The soldier, the hockey player and the voter.
Of all the things that did or did not come out of the NHL owners’ lockout in 2012-13, the most unusual initiative has to be one that, if all goes as planned, has the potential to affect future Canadian elections.
Hard to believe, yes. But true.
It is an idea that grew out of several fall-of-2012 banter sessions between two lifelong friends – one a former soldier who had served in Afghanistan, the other an NHL defenceman – who both happened to be out of work and wondering what the future held for them and their generation.
Grant Clitsome, 29 this month, is a defenceman with the Winnipeg Jets. Nicolas Mann, 29, is a former Canadian soldier who was deployed to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2008 and later worked at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The two had grown up together in an Ottawa suburb, two best friends who later went separate ways: Clitsome off to Clarkson University in upper-state New York, where he was an National Collegiate Athletic Association second-team All-American and later drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets; Mann off to Carleton University, the reserves and then full-time with the Royal Canadian Regiment’s 3rd Battalion based in Petawawa, Ont.
Both loved politics. Mann had majored in political science at Carleton; Clitsome had minored in the subject at Clarkson while majoring in entrepreneurship.
Both were back home in Ottawa, Mann a guest in Clitsome’s home, and both were understandably concerned about what was going to happen.
“We were hanging out with a lot of time on our hands,” says Mann. “I was struggling to find work. Grant was wondering what he was going to do after hockey.”
Talking with friends and young relatives convinced them that there was a disconnect between politics in this country and young voters, who generally can’t be bothered.
“People feel there’s just too much information to wrap your head around,” says Clitsome from Winnipeg, where he is rehabilitating from January surgery to repair a herniated disc in his lower back.
“It’s too hard for them to compare parties. So they end up saying, ‘What does my vote mean? I’m only one vote, how can I make a difference?’”
The two friends became convinced they could themselves make a difference. They formed a small company, Decanted Media, began setting up a website – YourDemocracy.ca, still under construction – that could offer concise and accurate political party information that could be easily accessed.
They also met with Members of Parliament and other political operatives. They have discussed their project with Elections Canada as well as with Kevin Page, the former Parliamentary Budget Officer who holds the Jean-Luc Pepin Research Chair at the University of Ottawa and co-ordinates the iVote-jeVote initiative that hopes to engage young voters. Their hope is that both the elections office and Page would become involved in some manner.
Mann has tested the idea out with a focus group of 73 university students aged 17 to 25 and says two-thirds of the students said the existence of such a website would make them more likely to vote.
So far, they have commitments from the Conservative and Green parties to become involved and are holding discussions with the Liberal and NDP parties. They intend to approach the Bloc Quebecois shortly.
“The idea behind YourDemocracy.ca,” Mann says, “is to make democracy more relevant, more accessible, and more valued by offering visitors a single point of access to information on the issues that affect us all.”
Parties would supply only the information concerning their platforms or stands on certain issues. The website would provide for easy comparisons but would remain resolutely non-political. Start-up financing has come from personal resources and from contributions by family and friends. They hope that online advertising could support the project in the future, but say the key right now is just to offer “one-stop shopping” for young voters new to the political process.
“There’s so much information people find it intimidating,” Clitsome says. “I run into too many people who are not really aware and who do not really have a desire to know what’s going on in politics.
“When you first talk to people about it, they’re skeptical. They have a lot of questions. But as you answer those questions you can sort of see a light go on that this might work. No other country in the world is doing anything like this, where you have all the parties under one roof.”
Clitsome says growing up in Ottawa meant he could not avoid politics. His parents, who met in the navy, are both in public service. While at Clarkson he took part in a three-week Canada-US youth summit on Parliament Hill and University of Ottawa and became a political junkie.
“I know too many people who are not really aware,” he says, “and do not really have any desire to know what’s going on in politics.”
“We get the government we deserve,” Mann adds. “If you don’t vote, then don’t complain.
“And don’t be cynical – because you are part of the problem.”
Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG