understand why turnout is declining in Canada, we need to focus on the generation that was born after 1970.”xxiii Only 22.4% of first-time electors voted in 2000.xxiv This number rose to 38.7% in the 2004 elections,xxv but the turnout was still 15 points lower among those aged 19 to 29 than it was for those over 30.xxvi
Studies that examine other forms of youth political participation seem to reinforce the belief that voting rates may serve as a proxy for declines in other forms of participation. After studying data collected by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), Brenda O’Neill concludes that younger Canadians are “less likely to follow politics closely; are less politically knowledgeable; are significantly less likely to have voted in the 1997 federal election; are less likely to see voting as an ‘essential’ democratic act; are less likely to be or have been a member of a political party or interest group; and are more likely to believe interest groups are more effective than political parties for bringing about change.xxvii The political disengagement of young Canadians from political parties is glaring considering that the average membership age is 59.xxviii Only 2% of young Canadians reported being a party member in 2000,xxix a decline from 10% in 1990.xxx Few disagree with the low-level assessment of Canadian youth’s knowledge, interest and participation in politics.
Little disagreement came from those people who participated in our Ottawa study. While the issue of political knowledge will be discussed later in the report, we note here that students generally claimed to have minimal understanding of government procedures and national issues under current debate. All 16 of the students interviewed described themselves as inactive within formal politics, uninspired to serve as political leaders and unaffiliated (with no expectation of affiliation) with political parties. Lee-Ann, a Grade 12 student at Crestview Academy, voiced the position of most youth participants: “I’m not that intrigued or interested about politics … If I looked at our grade as a whole [other students are] not really.” Only two students, Jamie from Ottawa Alternative HS and Samantha from Crestview Academy, expressed enjoyment from political discussion. As a result of finding politics “fun,” they both identified themselves as “nerds” or atypical in their peer groups. Student reflections stood in contradiction to those of most teachers, who, despite asserting students did not know enough about government, believed and hoped that they were interested. In particular, teachers from Ottawa Alternative HS, Fellowship HS and Crestview Academy asserted that their students were more engrossed in politics because of their respective adult experiences, faith community and privileged families. Little difference among the youth, however, was evident regarding formal political participation. Teachers’ comments from these specific schools may speak to the relevant expectations we place upon youth based on age or socio-economic status or presumed disengagement level of the most disaffected groups in society. We do not know without longitudinal study whether such a pattern will emerge among these youth participants when they reach voting age.
Interestingly, each student who was not yet eligible to vote argued that he/she would vote when of age or upon becoming a Canadian citizen. Given the data in the research literature, we can assume that over half of these students will not follow their intentions. Claims of future voting may have resulted from the context of a personal interview in which characteristics of “good” citizenship were being explored and within a school setting where the expectation for youth to be dutiful citizens was clear. In fact, citizens who would choose not to vote were always referred to by students in the third person. Sahra from the Civics course at the Ottawa Alternative HS said: “I’ll get my citizenship. I’m going to go vote, of course. I find a lot of teenagers complain a lot and they don’t do anything. They can go vote … but they’re not interested in it.” For those student participants who were eligible to vote, a mirror of the data on youth voting patterns emerges. Of the four eligible voters in our sample, only two had voted or would vote.