A long line of fidgety kids pours out of an elementary school library in the heart of British Columbia’s New Westminster-Burnaby riding. Each student holds either a custom-made ID card or their school planner in hand, eager to present valid identification and vote in this year’s federal election.
The results at Second Street Community School won’t officially count, but the students, many of whom insist on keeping their vote private, take this very seriously. Their teachers do, too.
“Voter turnout among young people is always low,” said Elaine Su, teacher-librarian at Second Street. By prioritizing civic education and familiarizing students with the voting process early on, she hopes that can change. In only two election cycles, many of her students will be eligible to cast a ballot.
More than 1.1 million elementary and secondary students in over 7,000 schools from all 338 ridings participated in Student Vote Canada 2019, a joint initiative between Elections Canada and CIVIX, a non-partisan charity dedicated to promoting civic engagement. Organizers say this likely makes the countrywide poll the world’s largest simulated election. It’s also the most successful Canadian campaign by the organization to date.
Results will be available at the close of official polls at studentvote.ca/canada.
In 2015, more than 900,000 students across Canada took part, a marked increase from past underage elections. The results largely mirrored the outcome of the real poll. The Liberal Party secured a majority government, garnering approximately 37.5 per cent of the popular vote with the Conservatives coming in second place. However, the results diverged somewhat. For instance, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau failed to win his own riding of Papineau, Que.
In the weeks leading up to this year’s election, students at Second Street received a crash course on Canadian politics. Ms. Su figures most of what her students know about politics they learn from social media, which worries her.
"We, as adults, are supposed to be taking care of how they process information and how they learn about the world," she said. In her lesson plan, she emphasizes media literacy, teaching students to remain critical of what they see on the internet.
Despite any online disinformation they may encounter, Second Street's teacher-librarian joked that many of her young students appear to know more about Canadian politics than her colleagues. And she might be right.
In conversation with The Globe and Mail, an opinionated group of sixth and seventh graders referenced a laundry list of contemporary political issues, from Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 to the lack of clean drinking water on some Indigenous reservations.
But it’s the overly divisive state of Canada’s politics which seems to capture most of their attention – and for which they place blame squarely on the country’s feuding political leaders.
Most of the students interviewed by The Globe said their families tend to avoid the topic of politics to steer clear of any unnecessary conflict. For Neera, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, today’s polarization makes her reluctant even to vote.
"What if you tell your sibling, ‘Oh, I’m going to vote for this person!’ And they’re like, ‘Bleh,’ " she explained. “Then you get in a big fight, and you don’t talk for a while.”
But a precocious sixth-grader named Samara is excited to cast her ballot. She spoke passionately about how she would like to see more diversity in Canadian politics. All four of the leading candidates running in New Westminster-Burnaby are white, Samara pointed out.
Like several of the students The Globe met, she’s worried about the future, especially here in the Lower Mainland.
“When we grow older, imagine how high the rent is going to be for us?” Samara asked.
Rachel, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, moved the discussion to what has become a flashpoint issue across the entire country, but one that hits especially close to home in Burnaby: “They’re providing for the pipeline project, [but] that’s not going to benefit our town if it has a leak.” In general, climate change weighs heavily on the children.
While young people tend to vote significantly less than their older counterparts, the last election saw an uptick in turnout among young Canadians. In 2015, roughly 57 per cent of eligible voters between 18 and 24 cast a ballot, an 18-per-cent increase from 2011. This election, those between the ages of 18 and 38 comprise the largest segment of eligible voters.
Richard Johnston, Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation at the University of British Columbia, says it’s difficult to predict whether young people will show up this time around.
Mr. Trudeau’s “sunny ways” campaign mobilized many first-time voters in 2015, Mr. Johnston says.
“But now the bloom is off that rose and there’s a lot of disappointment,” he said. “And, of course, it’s also been a depressingly negative, uninspiring campaign.”
But Mr. Johnston still expects many young voters to return to the polls. Studies show first-time eligible voters tend to make voting a habit, he says.
Samara hopes Mr. Johnston’s right.
“It’s really sad [youth vote less] because young people – we have different thoughts than older people.”
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