Those darn kids and their democratic rights

My lovely "votingent" on the first day of advanced polling

“Are you all students?” said the blond woman with the clipboard, gawking at us as we waited in line.

On April 22nd, my peers and I were among the first citizens to show up outside St. Anselm’s Anglican Church, the advanced polling site for Vancouver Quadra.

“Well,” said the organizer in a huff, “this may take a while. You’re an anomaly.”
We furrowed our brows but nodded politely. The wait, the registration, the whole – uh, you know – democratic process was perfectly fine by us. We didn’t just take a wrong turn on our way to the campus pub.

The woman walked in and out of the church, reminding us a few more times that this voting thing can take a while. She shooed us away from the door so that “the voters” would be able to get in and out. (Don’t mind us obstacles!) She walked alongside us and checked our identification, making small comments that implied there might be a problem with this document or that oath.

I looked around for the hidden camera. Surely, this was some sort of joke. We were a group of young voters, not mutant octopi wearing top hats.

Although the woman eventually settled down and even smiled at us, I couldn’t help but think of Rick Mercer’s now-infamous rant.

“If you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, and you want to scare the hell out of the people who run the country, do the unexpected, take 20 minutes out of your day and do what young people all over the world are dying to do — Vote!”

Inside the church, another woman looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues when I mentioned the concept of a vote mob – a contingent of young people who get together for a non-partisan celebration of our right and intention to vote. (She pulled a bit of a John Baird on that one.)

Vote mobs have been sprouting up on campuses across Canada. Young people have unfurled banners with messages like: “surprise! we’re voting” or “apathy is too mainstream for me” or “impress us.”

Many of the vote mob videos feature students running through campus with signs that showcase their issues, which include everything from climate change and queer rights to pension plans and arts & culture funding. Oh, yeah, affordable tuition is in there too — but we’re not one trick ponies.

Other voices are joining the conversation, creating videos for just about every disposition. Raffi, a Canadian singer-songwriter many of us grew up listening to, tells us that we are “grown up Belugas” now, and we should vote for the Canada we want to see. Mr. Lahey from the Trailer Park Boys mocks us, saying us “shit weasels” and “dick weeds” will probably stay home (just a bit of reverse psychology, followed by alcoholic bribes). Leadnow.ca has an excellent website dedicated to engaging an informed and respectful electorate. In their declaration for change, they state:

It’s time to move beyond today’s political division and short-term thinking, and get to work on the shared challenges of our time.

But alongside the playful and positive encouragement, there’s also resistance and condescension.

Michael Taube, columnist and former speech writer for Harper, seems to think it’s appropriate to call us circus clowns and holy terrors. In his article “Vote Mob Mentality” he states:

Voting participation is way down in this country; in 2008, it hit a record low of 58.8 per cent. If more people, and especially more young people, were willing to vote on a more regular basis, the numbers would surely go up. But if vote mobs are ever considered to be a viable method of increasing political participation, I would much rather keep the numbers as low as they are.

Uh – what? What does Mr. Taube have against the joys of collective citizenship?

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but: not all older folk favour the incumbent, and they’re not all well-informed and mature. There are many extremely articulate and thoughtful youth — including the diplomatic Awish Aslam who was booted out of a partisan rally for no good reason — and not all the young voters* go for “fringe parties.”

(*A note on that last link: its conclusion is based on a larger poll of 1000 Canadians, but does not indicate how many of them were young. Seems far too small a sample-within-a-sample to warrant such a bold headline.)

Anyway, despite the condescension at the polls today I had a great time with my peers.

We had respectful discussions about the kind of country we want to live in, and pass on to the “darn kids” of tomorrow.

Personally, I think everyone needs to remember that all Canadians — regardless of age, gender, income, political stripe, etc — are worth more than the sum of their votes. Our destiny as a nation is a shared one. It’s time we started acting like it.

In the meantime, all we young people are asking for is …

To view all the vote mob videos click here!

Here are some of my favourite videos:

Schooling Ignatieff on talking to University Students

Image from Michael Ignatieff's Flickr photostream

Before I say anything about Michael Ignatieff, I should mention that I’m not a Liberal. Neither do I shroud myself in Conservative blue, NDP orange, or Green–uh–green.

