Dubbed “generation apathy,” students are often portrayed as stereotypical young, disengaged voters. However, with a turnout of 84 per cent, voting rates among youth with some university education were higher than the national average of 74 per cent in 2011.
With Canada’s forty-second federal election just around the corner, the issues at stake are on the minds of many University of Toronto students.
Paul Kasiński, a second-year economics student, expressed concerns with the growing wealth gap in Canadian society. Kasiński has not been impressed with any party’s response to the issue. “No party really offered any meaningful new social programs or other plans to house the homeless, feed the hungry, or educate their children so they can go on to have better lives,” he said.
“I definitely want to hear more about the various parties’ views on immigration, the environment, aboriginal rights, and criminal justice,” said Anna*, a second-year international relations student, who feels that the ruling Conservatives have taken significant steps backwards in these areas.
Tyler Locey, a second-year linguistics student, echoed Anna’s sentiments. “I think that we should have federal politics focus a lot more on renewable energies and job creation and subsides in those sectors,” he said.
“I think having ways to get immigrants working and contributing to their new communities reduces stuff like racism and xenophobia,” he said, expressing the sentiment that there needs to be positive immigration and integration programs for newcomers to Canada.
“Generally speaking, the most important issues for young voters are the environment, social justice, unpaid internships, and job opportunities after graduation,” said Jasmine Denike, vice-president external for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). “These are the issues that politicians should be looking at when engaging young people.”
According to Pauline Beange, a professor of political science at UTSC, students need to understand the power that being able to vote gives them. “Elections are the primary and most influential way to not only claim to be engaged but actually be engaged in political processes.”
“It is not enough to claim to be committed to achieving certain social or economic goals: voting is an objective sign that I, or you, are willing to commit time and energy to the process of achieving those goals.”
Arani Murugesapillai, Chester Madrazo, Nana Frimpong, Sameen Ahmed, Stephanie John, Sukiena Abdulla, and Vanessa Vigneswaramoorthy — all executives at Engage UTSC — echoed Beange’s thoughts. “[We] believe that when students act together, they can truly be a powerful force in Canadian politics,” they wrote in a collective statement to The Varsity. “Sometimes students feel powerless, but they need to understand that the power of their collective efforts outweighs the sum of their individual efforts, so working together, increasing voter turnout, and being engaged in the on-going political conversation in Canada is key.”
Engage UTSC is one of several groups at U of T who have vowed to keep the student body engaged with the democratic process in a non-partisan manner.
“Even though the executives of Engage UTSC are not politically neutral, we believe that bias-free, non-partisan education is so important because we value teaching students how to make informed voting decisions much more than telling them who to vote for,” the group explained.
The organization has made disseminating accessible information a priority; they launched canadianelection2015.tumblr.com to help students navigate the parties’ platforms. “For this particular election project, we hope to empower students by helping them understand the political situation and [give] them the confidence to know how to translate their personal values into political action,” they said.
Vicky La, co-president of Student Voice for Democracy (SVD), is focusing on new methods of getting students involved with important political issues. “We try to engage students in creative ways,” she said.
SVD is a non-partisan student group that promotes political engagement at U of T.
According to La, the group plans to book a table at Sidney Smith Hall, where they will construct a large puzzle with many pieces, with the aim of getting students to write their “ideas about this election and what it means to them, what it means to be a citizen, and what they hope this election can achieve for them as citizens” on the pieces.
For its part, the UTSU will be hosting a ‘Federal Elections Week’ at the end of September, before advanced polls open. “Students get the opportunity to learn about each of the political parties in a non-partisan environment so they’re able to make an informed decision when they vote,” explained Denike, adding that the non-partisan nature of the event is important, so students can feel their voices and opinions matter.
Political parties on campus
Canada’s major parties have their own supporting student groups at U of T and on university campuses across the country.
“There are many students [with] small “c” conservative values, even if they’re not the loudest,” said Vladyslav Yakovlyev, communications director for the U of T Campus Conservatives. “As an immigrant I was raised with such values, and I know that many other students in my position do as well.”
Yakovlyev cited the Conservative Party’s economic record and their role on the international stage as a reason for U of T students to support them. “The Harper government has offered $2.6 billion for Smart Track, invested in number of other sectors in which students will be seeking employment, and extended the student grant to low and middle income students,” he said.
“Students… should be pleased with [Canada’s] actions in defending vulnerable communities in the Middle East, as well as our principled stance in Ukraine.”
Stanley Treivus and Liam Lacy, communication directors of the U of T New Democrats said that the New Democratic Party (NDP)’s platform includes many proposals that will make students’ lives better, and that care for the environment is at the top of the list.
“Instead of maintaining the Conservatives’ environmental course that leaves our generation responsible for tackling climate change, the NDP have promised to end the 1.3 billion dollar federal subsidy to fossil fuel companies, are opposed to harmful projects such as Keystone XL, and will ensure carbon emissions are regulated,” they said.
Treivus and Lacy noted that five students counted among the NDP’s elected Members of Parliament (MPs) in 2011, including Pierre Luc-Dusseault, who at age 19, was the youngest MP in Canadian history.
Alexander Cohen, president of the U of T Liberals, emphasized the importance of the economy and the environment to youth voters. He expressed concern about the “abysmal” state of youth unemployment and the need for sustainability in the Canadian economy.
“We’re coming off four years of a government that is among the most mean-spirited, aggressive, and, frankly, draconian in Canadian history,” he said. “This is a real opportunity for young people to not just make their voices heard — that’s a cliché — but to play a role in the of country and the direction we’re going to take.”
Cohen cites the Liberals proposal to create a ‘Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council’ as an example of how the party seeks to empower young people, and as a reason for students to give their support. He also mentioned the need to improve public transit, in order to mobilize people and the economy.
Danielle Pal, president of the U of T Greens, said that the Green Party offers the best vision for students. “They’re advocating for a myriad of student benefits, such as increasing federal student grants by 25 per cent, and making eliminating student debt a national goal,” she said.
“There’s been a lot our conservative majority government has been able to accomplish over these past four years that much of the Canadian population — especially students — have been strongly opposing,” said Pal, referencing the controversial Bill C-51 as a particular example. “Students need to express their voice in favour of a Party that will push for dialogue, ask tough questions, and provide transparent communication with the public.”
Pal emphasized the Green Party’s plans for a environmentally and fiscally sustainable economy. By investing in green egergy sources, Pal said, seven times as many jobs can be created when compared with traditional energy sources.
The election is scheduled for October 19.
*Name changed at student’s request