Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Youth may vote if system changes

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OTTAWA -- A generation ago, teenagers thought smoking was cool.

Sure, many knew it was likely bad for their health, but that wasn't enough to dissuade them from joining the popular kids for an illicit cigarette behind the school gym.

But those days are behind us now, after at least two decades of health warnings and government advisories drilling it into kids' heads that smoking isn't cool.

It can be deadly.

Somehow, we now have to motivate young Canadians to vote, the same way we motivated them not to smoke.

Most people would likely admit they know they should vote. But when it comes to Canadians under 30, less than half are actually likely to do so. Many don't even feel guilty about it.

Last week, the Public Policy Forum and Elections Canada held a one-day seminar on youth voting. More than two dozen people were invited to attend, ranging from student leaders to a former parliamentarian, lobby groups and academics.

The issue was quite clear: If we don't find a way to bring young voters to the polling booths, we will soon hit a day when turnout is so low that any decision a government makes is considered illegitimate.

Nobody in that room June 5 hoped for a magic bullet, which is a good thing. There isn't one.

The decline in voting has taken many years, and turning the ship around will likely take more than a generation.

The solutions discussed at the forum ranged from improving political knowledge though school programs to bridging the gap between politicians and youth by getting politicians more engaged with young people.

The youth voting lobby group Apathy is Boring has research showing young people are the group least likely to actually be contacted by politicians or political parties during an election. Politicians and political parties have to get over themselves and start reaching out to youth directly, rather than thinking they aren't a priority simply because they don't vote.

They also have to acknowledge the role our political system plays in the problem.

Political parties were excluded from the forum -- they can add a lot of partisan nonsense to an open-minded discussion. But at the end of the day, it was recognized no solution was going to be reached without them.

Our first-past-the-post system often leaves voters feeling they don't have any influence unless they happen to pick the winning horse in their riding. Our federal and provincial governments got all of the power with less than half of the vote. But how do we convince them to even open the door a crack to system reform when the main reason they are in power is because of the current system?

Former prime minister Joe Clark, who attended part of the June 5 event, said he thinks most politicians know -- even if only deep down -- our system is kind of broken.

"Sometimes their view may be a very selfish one, but I don't think very many people think it works."

He wouldn't say what kind of change he'd like to see but noted it must involve young people and take advantage of social media.

Young Canadians are more educated and more worldly than any generation before them. They are engaged in their communities at many levels, but not when it comes to voting. When something bothers them, they will speak out. Just look at the protests in Quebec.

But also look at how many older Canadians have simply dismissed those protests as the whining of a group of entitled brats who should simply go back to school and shut up.

Yes, some of the behaviour of some of the protesters is unacceptable, but to dismiss them all because of the actions of a few is arrogant and unhelpful.

Perhaps the first step toward solving this problem is to stop and listen to what young Canadians have to say. To recognize the problems they face -- rising tuitions, high unemployment and soaring housing prices, to name a few -- are real and no less important than concerns of older Canadians.

Dismissing youth as entitled and lazy does a disservice to them and to Canada.

And our democracy is the poorer for it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2012 $sourceSection0

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