The canvasser surges forward, veering to intercept an onrushing student with a wave of his clipboard. “What if I told you it was possible to vote right here, right now, in less than five minutes?” he asks with a breathless salesman’s zeal.
It seems to work. The canvasser literally walks his target voter over to the advance poll set up in the heart of the University of Toronto’s Mississauga (UTM) campus. He asks for a phone number so he can text a link to a website with information on party platforms. It’s a process that will be repeated here 300 times on this day, and more than 20,000 times across the country before election day on Oct. 21.
The website, govotecanada.ca, is the work of a group called Future Majority, which aims to put what it describes as a non-partisan spotlight on the concerns of young people by flexing their political clout.
“Our focus is motivating young Canadians to vote by spreading that message that we have a huge amount of political power,” said Aaron Myran, Future Majority’s executive director.
For years, the knock against policies aimed at young voters was that they were ineffective. Young people simply didn’t vote in large numbers. But that may be changing. Millennials and Gen Z voters are now the largest demographic bloc in the electorate, and that means they can’t be ignored.
In 2015, voter turnout surged among young people. Among those age 18 to 24, turnout leaped to 57.1 per cent from 38.8 per cent in 2011, according to Elections Canada. It also jumped 12 percentage points among those 25 to 34.
The lion’s share of those votes went to the Liberal Party, according to exit polling. But there are questions this time about whether the enthusiasm that surrounded Justin Trudeau’s candidacy in 2015 has waned, and whether that could lead to a drop in youth voter turnout. It’s a demographic that has traditionally been fertile ground for parties of the centre-left, so the rate at which young voters cast ballots could play an important role in deciding the election outcome.
Future Majority has placed its paid canvassers on a relatively small number of strategically selected suburban, exurban and rural campuses in closely contested ridings. Mississauga, for example, is surrounded by seats in the 905-area code that have played a key role in deciding recent elections. Elsewhere around Ontario, they’re also in Scarborough, Kitchener, Niagara, Sault Ste. Marie and Peterborough as well as other parts of Canada including B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
“We’re focusing on places that are rural, suburban, exurban and where it looks like it’s going to be really competitive between any of the parties, where [the margin] has been just a few hundred or 1,000 votes,” Mr. Myran said.
They’re spending between $45,000 and $60,000 on paid canvassers to walk voters to the polls and harnessing the work of volunteers as well. Their voter information website, with digestible policy summaries, promises to empower young people, and “not boomers,” as they put it, to decide their own future.
All of this costs money. Future Majority’s budget of $340,000 is funded by the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence Canada and the Ivey Foundation, as well as individual donors, Mr. Myran said.
Elections Canada has made it easier to vote on campus in this election, which could also help boost turnout. They opened 119 advance polls at universities and colleges that allow students to vote either in the riding in which their campus is located or in their home riding.
Universities in particular are attractive targets for political parties because students and graduates vote at much higher rates. The evidence suggests that for ages 25 to 34, voting rates were 42 percentage points higher for those with a university degree compared with those who didn’t finish high school, according to Statistics Canada.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who promised to cap and reduce tuition fees with an eventual goal of eliminating them, was photographed at Ryerson’s campus this week swarmed by well-wishers. Mr. Trudeau came to UTM last month to announce his party’s platform, including a 40-per-cent increase to federal student grants and an extension of the interest-free grace period for repayment of federal loans.
The Conservatives have also been active on campus.
But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer faces an uphill battle with students in Ontario. Many say they’re motivated by opposition to the cuts to student grants imposed by the Doug Ford government.
At UTM, cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) are by far the number one issue. Students are angry. A whiteboard erected in a central square lists other concerns, including climate change, immigrant health care, Indigenous rights and “Pro-Palestinian issues,” but Mr. Ford’s cuts dominate the discussion.
Myles Latour, a second-year chemistry student at UTM, said he went to the polls as a first-time voter motivated principally by his disappointment over OSAP cuts.
“I lost half of what I received last year,” Mr. Latour said. “It made me strongly opposed to the party that instituted that.”
Mohammed Alomrani, a 20-year-old computer science student who lives in Mississauga, said he’s looking for a party that will invest in student aid.
“If I look at what Doug Ford has done, it’s really the opposite of what students want. Because of him I don’t think I can vote Conservative,” he said.
Colleen Paris, a 23-year-old graduate student at UTM, said she has decided to vote strategically in this election.
“I personally lost thousands” in the OSAP cuts, she said.
Ms. Paris said she was disappointed in Mr. Trudeau for wearing blackface and doesn’t think he has done enough on climate change. Still, instead of voting NDP as her conscience tells her, she’ll vote Liberal to try to block the Conservatives.
“I don’t fully trust [Mr. Trudeau] but I think he’s the lesser of two evils in this case,” she said.
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