The students in our study seemed to sustain their faith in Canada’s political process by separating good leadership from good people. Samantha described her view of politicians as pessimistic while pointing out the following: “If you look through history, a lot of people who were good leaders were not necessarily good people … As long as you can lead the country well, we shouldn’t care about whether or not you’re cheating or something.” Similarly, after Leyla, a Civics student from Ottawa-East HS, argued that lying was “just what politicians do,” she explained that Canadian democracy is “a good thing … Everyone gets their chance to vote, they can vote for whomever they want and the majority can rule.” She concluded her point by saying that “everyone is involved in politics,” not just politicians. From these interactions and statistics, it seems that cynicism perhaps is not the most significant reason for the decline in youth participation.
A more considerable factor may be the perception that politics are irrelevant to the lives of young Canadians. Despite young Canadians’ overwhelming attitude that Canadian democracy works,xlv many findings indicate that youth do not believe that the government belongs to them. Rachael, a student in World Issues at Crestview Academy, explained that politics in school is “mainly presented as more of an adult issue … It’s taught, know the political parties of Canada, but it sounds like just that stuffy old political stuff, right.” Civic engagement as something that happens with age was a common theme in the interviews. The top two elements of being a good citizen were, according to most students, paying taxes and voting – actions that did not apply to them until the age of 18. Those students over age 18 similarly described politics as a concern for when they got older, had a family and had a full-time career. When asked why youth were not more attracted to politics, Rachael explained: “There are probably many different reasons … There’s not really any point pushing them into getting attracted when it doesn’t really seem to affect them.”
There were some political issues that Ottawa youth did deem personally important and worthy of their immediate attention. Students from Fellowship HS were passionate against same-sex marriage and abortion. In particular, they mentioned participating in the March for Life on Parliament Hill. Leyla from Ottawa-East HS and Yasmin from Ottawa Alternative HS, both Somali, were adamant in protecting the interests of the Somali community in the city. Leyla protested the Children’s Aid Society’s removing children from Somali mothers, and Sahra informally recruited community members to vote against the Conservatives in the last election because of their stance on immigration. From the student questionnaires, the issues of greatest concern generally were the environment, war and poverty. During interviews, however, few students could envision how a greater youth voice or representation of youth issues in government could make a difference.
Students’ inability to see a place for youth in politics is explained by researcher André Turcotte. He argues that youth disengagement from electoral politics results from their assessment that leaders and candidates do not take interest in their priorities. Specifically, in the 2004 federal election, young voters were more concerned with economic issues and education than the common concerns of the older cohorts – health care and the sponsorship scandal.xlvi Mauricio Martine, in his examination of the New Democratic Party’s (NDP’s) struggle to attract more youth members, argues that young people are drawn to the direct action of political movements, rather than the electoral system.xlvii This attitude seems to be a result of both a lack of political knowledge and a general disillusionment about their political efficacy.
Disillusionment was expressed by many of the youth in our study because of their social and economic circumstances. The students interviewed from Ottawa Alternative HS shared particularly important and personal insights in this regard. Jamie, who came from a lower socio-economic