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‘Politicians don’t understand us’ Ahead of election, Canadian youth want their concerns addressed

Winnipeg Free Press with Jacqueline Kennedy 7 October 2019

 

MONTREAL — Like many millennials, Adrienne Vaupshas doesn’t own a television.

In order to watch last Wednesday’s televised federal leaders debate — which was held in French, and was the first to include Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — she went to the re-election headquarters for her local Liberal MP, Marc Miller.

At a time when young people are marching for climate action and trying to find their place in a changing economy, the first question of the debate was about abortion.

“It’s four men discussing this issue, in 2019. Like, what is left to say about this?” Vaupshas, 28, said as she rolled her eyes.

Canadians aged 35 and younger will make up the largest voting bloc in the Oct. 21 election. In Miller’s downtown Montreal riding, 49 per cent of eligible voters are aged 18 to 34.

Yet, elections are run through television ads and lawn signs, on issues such as pharmacare and income splitting.

Studies suggest young Canadians follow current events closer than people in other age groups, but their voter turnout rate has been nine to 21 per cent lower than the rest of the population in the past three elections.

Vaupshas wants her generation to vote, but she understands why many don’t.

“We’re so used to big corporations coming to find us and speaking our language,” she said. “Politicians need to relate to young people, but at the same time, I really think it’s our responsibility to get out there and see what’s happening in our backyard.”

Four years ago, Trudeau’s Liberals sprung from third place to form government, buoyed by a higher turnout of young people. Since Saturday, polls have opened up on campuses across Canada, but it’s unclear if young people will again buck the trend of low voter participation — and if doing so will help or hurt the Liberals.

“I would be so proud if we had a higher turnout… regardless of who people vote for,” Vaupshas said.

“I know our generation has it in us.”

On Wednesday, up the street from Miller’s campaign headquarters, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s staff rented out a sports bar and invited candidates and supporters to watch the debate.

The crowd was older, but there were about a dozen millennials and people from Generation Z.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be as enthused as four years ago with Justin (Trudeau) and what he promised,” said Tony Bruneau-Bouchard, 27. “All this hope people had…” he trails off, “I don’t know.”

Bruneau-Bouchard works in global sales for a tech firm. He feels none of the parties put much thought into how to regulate the sector and whether to tax it, given the vague responses in Wednesday’s debate.

He feels all the parties should do more to convince students to cast a ballot. “I see a lot of people who are not engaged,” he said.

Royce Koop, head of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said parties target their platforms to people they can count on to vote, which means older people.

“The classic concerns of young people are never represented well in a campaign,” Koop said.

Legalizing marijuana is no longer drawing attention to the Liberals, who shelved electoral reform and hurt their credibility in the SNC-Lavalin affair. That’s left Trudeau’s general message about feminism and inclusion as his party’s key leverage with young voters.

“If that’s part of your appeal, when something like the fact that you wore blackface in the past comes out, it can disappear as quickly as it appeared,” Koop said.

He noted that polls show the only demographic that might change their voting intention because of the blackface incidents is young Canadians.

He heard students discussing the incidents recently on the U of M campus, which is in the swing riding of Winnipeg South, where 41 per cent of eligible voters are under 35.

So far, the parties have honed in on issues such as student debt and education savings. While voter turnout rose for all Canadians under 35 in the 2015 election, the rate for those who completed university was 42 per cent higher than those who hadn’t finished high school.

That could affect post-secondary campuses. On Saturday, Elections Canada opened polling stations for five days at 109 colleges and universities, up from 39 sites in the 2015 election. The polls will stay open until Wednesday.

Third-party groups are mobilizing on campuses to boost turnout and millennials’ voting clout. Yet, Koop says it’s not clear whether young people will vote for Trudeau, another party or stay at home.

“It’s a tougher thing to move from one party to another. It requires an acknowledgment that maybe you were wrong. It’s easier just to not vote at all.”

Between July and September, the Liberals spent three times as much as the Tories on Facebook advertising, with a large chunk targeted at Canadians under 35.

Perched on a bench on the Concordia University campus, sisters Simona and Evelina Ivanovska smoke while lamenting the state of politics.

“Politicians don’t understand us because they’re rich and we’re poor,” said Simona, who’s in her mid-20s and has voted Green in the past.

“The environment is obviously the most important thing for our generation,” said Evelina, who’s considering voting for the Greens or the NDP in her first federal election.

In polls over the past two years, the environment has been identified as the most pressing issue for Canadians under 35.

Around the four large campuses of Montreal, many students say they were among the half-million who marched in the city’s climate strike last month. Many oppose the Liberals’ purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Outside Quebec, the issue of housing affordability ranks high. In the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Mohid Aslam says many of his friends wonder if they’ll ever be able to afford a house.

“A lot of us are engaged,” said Aslam, 21. He’s studying environmental biology in the hopes of starting a small business, but has yet to find a party that does enough to support both the environment and entrepreneurs.

“The parties need to speak to young people. We want to be involved,” he said.

A study of 4,054 Canadians by the Samara Centre for Democracy of Toronto has found that people under 30 were much more likely than older voters to discuss the news, show up at protests and organize events.

Jacqueline Kennelly, a Carleton University professor who studies youth social movements, said many feel their votes are wasted, especially under the first-past-the-post system.

“If they’re not showing up to the polls, it’s not because they’re apathetic. It’s because they’re making reasonable decisions based on what they’re seeing,” Kennelly said.

She hears from a wide range of Canadian youth, from political activists to those who are homeless. Many believe rallies and online mobilization have a more tangible effect than voting, she said.

“If we want to make the political system a place where young people will go to express their political views, then it has to be relevant — and it has to be more than just voting,” she said.

At a dog park, Aaron Smith, 33, said he’s not sure he’ll vote this month, despite living in a Toronto suburb that’s hotly contested by the two large parties.

To him, Toronto is a crammed metropolis where traffic crawls and homes are unaffordable. He’d like to see immigration restricted, or at least policies that would place immigrants in smaller cities and help them integrate.

“Politicians only talk about numbers, but I’m interested in what it looks like in society,” he said.

“The parties don’t really give us a reason to vote.”

McGill University architecture student Thomas Noussis, 25, is turned off by the Liberals after seeing them break promises that made him support them in 2015, particularly on environmental issues.

He plans to vote Green in his parents’ Toronto riding, despite friends urging him to avoid a vote splitting the Liberals’ vote.

“Even if they don’t get elected, maybe the Greens’ numbers will send a message,” he wagers, arguing it’s the Liberals’ fault for breaking their electoral-reform promise.

“I’m done with being cynical and strategic.”

Jacqueline Kennelly is a sociology and anthropology professor at Carleton University.