Here we find a significant difference between public and private schools. The students at Fellowship HS spoke of volunteerism as having a higher purpose than a school diploma. Jillian said, “We would call it a Christian duty whereas you, some people would call it a good citizen.” The school has established its own diploma, in addition to the Ontario High School diploma, which is based on extra courses and 60 hours of community service. Larry, a teacher at the school, explained that “some students have two to three hundred hours” because “that was asked of Jesus…We have a responsibility over and above the government to be caring, merciful and compassionate to people.” The result is school-wide service days that have students sometimes working with secular organizations like Habitat for Humanity, but primarily participating in Christian mission trips within the city and to other countries like Peru. As Trevor put it, “The church doesn’t run without the volunteer work.”
Crestview Academy, although a secular private school, similarly instructs students to be pilgrims, as illustrated by the opening hymn of their assembly. Christine, a Grade 12 World Issues student, explained the school’s merit and reward program for service. Students earn points and a bronze, silver or gold pin, depending on their academic average and membership in school clubs. Christine proudly wore many pins on her uniform for participation with the student newspaper, Amnesty International, a debate club and various other groups. When asked more specifics about Amnesty International, she explained that she was involved in so many organizations that she often just signed the attendance sheet and left the meeting. One of the teachers expressed concern over the common scenario Christine described. The teacher informally stated that the school had a “culture of ‘try everything’” because the school marketed itself as creating future leaders for the country. The teacher expressed “concern for the quality” of the various “civically minded” programs and questioned whether they provided “genuine opportunities to be leaders.”
Research studies often conflate involvement in charitable direct-service volunteering, community organizations and even sports with involvement in political interest groups. As such, clear data on young Canadians’ involvement in civic affairs beyond voting are not easy to find. Our study shows that involvement in charitable and co-curricular activities is high. There is little evidence that these activities, which are episodic of character and/or focused on the internal community of church or school, translate into increased participation in civic affairs. We do not yet know the affects of mandatory volunteerism for long-term commitment among youth and, equally important, the affects of these programs for the wider public arena. Youth attending a 2007 forum organized by the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) were themselves skeptical of the long-term value of mandatory volunteerism. These young men and women suggested that involving youth in community action around issues of concern to younger Canadians had a much greater chance of re-engaging youth in civic culture than would artificial, mandated volunteer programs.
Explaining Levels of Engagement and Redefining Civic Literacy
There is little consensus around the causes of diminished electoral activity among Canadian youth. This section posits various explanations from researchers and our study participants. These explanations range from disillusionment with politics to the need for a redefinition of what counts as civic engagement.