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(L-R) Winnipeg North NDP candidate Rebecca Blaikie, Green Party candidate John Harvie, and Liberal candidate Kevin Lameroux answer 'YES' to a question during an event organized by North End Votes and its member organizations in which politicians met and answered questions asked by Aboriginal youth at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg Thursday April 21, 2011. (David Lipnowski for The Globe And Mail/David Lipnowski for The Globe And Mail)
(L-R) Winnipeg North NDP candidate Rebecca Blaikie, Green Party candidate John Harvie, and Liberal candidate Kevin Lameroux answer 'YES' to a question during an event organized by North End Votes and its member organizations in which politicians met and answered questions asked by Aboriginal youth at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg Thursday April 21, 2011. (David Lipnowski for The Globe And Mail/David Lipnowski for The Globe And Mail)

Time to lead

Why apathy reigns in Winnipeg North Add to ...

Jenna Wirch has a message for campaigning politicians: "If you want more voter turnout, then you have to come here."

Here, in her case, is Winnipeg North, one of the country's most culturally diverse federal ridings. It has a smattering of middle-class families, but is more defined by large pockets of extreme poverty. With a high rate of crime and a stream of vacant buildings, parts of Winnipeg's north end epitomize urban decay.

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The riding is also a model of the social and economic factors that tend to drag down participation at the ballot box. Voter turnout in the area has been dismal for some time.

Winnipeg North landed in the bottom 10 for turnout in the past three general elections. In 2008, only four in 10 eligible voters cast ballots, the seventh-worst rate in the country. Participation didn't even crack 20 per cent at four of the riding's polling stations. At another seven locations, turnout was below 25 per cent.

"People who have been poor for a long time don't have that sense of hope that voting for party X or party Y will make a difference," said political scientist Jim Silver, co-director of University of Winnipeg's urban and inner-city studies program. "The lower the income level, the lower the voter turnout."

It's against this backdrop that Ms. Wirch and others in the riding are working to increase engagement in elections. A grassroots coalition of social agencies and residents' organizations called North End Votes formed last year ahead of October's municipal election.

The non-partisan group has turned its attention to the federal race, spreading word about it, organizing workshops on the role of government, and offering transportation to the polls. It also plans to create a pamphlet for residents that outlines candidates' stands on issues such as crime and the economy.

The coalition knows it faces a tough battle; turning around a decades-old trend takes determination and time.

"People don't feel that they have been honoured, represented or cared about by any level of government," said group member Maia Graham-Derham, a community development worker with the North End Community Renewal Corporation. "They're an undervalued group of people."

Aside from poverty, Winnipeg North's low level of education (nearly a quarter of its residents over 25 years old didn't finish high school) and diverse makeup also play a role in poor voting attendance.

Of the roughly 79,000 people who called the riding home at the time of the 2006 census, about 29 per cent were immigrants and 19 per cent were aboriginal. Studies have shown these groups are less likely to vote.

Newcomers' connection to Canada and its institutions takes time to develop. For aboriginals, many past injustices still sting: natives weren't granted the right to vote in federal campaigns until 1960.

"History has played a huge role," said Mark Fleming, executive director of the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre in Winnipeg. "The message of voting has been lost through years of splitting families up," he added, a reference to the residential school experience that separated many native children from their parents and culture.

Ultimately, a relentless cycle of apathy has emerged in Winnipeg North.

Residents often never see or hear from local candidates because political strategists encourage them to focus on neighbourhoods where people are more likely to vote, Dr. Silver noted.

"So the low voter turnout reproduces itself because politicians don't come knocking on those doors," he said.

Ms. Wirch is trying to break that cycle, one friend at a time. Part of the North End Votes group, she talks to her peers and fellow residents in Winnipeg North about the importance of casting a ballot.

"I'm trying to change how people view the world," she said. "I'm trying to help my friends see that voting is cool and you can be part of that change."

Even if her message doesn't break through this election, Ms. Wirch herself illustrates that change is possible. She's 19 years old, aboriginal and doesn't have much money, part of three demographic groups that don't typically vote. Yet on Monday, she plans to be at the ballot box to let politicians know that her voice matters.

Low engagement

Other ridings with low voter turnout in 2008:

Fort McMurray-Athabasca

Labrador

Churchill

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