Young people aren’t politically apathetic – we’re disillusioned

Riley Yesno is a Toronto-based student from Eabametoong First Nation and a former member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council.

For years, political parties in Canada have failed to take young voters seriously.

Instead of putting effort into engaging with voters under 30, parties have focused on mobilizing the people who most reliably show up to vote – that is, older Canadians. During the 2011 federal election, Statistics Canada found that only 39 per cent of youth aged 18 to 24 who were eligible to vote actually made it to the polls, which has only fuelled our notorious reputation – that we don’t vote. We’re not alone: If all non-voters were a party unto themselves, they would have won the popular vote every year since 1993. But the image of young people as an apathetic bloc has hardened.

In the 2015 federal election, however, things changed. Young people showed up to voting booths in unprecedented numbers. Youth-voter turnout jumped 18.3 percentage points, to 57 per cent of registered electors – its highest point in a generation. The Liberals – who effectively won a majority, as Maclean’s reported, by turning a significant number of non-voters red, even in ridings that weren’t typical Liberal strongholds – were able to mobilize young people in a powerful way.

That’s important to keep in mind heading into election day on Oct. 21, when people born between 1980 and 2000 will make up the majority of all eligible voters in Canada. Our potential to significantly influence which party takes this election is greater than ever before. A new government will need our numbers and support to win and survive.

The last election’s voter turnout spike can certainly be credited, in part, to get-out-the-vote initiatives that put in considerable efforts to engage younger voters. According to the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, more than 42,000 students across the country pledged to vote through those campaigns in 2015.

But what I think brought youth out last election, more than anything, was a desire for change after nearly a decade of Conservative government under Stephen Harper – and the belief that we had found that change-making vehicle in Justin Trudeau. In the last election, Mr. Trudeau sold himself as an energizing leader who, among many promises, insisted that his government would seriously combat climate change, create more employment opportunities for youth, strengthen relationships with Indigenous peoples and reform the electoral system. According to a 2016 survey published by Abacus Data, these were among the highest priority issues for youth aged 18-25.

Four years later, however, we can see that the Trudeau government has clearly failed to live up to its word. Canada is not on track to meet the emissions-reduction targets inherited from the Harper government. The purchase of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline was proof to many – youth and Indigenous folks especially – that the Liberals’ commitments to the environment and reconciliation are conditional on their discretion. We will all be voting with the first-past-the-post system in this election, a system which were were assured we would never see again.

On other major 2015 commitments, too, such as feminism and addressing racial discrimination, the Liberal Leader has lost considerable credibility after his removal of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from caucus, his alleged treatment of former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes and the surfaced images of blackface and brownface.

And even though Mr. Trudeau appointed himself the Minister of Youth, promising to listen to voices of young people, my demographic is perhaps the most disillusioned bloc of all.

I saw it firsthand as a former member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council. Often, we would attend these meetings full of expertise and advice to bring forward about what we care about and what we feel needs to be done, only to receive a party line to justify inaction or a disagreeable policy decision.

Still, credit where it’s due: No party before the Liberals has even thought to create an initiative like the youth council. But what good is a voice at the table when your words fall on deaf ears?

It reflects the big question of this election: Youth may have huge voting power, but will they want to return to the voting booths when the leader who galvanized us has proven to be so wanting, and made us question if he deserves our vote?

If youth fail to uphold or grow the turnout from the previous election, the accusation of apathy will be levied against us. But that charge will be unfair when you consider how greatly young people have been failed by political parties, even those who seemed to represent us better than any other.

If parties hope to win the youth vote this election, and restore the diminished faith of many young voters, they are going to have to make concerted efforts to not only talk about the issues we’re passionate about, but also commit to actually getting the job done. Young people are tired of the strategic vote and vague promises; we are here for something that is meaningful.

Whether or not any party can accomplish this task, what is certain about young people in 2019 is that our desire for change hasn’t lessened over the four years. If anything, it’s become fiercer.

Since 2015, we’ve been on the front lines of human rights and environmental movements, leading climate strikes across the country. Postsecondary students in every province are addressing important issues such as affordable education and sexual harassment and assault. Young people, who are fluent in digital tools, now have significant power and presence in the political conversations taking place online. We are some of the most politically engaged and active people in this country, and a political force to be reckoned with – here to be taken seriously.

I hope voter turnout rates will mirror this truth, and young people will turn up to vote. But if it doesn’t, I hope it leads to a debate about the deeper problem this signals. It’s not useful to call young people apathetic; instead, we should ask why our system doesn’t make young people feel like our democracy – which has historically ignored them, and delivered broken promises – is worth our participation.

Youth aren’t the ones who should be caring more about politics. We do. Politicians should start caring more about youth. Earn our vote.


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