Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The youth vote could have a huge political impact

But will they bother to cast their ballot?

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MONTREAL -- In the back room of an Irish pub near the University of Montreal, the tables are filled with 20-somethingish students escaping the stresses of final exams with a few pints.

But these "kids" aren't just here to shoot the breeze and procrastinate writing those final essays. They're here to support Liberal candidate Martin Cauchon.

Cauchon is a former MP and cabinet minister who is trying to win back his old seat of Outremont in Montreal. These students, several dozen in all, want to help.

They shout his name as he walks in, cheer every line of his speech delivered standing from a chair near the bar. Most of these students can't vote for Cauchon because they live in other ridings. But they plan to volunteer for his campaign because they believe in him and his party.

At a time when it's believed most young people are more likely to know Snookie than Michael Ignatieff, it's refreshing to see people not just planning to vote, but entirely engaged in an election.

Unfortunately, they are not likely a majority group among their peers.

In 2008, only one in three Canadians between 18 and 25 years old cast a ballot. For some reason, nearly two-thirds of Canadians in that age group didn't bother. Researchers suggest the scary thing is that people who don't vote the first time they can are far more likely to never vote at all.

It does not bode well for Canada's future if young people of today don't start voting in larger numbers as they get older. The last Parliament was elected by fewer than 60 per cent of registered voters. If the downward trend continues, fewer than half of Canadians will choose the government that makes decisions for all of us.

Youth apathy is the main reason the expulsion of students from a political rally last week is so appalling. Nineteen-year-old Awish Aslam seems to be the kind of young person all political parties should be appealing to and the kind of voter all Canadians should aspire to be like: engaged, open-minded and most importantly, one who plans to vote.

Even after being told she wasn't welcome at the Conservative event because somebody had discovered a photo of Michael Ignatieff on her Facebook page, Aslam said she was still considering the Conservative platform as she made up her mind to vote. How many Canadians can honestly say they wouldn't have slammed the door shut on a party if they'd been bounced from their event by the RCMP?

Politicians love to kiss babies and stock the stages behind them at rallies with fresh-faced kids waving party banners and banging noisemakers. It's ironic that those same young people are among the least likely to show up on election day.

There are many reasons to hope young people might get more involved this time around. Vote Mobs to encourage students to cast their ballot have been organized on campuses nationwide. Student governments and organizations are putting on events, posting information on the web and enlisting the help of Canadian celebrities such as Rick Mercer and George Stroumboulopoulos to get the message across.

Mercer estimated 1.8 million of the approximately three million Canadians between 18 and 25 who could have voted in 2008 did not do so. When most ridings are decided by a few hundred or a few thousand votes, 1.8 million votes could make a pretty big difference in the outcome of the election. It could amount to more than 5,000 more votes cast in every riding.

Politicians bear responsibility to speak to youth in language they can hear, with policies they care about, and in forums they use.

Parents bear responsibility to ensure they treat voting with the reverence it deserves by doing it themselves and engaging their kids in discussions about world and national events.

And teachers bear responsibility to ensure kids learn what politics are about, how government works and why voting is important.

Kathleen Klein, a 22-year-old from North Bay, Ont., says her parents got her interested in politics by talking about it with her at the dinner table. She's now the president of Liberal McGill.

Lee McMillan, a 23-year-old law student, says for him it was a motivational social studies teacher in high school who turned on his political interest.

If politicians, parents and teachers do their jobs, kids will grow up aspiring to vote the same way they look forward to driving a car or becoming legally old enough to drink.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2011 B3

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