A report released today by Samara Canada — a charity dedicated to reconnecting citizens to politics — calls into question the idea that Canadian youth are apathetic and stresses the importance of contact from political leaders to increase voter turnout.
The report, Message Not Delivered, finds that across 18 forms of civic and political participation beyond voting — including signing petitions, talking about politics, volunteering or attending a protest — Canadians under 30 participate at a rate 11 percentage points higher than those 30 and above.
Yet in the 2011 federal election, only 41 per cent of people under 30 voted — compared to 63 per cent of people over the age of 30.
The report compares political participation and contact rates between citizens and Canadian political leaders across three age groups and finds that Canada’s political leaders are not reaching out to all Canadians equally. In a 12-month period leading into an election year, only 55 per cent of Canadians ages 18 to 29 reported being contacted, compared to 75 per cent of Canadians ages 56 and older.
“This news is troubling,” says Jane Hilderman, Samara’s executive director. “Contact from political leaders is powerful: it encourages people to vote — increasing turnout — and strengthens their awareness of politics.”
Indeed, Elections Canada’s 2011 National Youth Survey found that turnout for youth contacted by political leaders was 15 percentage points higher.
In Samara’s study, among young Canadians who reported contact via all five methods (e-mail, phone, mail, social network and in person), 61 per cent said they are affected by the decisions made by elected officials “every day.” Among young Canadians who reported no contact only 22 per cent agreed with the statement.
“The upshot is that younger Canadians aren’t more politically apathetic or tuned out than their older counterparts; they’re more ignored by parties, candidates and leaders than older Canadians, which may partially explain declining voter turnout amongst youth,” the report finds.
Part of the issue is that youth are generally harder to reach because they move more frequently than other age groups and rarely have a landline telephone or listed address, but the problem goes beyond that to the types of issues political candidates are talking about.
“When it comes to political engagement, people talk about the vicious cycle, where candidates don't prioritize younger Canadians, so younger Canadians vote less, so candidates make younger Canadians even less of a priority, and on it goes,” says Eric Swanson, executive director of Generation Squeeze — a group that lobbies for policy changes that would benefit younger Canadians.
To break that cycle, Swanson says candidates need to not just contact young people, but also demonstrate a real understanding of their lived experience “whether it be precarious work, high housing costs, student debt, the costs of starting a family, anxiety about climate change, etcetera.”
The Samara report also points a finger at political messages that fail to resonate with young people.
“This failure could be a result of the way the message is framed or the type of language that’s used," the report finds. "It could also be that the issue itself isn’t appealing to youth and doesn’t stand out amidst all the other media competing for their attention."
In the 2015 federal election campaign, Swanson gives credit to all parties for raising issues such as child care and affordable housing, but says many of those promises lack sufficient funding commitments to make the day-to-day difference younger Canadians are looking for.
With political parties often missing the boat on connecting with younger Canadians, other groups are stepping up to fill the void. Dogwood Initiative, for instance, is focused on connecting politics to issues British Columbians care about, such as oil pipeline and tanker proposals.
The non-partisan citizen’s group has about 260,000 supporters in B.C. and its teams of volunteers are having face-to-face conversations with potential voters in 20 federal ridings.
“The first questions we ask are about values,” says Celine Trojand, Dogwood’s field director.
After making contact, Dogwood follows up with updates and makes ‘get out the vote’ calls before election day to ensure citizens have a plan to get to the polls.
It's a strategy that works. After the last municipal elections in B.C., Dogwood analyzed the different levels of contact people received from the group. In Vancouver, for instance, the general voter turnout was 39 per cent. The turnout of Dogwood supporters who had received an e-mail communication about voting was 67 per cent. When people also received a phone call, voter turnout increased to 81 per cent.
“So we’re seeing a 14 per cent increase on voter turnout based on real, live contact with people,” Trojand says.
As for young people, Trojand says the Samara findings aren't surprising.
“Our feeling is that it’s not that the younger demographic isn’t engaged,” Trojand says. “It’s that the local parties aren’t engaging about issues that they care about. Third parties like Dogwood and others have an advantage because they’re actually connecting about values first, on things young people care about like climate change.”
Photo: Dogwood Initiative