Hopes remain high despite low involvement among young people

Alberta’s upcoming provincial election has parties campaigning to win the votes of citizens, but there is one group that, for whatever reason, generally doesn’t engage in the political process.

According to the Elections Alberta website, voter turnout in the 2008 provincial election was a mere 40.6 per cent.

Albertans aged 18 to 24 voted the least — and were less inclined than any other age group to vote in the next election, a 2008 research report from Elections Alberta found.

While there is some debate over where this indifference has come from, the results are clear; many Albertan youth say they feel that today’s politics are not aimed at them.

“I know a lot of them campaign saying (they care about) what young people think, but right now, a lot of them are trying to appease to older demographics because those are the people that actually vote,” says 24-year-old Nathan McCowan, who works for an insurance company in Calgary. “The amount of people that are going on into their geriatric years, they don’t have anything to do but vote, whereas young people they either feel like their vote doesn’t matter, or they don’t put enough times into researching the platforms, or they’re not so deeply aligned with a party that they’re just going to vote that way.”The University of Calgary Liberal Association has received visits and talks from Liberals such as David Swann.
Photo courtesy of: University of Calgary Liberal Association

Despite the reasons behind it, youth apathy can have a drastic impact on how Alberta politics operate and contribute to a vicious cycle that can see the issues youth care about pushed to the side, says Lori Williams, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University.

“So if you expect government not to respond to or reflect your interests, your concerns, character, whatever, then it won’t and government will continue to serve or pander to, in some cases, those populations that are exerting their political power to try to make things go in a direction they want it to go,” she said.

While many of Alberta’s youth seem disengaged from the realm of politics, there are some young people who are diving in headfirst, representing Alberta’s youth while trying to engage others into politics.

Youth in politics

Marshall Boyd, 25, has been the co-chair of the New Democratic Youth of Alberta, or NDYA, for the past year and a half. The group is charged with representing the NDP youth of Alberta within the larger party. While much of the group’s efforts focus on finding like-minded new members through things such as campus clubs, Boyd says the group is also a vital part of the parties party’s overall decision making.

“As co-chairs, we have a seat on the party executive, so we have input on the day-to-day running of the party,” Boyd says. “There is definitely mechanism for how we can actively be involved in the running of the party.”

The largest part of what constitutes a party’s platforms and stances are the policies they decide to adopt, and in this regard, the NDYA are given another way to impact the direction of the party.

 “I know a lot of them campaign saying (they care about) what young people think, but right now, a lot of them are trying to appease to older demographics because those are the people that actually vote.”
— Nathan McCowan,
Calgary youth

“We are actually able to pass policy and put it forward for a vote,” Boyd says. “Because we have autonomy, we can also have policy that differs from the official party, so those are the policies we rally for.”

Preparing for the future

The Progressive Conservative Youth of Alberta or PCYA follows a similar structure to that of the NDYA at a first glance, as their organization is based upon representing the youth within Alberta’s PC party. However, the PCYA also employs another technique to not only hear the voices of Progressive Conservative youth, but to prepare them for a step into roles in the main party itself.Mark Corbett, president of the University of Lethbridge Campus Conservative Association, speaks at the PCYA’s annual general meeting.
Photo courtesy of: Progressive Conservative Youth of Alberta

Twenty-four-year-old Evan Legate, president of the PCYA, says that on top of the usual efforts of the group to engage youth through campus clubs, the PCYA also hopes to prepare its youth members for a lifetime in political engagement through their mentorship program.

“Basically, we’re just pairing youth with some prominent people throughout the campaign, were trying to do it at more of a local level this time, the goal is teach youth local leadership level skills and campaigning with the idea that within the next couple of elections that they’ll be able to step in and fill those roles,” says Legate.

While the Wildrose doesn’t have a dedicated youth wing, they do make use of campus clubs, such as the campus club at the University of Calgary. The club provides a way for interested youth to engage and volunteer with the Wildrose, while meeting like-minded people, says 23-year-old Andrew Griffin, the president of the club.

The Wildrose campus club is in place to “help facilitate involvement and be a channel to people that may have an interest in politics or the Wildrose party, who wouldn’t on their own look for that opportunity (to volunteer) and we give them that,” says Griffins.

Making the politics relevant

While writing policy and preparing youth for a future in politics might be considered advantageous for those with an interest already in politics, many youth simply don’t engage with politics in that way, says Williams.

“I think part of the thing is that most of us are looking for a way to meaningfully engage with our community, and politics just doesn’t look like something that we’re interested in or want to be a part of, it doesn’t connect with our interests, it doesn’t resonate with us, so we will engage through our community perhaps through an interest group or community association or perhaps start volunteering with a homeless shelter,” says Williams. “These are things that are contributions; they aren’t simply demands being made on government, but contributions that are meaningful, but are seen as superior to and somehow separate from or at odds with what goes in the formal political arena.”

Alberta Young Liberals have attached themselves to causes such as Zero Force, an organization dedicated to ending the use of child soldiers.
Photo courtesy of: University of Calgary Liberal Association

The Alberta Young Liberals attempt to bridge this gap between the issues young people care about and the politics, says Amitpal Singh, the newly-elected president of the organization.

“As young liberals, we promote liberal values. We are working with like-minded (non-government organizations) to promote their causes and bring that to the provincial levels,” says Singh.

Singh says that through campus groups such as the one at the University of Calgary, the young liberals have been able to champion causes such as ending the use of child soldiers worldwide, drawing a connection from the issues that many young people find compelling to the political framework that exists for this change to happen.

In any case, youth have the potential to play a huge role in the outcome of the upcoming election, says Williams, citing the successes of Naheed Nenshi and Barack Obama to mobilize youth into action. The real key, Williams says, is to provide a real vision people can get behind

“If the goals aren’t set to loftily, if the goals are a little bit more realistic and yet inspirational, we might see people engaged in a more meaningful way,” says Williams.

“I think I’m seeing, at least in some areas, that sort of thing beginning to happen at least on a municipal level, are continuing to explore how they can make a difference, a positive difference within Calgary, and we might see the same sort of thing if the leadership can inspire at a provincial or even national level.”

swaldner@cjournal.ca