Camellia Wong is communications director at Future Majority, a non-partisan not-for-profit that mobilizes young Canadians to vote.
When I voted for the first time, it was at an on-campus voting booth. It was 2019, and I was a third-year student. As I cast my ballot, I thought about the wildfires that had ravaged my home province of British Columbia all summer long, and which party was going to do the most about them. Though the experience of voting was not earth shattering, I left knowing I had done something important. I am headed back to the ballot box for the second time on Sept. 20. And I intend to keep going back for the rest of my life.
My experience isn’t unique. Voting is a habit, like drinking your morning coffee or brushing your teeth. Decades of research shows that when our democracies engage young people early we can create entire generations of lifetime voters, just like me. Since the 2019 election, more than 800,000 young Canadians have become eligible to vote for the first time. In this election, many of them should have been offered opportunities to vote on their postsecondary campuses. But, to the detriment of our country’s democracy, Elections Canada has cancelled its Vote on Campus Program this year.
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Elections Canada cited barriers related to COVID-19, as well as short timelines, given that this is a snap election. But as an organization dedicated to driving voter turnout, it is Elections Canada’s responsibility to ensure every young Canadian can head to a polling station this fall. This decision will reduce access to voting for postsecondary students, and it will prevent young Canadians from voicing their concerns in their home ridings.
My generation sees this election as an opportunity to voice our concerns and make a change. We know, first-hand, that the impacts of climate change have devastated our communities and that the massive job losses that occurred during the pandemic have disproportionately impacted our age cohort. We are ready to use our power to demand action on our country’s biggest issues.
For us, this election is about more than partisan bickering about health care transfers and tax credits. It is about holding our leaders accountable; hoping for a better future; and coming together, despite our differences. In democracies around the world, we see the opposite of this: increasing polarization, misinformation, distrust in public institutions and voter suppression. Just take a look at our neighbours down south. A robust and engaged democracy is critical to combatting these alarming trends, and on-campus voting programs have the potential to produce hundreds of thousands of lifetime voters in each election.
In an e-mail to a coalition of youth voting groups – including the Democratic Engagement Exchange; the Canadian Federation of Students; and my organization, Future Majority – Elections Canada promised to resume on-campus voting in future elections. But it has yet to make this promise publicly. To regain the trust of youth civil society groups and show a commitment to strengthening our democracy, Stéphane Perrault, the chief electoral officer of Elections Canada, should do this immediately.
But once this mistake is corrected, we need to think bigger. The most transformative change we can make is to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, and put a voting booth in each and every high school in Canada. Why? Well, it would ensure that our government is accountable to young people on the issues we overwhelmingly care about, such as climate change and the cost of living. It would also create an entire generation that would be more engaged, both as voters and as potential candidates for office.
All parties have different ideas about how to lead the country to a postpandemic recovery, but they can unite around the goal of lowering the voting age. This will strengthen our democracy for all Canadians.
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