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Education for Tomorrow

Why Possible Canadas?

The real reason youth don't engage in politics.

Students from McMaster University attend Prime Minister Stephen Harper's speech at a campaign rally in Hamilton, Ontario, on Thursday, April 7, 2011. The students were invited into the rally as guests by Conservative communications staffer Andrew MacDougall. Canada's federal election is May 2.

Possible Canadas

What do you want Canada to be? This is the question 10 student journalists posed to their campus communities. They interviewed hundreds of students on 10 campuses, then produced in-depth investigations into how Canada could start to realize these visions. What did they learn? That despite all the stereotypes of disengaged millennials, young people have a lot to say about the future of our country. Explore the 10-part series from the Possible Canadas fellowship about how we, as a country, can get to that future.

Dear Canada,

We have a problem. Our political discourse is poisoned.

Whether you’re basking in a victorious post-election glow or wallowing in its shadow, we cannot forget just how awful the 42nd general election campaign was. This was an election during which wedge politics was the politics. It was an election during which populist rhetoric morphed into violence on the street. Perhaps worst of all, it was the kind of election where we largely ignored the most important issues in favour of tax cuts for tiny groups of people. All the campaigns used these tactics. In fact, those tactics seemed to be the one thing the parties agreed on.

We need to find a way out of this mess. The new government will lead Canada through its 150th birthday in 2017. What better way to celebrate than to rethink how we discuss our future?

Too often we leave entire groups out of national conversations. One perspective obviously missing from the campaign discourse? The stewards of this future Canada. We stereotype young Canadians as cynical, self-centred and disengaged. The media made much of the 2011 federal election’s terrible youth voter turnout rate and the trajectory of youth voting engagement. Some have even called for Canada to become more like North Korea and institute mandatory voting to stimulate youth engagement. Our politicians and our media are sending us a clear message: youth do not care about the future of this country, so why consult them?

It’s a wonder then, that 82 per cent of young Canadians are optimistic about the future. It’s curious too that, according to non-partisan charity Samara Canada, youth in Canada consistently have higher rates of participation in civic life outside of the voting booth. The evidence shows that the common wisdom about youth should be reversed — it is politicians who ignore youth, and not the other way around. It turns out that only 55 per cent of young people surveyed by Samara had been contacted by politicians in a non-election year, as opposed to 75 per cent of those 56 and older.

Ilona Dougherty, youth engagement expert and co-founder of Apathy is Boring, attributes the lack of contact to calculated political strategy. “Campaigns have a ‘weak supporter’ to ‘strong supporter’ continuum that doesn’t often include unlikely voters. Moving someone from not voting to being a supporter isn’t a dynamic that really happens, and as a result, young people get left out of the picture,” she said.

Young Canadians’ absence in our political dialogue means that the things we value aren’t put on the national agenda. According to the Broadbent Institute’s Millennial Dialogue report, young Canadians value health, happiness, family, equality and freedom of speech. We value meaningful and sustainable societies and communities, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum.

None of the discussions in this election addressed those concerns in any meaningful way. The narrow margins that characterized much of this horse race have meant that the chattering classes have defaulted to pandering and condescending to their audiences, with minute-by-minute polling data and cynical microtargeting in place of substantive debate.

“It’s insulting to assume that all young people care about is marijuana, for example,” Dougherty notes. “Polls about what young people care about this second aren’t an accurate reflection of the issues they want to talk about in the long term.”

We are in danger of creating a nation that is not designed with our voices or our intentions as part of the project. That is a problem for everyone, young and old.

We need to shift the discourse entirely. Young Canadians don’t just want a seat at the table. To paraphrase Dougherty, we need to scrap the table and start anew. What would a Canada where young people directed the national discourse look like?

This means young people showing up at the polls, but it also means far more. It means our politicians prioritizing conversations about what young people find meaningful. It means removing the patronizing frame of “youth issues” to describe the valid and complex concerns that young Canadians have about the state of our nation. It means that we celebrate civic activities that young Canadians are already engaging in as a starting point for leadership. An overview of youth-led social change movements in Canada over 35 years shows that initiatives like civic youth advisory councils allow young Canadians to impact and influence decision-making on a national and international scale.

If we want to rebuild “our table,” it will mean working together to hold an honest, multigenerational conversation about what the future of this country looks like. What do we want Canada to be?

That’s the question at the heart of Possible Canadas. Over the next few weeks, 10 student journalists from across Western Canada will tackle questions formed by consulting young Canadians at campuses across the region about what matters to them. These journalists ventured out into their communities and interviewed as many students as they could find. They took that information and ran with it, pursuing forward-looking perspectives on issues that range from Aboriginal sovereignty to climate change to building inclusive communities. They designed the scope and aim of this project. Far from “youth issues,” these articles are about our nation’s most important conversations.

We want these conversations to have true impact. We want these issues debated in the halls of power. So, prime minister-designate Trudeau, and the rest of the newly elected government MPs: read these articles. Work with us to develop a cohesive, meaningful way to allow youth to drive this country forward. Let young Canadians act as the stewards we know we can be, and help us to create a better vision for this nation’s future.

To the rest of the nation, young and old, we need your voices here too. We want you to engage. We want you to debate with and against us. Tell us about your vision for the future by using the #PossibleCanadas hashtag on Twitter or texting “Canada” to 778 762 0809.

Let’s get to work.

Check out Arno Rosenfeld’s tongue-in-cheek article on what Canada would look like in twenty years if youth were in charge.

Possible Canadas is a partnership of diverse organizations that share the goal of supporting forward-looking conversations about the future of Canada. The project is produced by Discourse Media and Reos Partners, in collaboration with RECODE and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Partners’ support does not imply endorsement of the views represented.