Skip to main content

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will have to rely on his reputation for substance to take on the youthful appeal of a Justin Trudeau-led Liberal Party.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

It's a question that Thomas Mulcair has a little more than two years to answer: How to mobilize the large number of young Canadians who opt to stay home election after election.

It is also a question that could become more difficult if the Liberals, whose policies have traditionally not seemed far removed from those of Mr. Mulcair's New Democrats, choose to campaign behind Justin Trudeau, a man 17 years his junior whose charisma could prove to be an antidote to the political apathy of the younger generation.

As Liberals appear set to choose Mr. Trudeau to lead them into the next election, 2,000 New Democrats are hunkered down in a Montreal convention centre trying to establish policy that will form the basis of an election platform.

Many of the resolutions they are debating – from those that address the need for digital literacy to the burden of postsecondary debt to marijuana decriminalization – have particular resonance for younger Canadians. But even the broader themes of environmental protection and social equality could be magnets for young voters, given the right sales pitch.

Mr. Mulcair said this week in an interview with The Globe and Mail that the biggest inequity in Canadian society today is between generations "and that for us is going to be a central theme of the next campaign."

But with what does Mr. Mulcair compete if the Liberals elect Mr. Trudeau as their leader?

The answer, according to many New Democrats, is substance. As might be expected of a party that has gone for some time without a permanent leader, the Liberals are low on it.

"Younger Canadians aren't looking for fluff, they are looking for substance and that is our biggest strength in the pre-election period coming up to 2015," Peter Julian, a New Democratic MP from British Columbia, said Friday.

"Younger Canadians aren't buying into Mr. Trudeau," said Mr. Julian.

Mr. Mulcair, on the other hand, "brings real substance to issues of our generation," he said, "which are issues around the environment, issues around economic inequality – the fact that we're looking at the highest level of student debt in our history and wages, particularly for younger Canadians, are being pushed further and further down."

David Gosselin, a 22-year-old New Democrat from Montreal agrees with Mr. Julian that "substance" is the key.

"When you hear [Mr. Trudeau] speak, it kind of sounds like a joke," said Mr. Gosselin. "For smart young people, it's bad acting. So I didn't fall for that and I'd like to think that a lot of youth will see that, yah, this guy doesn't look that serious."

The problem with saying another party has no substance, of course, is that substance can be acquired. The Liberals no doubt will come up with an extensive policy platform over the next two years.

But the NDP argues that it has another weapon – the youthfulness of its own caucus. Many New Democrats who were elected for the first time in 2011 are in their early 20s.

Charmaine Borg, the 22 year-old who represents Terrebonne–Blainville in Quebec is one of them.

"People will vote because they can see people they can identify with," said Ms. Borg. "But I think it's also important that we talk about things that interest them."

She cites the environment and even the change to Old Age Security, which will take effect in ten years time, as being examples of issues that can be used to rally youth.

As for Mr. Trudeau, at 41, said Ms. Borg, "he's not really that young."

The payoff could be great for any party that manages to move the constituency of young voters. According to Elections Canada, the turnout in the 2011 election for Canadians between 18 and 24 was just 38.8 per cent. For those between 25 and 34, it was a slightly better 45.1 per cent. The agency conducted a study that found "the real issue is motivation. In other words, if they were motivated to vote, most youth could overcome these access barriers."

Recent polls suggest that, even before the Liberal leadership has been decided, Mr. Trudeau is sucking away support from the New Democrats. And it is reasonable to believe that a significant portion of that support comes from young people.

But, for now at least, the New Democrats claim to be undaunted.

"They may have a youthful figure at the helm," said Françoise Boivin, NDP MP for Gatineau who was once a Liberal MP. "The problem with the Liberals, and this is an ex-Liberal talking, they have a problem with credibility. So it's not enough sometimes to change the cover of your book, the inside of the book has to be credible."

The convention's clearest demonstration of the NDP's desire to appeal to younger voters was an evening session with Mr. Mulcair where many questions were submitted through the social networking site Twitter. They spoke to those issues that are mainstays of NDP policy – the rights of organized labour, employment insurance and access to health care.

But they also spoke to Canadians who wants things they feel are not being offered by the Conservative government.

"Canadians want change," said Mr. Mulcair. "And Canadians are starting to understand that the only way to get the change they want when they vote is to vote NDP."