenMedia.ca. In 2013, he merged his theatrical work with his burgeoning political interest to develop a stage play called, “You Should Have Stayed Home,” depicting his G20 experience. It was on a stop in Ottawa and visit to Question Period during the play’s tour that Taylor started to think about formalizing his political involvement. Now, he’s running against his G20 nemesis, former Toronto police chief and Liberal candidate Bill Blair.
Did he ever expect his career to take the path from “spotty” voting to federal electoral candidate? “Not in the slightest,” he says. “This is all an excellent surprise. My goal is to get other people politically involved without them having to go through the kind of experience that I did. I always look back to when I was arrested at the G20 and I wasn’t really a protester or activist that day, and I kind of regret that. I should have been involved long before that.”
Following a more direct route, Rory Ditchburn, 23, is a paid field organizer for the NDP in the Toronto riding of Davenport, he got the gig after volunteering for provincial and municipal candidates in that riding. Since the campaign began he’s been canvassing daily.
He comes to politics honestly: Raised by a single mother active in unions, he remembers walking picket lines from an early age. His Carleton University degree is in political science and he aspires not to candidacy, but to work for a party generating policy. With a boyishly eager expression framed by bright ginger hair, his persuasive approach to his work belies his age. He’s frustrated with low voter turnout overall, and tries to impart at the door – to both young and older voters – that, “if you want your issues addressed, you need to be at the table.”
He says it does make a difference to young people to have a peer speak at the door about the party’s platform and how it applies to them, in a way that’s relevant to them. He understands that young people don’t see the tangible effect of federal politics in their day-to-day lives. “Some of my best friends don’t vote,” he says. “I don’t want to indoctrinate them into my belief system, but I do want them to arrive at their own.”
A 2015 Samara Canada report – Message Not Delivered: The Myth of Apathetic Youth and the Importance of Contact in Political Participation – confirms Ditchburn’s experience. It concludes one very important aspect toward youth engagement is person-to-person contact with political candidates.
Laura Anthony, one of the report’s researcher/writers – a confirmed voter who’s worked in the field of youth engagement for several years – says, “Candidates are usually older, but young volunteers going door to door are effective.”
"Youth are not a monolithic group. Their concerns are similar yet different from other voters, and each other."
The report – which surveyed 2,406 voters in 2014 – also found that Canadians under 30 participated in political activities beyond voting, such as signing petitions, boycotting and protesting an average of 11 per cent more than their older counterparts.
It also outlines two more key reasons young people don’t vote; they’re not in the habit and there’s a vicious cycle of not voting, then not being addressed by candidates because of not voting. “Once you’ve voted once or twice, you’ve figured out the process,” Anthony says. “After the third time, it becomes second nature.”
She says that Samara will be evaluating how this vicious cycle is affected by youth-oriented digital platforms. “This is the first social media federal election. It’ll be interesting to see how effective the youth reach-out has been. Parties can’t just push out information through Twitter or Facebook; they have to frame the information differently.”
“Democracy is slow and steady,” she adds. “Young people want immediate results. We can find a way to integrate both.”
Karlis Hawkins’ experience, although in a fairly contrived setting of a community debate, suggests a disconnection that goes beyond the coveted contact, and speaks also to how important it is for candidates to make an effort to really hear the concern or idea behind a question. "They didn't answer my question," he says. "They're not really looking into the future."
Tonight’s episode of The Agenda, at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., features a panel discussion on why young people don’t vote.
The Drop: Why Young People Don’t Vote is now available online.
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