Reliable information on Canadian youth membership in interest groups is considerably harder to find than similar information about membership in political parties.xxxi Most data come from the 2000 Canadian Election Study, which asked respondents whether they had ever been a “member of an interest group that worked for change on a particular social or political issue.”xxxii Generally, Canadian youth are more likely to be a member of a public interest group than a political party. For every Canadian aged 18 to 27 who has been a member of a political party, 4.5 such Canadians have been a member of an interest group.xxxiii Meanwhile, the numbers are nearly reversed for those over 57 years of age.xxxiv Few researchers have asked these kinds of questions of students under the age of 18; thus, analyses of national trends are not possible. Patterns from our Ottawa sample, however, are evident. Samantha, a Grade 12 World Issues student from Crestview Academy, stands as atypical for her involvement outside of school with Greenpeace and organizations to end violence against women, as well as her desire to work with Doctors without Borders.
Nationwide data on youth participation in informal political and community projects are more encouraging. Canadian youth membership and participation in groups and organizations increased slightly from 44% in 1997 to 47% in 2000.xxxv Similarly, volunteer rates among all Canadians have declined slightly, but Canadians aged 15 to 24 “volunteered at a rate second only to those aged 35 to 54 (30% of this age group volunteered in 2000). Within the 15 to 24 age group, teenagers (those aged 15 to 19) volunteered at a much higher rate than those aged 20 to 24 (37% vs. 22%) and gave more time on average (136 hours vs. 121 hours). Youth aged 15 to 19 were much more likely than older Canadians to volunteer (37% vs. 26% for those aged 25 and older).”xxxvi Stolle and Cruz, in their study of youth participation, conclude that “volunteering generally is on the rise for young citizens, as more young Canadians are engaged in such activities mostly because of required programs … but it seems [to happen] in a more and more sporadic and episodic manner.”xxxvii
When Ottawa teachers in our study spoke of high levels of student engagement, they may have been referring to such programs. In 1999, the Ontario government established 40 hours of mandatory “community involvement” to obtain a high school diploma. The stated purpose was to “encourage students to develop awareness and understanding of civic responsibility and of the role they play in supporting and strengthening their communities.”xxxviii When study participants were asked if they volunteered, most of them referred to the regulation as their impetus for action. Bethany was representative of the group when she stated this: “I usually try to volunteer wherever because I want all those hours.” Students at the Ottawa Alternative HS who began their secondary program before the 1999 regulation were not required to complete such hours. None of these students in our study volunteered. In large part, this speaks to their adult commitments to paid work and family. Approximately 75% of our student participants described involvement in some form of volunteer work on their questionnaires, including community clean-ups, assisting at old-age homes, providing child care and working at a community centre.
Most student interviewees did not characterize their volunteer hours as a long-term commitment to organizations or social issues that were of particular interest to them. Most students commented on the episodic character of mandatory volunteerism. Gabrielle, a Grade 10 student from Ottawa-East HS, initially commented that she had not volunteered. After recalling the mandatory program, she stated: “I babysat some kids at an after-school program, but I don’t know, I never got them counted and it was a long time ago. I was thinking of volunteering at retirement homes helping people. I heard that they are accepting volunteer students.” Gabrielle’s experience was echoed by her teacher Helena, who called the program “an artificial way of making [students] do 40 hours” with guidance and not students’ taking the initiative to find placements. Helena believed that the “majority [of students] really resent” the program.