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This article was published 18/9/2014 (2123 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA -- Earlier this week at a forum hosted by Elections Canada, which I moderated, the panelists and I were warned not to tell those in attendance they should vote.
Odd, given that it's Canada's Democracy Week.
A week when Canadians from coast to coast are supposed to stop and give a moment or two or 10 to think about the state of our democracy, what we can each do to improve it and why it's important to vote.
Thanks to new restrictions placed on Elections Canada and its chief electoral officer by the Fair Elections Act last June, the organization is no longer allowed to do everything in its power to convince people of the importance of voting.
The entire forum on Tuesday had to be disguised as an exercise to teach future teachers how to get their students more engaged or how to include civics lessons in their classrooms.
It could not be about how to get the future teachers themselves more engaged.
That's because Elections Canada CEO Marc Mayrand was hosting the event and there are new strict limits on what he is allowed to say and to whom.
What kind of democracy do we have if the person who is in charge of elections isn't allowed to explain to people the importance of voting?
An even bigger question might be: Why isn't he allowed to do so?
One of the main messages that came from the panelists was the best way teachers can get students engaged is for teachers to lead by example.
If your teacher knows current events, can hold classroom discussions about issues students should and do care about, if teachers talk about voting and participating as citizens, then students will follow suit.
On Tuesday, Mayrand told the students present only about one-third of those in their age group voted in the last federal election. He said if 18 to 25-year-old voters cast ballots at the same rate as voters more than 55 years old, another million votes would have been cast.
Maybe one single vote might not make a difference, but one million more votes very likely could. It's not about the result. It's highly likely another one million votes cast would have seen the same government formed.
But a million more votes would very likely have an impact on how the leaders speak to young voters, how issues affecting younger voters play in a campaign and what prominence they get when governments actually try to govern.
People who vote are also more likely to want to be engaged, to be what Ontario History and Social Sciences Teachers' Association President Jan Haskings-Winner called "upstanders" rather than bystanders.
It's like a virtuous circle: improving voter turnout can improve other areas of democratic engagement such as getting people to community meetings or writing to MPs to express their views. But getting people to community meetings and writing to MPs can also improve voter turnout.
On a global scale, Canada has a lot to be proud of when it comes to our democracy. Compared to Afghanistan or China, we have it pretty good.
There is still a lot to be worried about.
Voter turnout is at historic lows. Citizens report levels of cynicism and disengagement with all levels of government that should be alarming.
The so-called Fair Elections Act was supposed to be a bill to address some of the reasons behind that disengagement. Issues such as the robocalls that attempted to suppress the vote in 2011.
Mostly what it does is make it harder for people to vote by imposing stricter limits on voter identification requirements. And it makes it harder for Mayrand to reach non-voters and encourage them to vote by banning him from making unsolicited calls to their homes and limiting the topics about which he can communicate with voters.
Although the government scaled back the initial changes, which would have basically limited Mayrand to telling voters how to cast a ballot, the new law still limits him to telling people how to vote, how to become a candidate, how to get on the voter's list, voter ID requirements and accessibility options for voters with disabilities.
Not on that list? Telling people they should vote.
On Tuesday night, when a captive audience of several hundred future teachers -- who will have influence over hundreds, if not thousands, of kids -- sat before him, Mayrand could not tell them directly to get out and vote.
Nothing bad can really come to a democracy from having more people participating in it.
So, why, pray tell, is the chief electoral officer now prevented from doing everything in his power to make that happen?
Mia Rabson is the parliamentary bureau chief and national reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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