(This doesn’t mean that I don’t have political opinions, but more on that later.)

Still, when Mr. Ignatieff comes to UBC campus on January 15, I’m willing to head to the Norm Theatre to hear the man out.

Young people don’t exactly vote in droves, and some say it’s a risk to focus on us, since “a tour such as this one might not be as prominent or as interesting to the media” (see Rebooting Michael Ignatieff). And, I admit: I find it interesting that Iggy is about to tour the country to talk to students, specifically, and that he’s targeting campuses at this crucial time.)

Those born after 1979 are probably used to being called cynical, apathetic, disaffected or simply too self-absorbed to follow federal politics and periodically make our way to a ballot box. But I think we deserve a bit more credit than that. If we had a Facebook relationship status with Canadian politics, I’m sure it’d be set to “it’s complicated.”

Anecdotally, I feel that the vast majority of my peers do care about several, though often specific, issues…but I do wonder why relatively few of us take active interest in the feds and their antics,… err, actions.

In an attempt to make sense of this disconnect, I’ve read through a report by the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN).

Are today’s youth indifferent or just different?

Some friends get playful with protest signs. I believe I took this picture in 2007.

The report addresses the question: are today’s youth indifferent or just different? They make a strong case for the latter.

According to CPRN, we are largely indifferent to formal (or big “P”) political institutions and practices because they do not speak to our interests as young people.

Instead, we get involved with various small “p” political initiatives that seem to better reflect our concerns for different local, national and global issues. Compared to previous generation, we’re less likely to be card-carrying partisans and more likely to get civically and politically involved through NGOs or specific causes. Many of our actions are individually based, as opposed to institutionally based.

Unfortunately, our avenues of involvement are barely recognized by traditional research methods and academic discourses, which mostly use traditional definitions of political participation, like voting in Federal elections. The result: we are broadly labelled apathetic, and even we ourselves don’t always identify our choices–like buying fair trade coffee or partying at a gay bar–as political decisions. The CPRN report features this bold statement in their conclusion:

“Youth are not disconnected from politics; it is political institutions, practice and culture that are disconnected from youth.”

But wait, before we congratulate ourselves for doing our own thang, we can’t forget that the big P-people make immense decisions that affect our lives, our nation and our planet. Maybe we don’t engage them because  we’re more accustomed to what Journalist Michael Valpy called a Catch 22 situation:

“… the political parties don’t pay much attention to young people and their concerns because so few of them vote, and possibly one of the reasons why so few young people vote is because the political parties don’t pay much attention to them.”

So, during this tour, will Ignatieff set out to pay attention to us or just to try to get attention from us? We’ll probably know within the first ten minutes of his speech. By the time he gets here, UBC students should expect to see him at his best. (He’ll have plenty of stops along the way to make mistakes.)

Either way, this tour will be an important one for Iggy: monumental for his party if he gets it right, disastrous if he doesn’t. I’m not making any predictions yet, but I do think he needs to start by getting genuinely interested in this generation and seeing us as more than potential Liberals.

So far, I’ve seen him quoted in a Toronto Star article as saying it’s important to “preach to the unconverted” and adding that “University students are the future of Canadian politics and we have to get to them.”

We’re not just the future, Iggy. We’re the present. And if you want us kids to take you seriously, you’d better leave words like “preach” and “get to them” in the past.

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Related: Prorogation Provokes Online Uprising
Full story in The Tyee

I think the following except further illustrates the point I tried to make above. The person quoted is Christopher White, a 25-year-old grad student and creator of the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament.

“I am not a card-carrying member of any political party… I have never volunteered for a candidate or party,” White said in an e-mail. “The last rally I went to was five years ago during my undergraduate degree to protest tuition increases.”

He was, however, profoundly frustrated when he learned that Harper had prorogued Parliament for the second time in two years.

“To me, prorogation was indicative of a much larger issue in Canada — of how disconnected many of us are from politics, and how our elected leaders use that to their advantage,” he explained.