“Mama, where do I vote?” my 18-year-old son asks.
“At the polling station,” I tell him. “Didn’t you get the voter registration card in the mail?”
“Nah,” he replies.
As an avid consumer of political news and an ardent participant in the political process, I found myself at a loss for words. On the eve of his first opportunity to vote in an election (Ontario’s), how could my firstborn not know?
“Are your friends voting?” I pretended to be casual.
“I can ask. But a lot of my friends aren’t 18 yet.”
“But they can still participate in the political process,” I wanted to reply.
I want my kids to experience this part of their lives for themselves. They need to do the work. But how involved do parents need to be to kick-start the process?
Home is where the first seeds are planted in the minds of our young citizens, says Lenard See, manager of youth settlement services at WoodGreen Community Centre in Toronto. He told me that while there isn’t a lot of engagement with youth clients at the office, they learn about political participation in civics class at school, or when they take a citizenship class if they are over 18.
See has an almost-two-year-old son. Teaching youth to get solid information is also something See says is important particularly in an era of “fake news.” Moreover, See says there needs to be a cultural shift. “Just because they are youth, and not the legal age to vote, doesn’t mean their voice should not be heard,” he says.
A good resource to point older children to is Student Vote, an organization that provides resources and information for students. Its mandate is to engage youth, from elementary to secondary school levels, at no cost to the schools or the participants. The students learn about the electoral process, research each party and candidates, and talk and debate about platforms and issues. They also cast mock ballots for the official election candidates in the school riding. It’s a way to get kids excited about what’s happening and include them in a way that’s geared to them in a safe space. And they can take those lessons forward.
Muneeza Sheikh, the communications director with the Canadian-Muslim Vote, a non-profit organization that helps encourage Muslim-Canadians to be involved in the political process, says that for their election-readiness campaign, youth engagement online has been critical.
“Social media has been a significant game changer in so many respects, and with that has come a sweeping change in the way youth see the importance of civic engagement.”
Social-media posts and discussion happen online for many youth and this is a way that shows how inspired and interested Canadian youth are about the issues that affect them at the federal and provincial level, she says.
The provinces also try to do their part: Elections Ontario, for example, offers an extensive outreach program for youth and this winter ran a voter-registration drive that targeted youth.
Here’s the good news: The 2015 federal election had the highest voter turnout of Canadians ages 18-25 in recent history.
And for more inspiration, we only need to look south of the border at the incredible leadership from youth on critical issues that adults have consistently mismanaged: gun control.
“I am hopeful for the future,” See says. “But I also think that we have to set the foundation for that. You can’t just expect the future to do great things and you just sit there and do nothing. You have to pave the way, and set the tone.”
My younger children joke and say that my son will have to vote for “whoever Mama says!” But that isn’t the case, as long as he doesn’t vote against principles of fairness and justice.
I sincerely hope he carries those convictions with him to the polls.