On Oct. 19, Canadians will decide who will form the government for the next four years. At this time, it is critical that students—and the organizations that represent them—remain informed and engaged. The vicious cycle of low youth voter turnout and subsequent shortage of issues affecting youth and students in media coverage and party discourse can be reversed. As the semester commences, students must encourage political engagement among their peers to ensure that our interests are heard.
Under Sections 91 and 92 of the Canadian Constitution Act—which delineates the division of powers between the provincial governments and federal governments—education is the responsibility of provincial governments. Therefore education is not directly addressed in federal elections, but this is not the only topic important to students. To bring student issues to the forefront in the national campaign, students must mobilize on campus. Youth unemployment and student debt are particularly important given Canada’s current recession, but those issues will not be made priorities unless students demand them.
Questions about the environment, the economy, and our constitution will also define our experience on campus and shape our futures as young adults. The matter to be wary of in the coming weeks is one of accessibility: Access to the issues that dominate the political discourse, and access to the ballot itself.
Legislation such as Bill C-23, which was made law in June 2014, makes voting more difficult for students, particularly those living in residences, and limits the programs that Elections Canada may have on campus. The Bill has eliminated voter information cards as a valid form of identification, and requires proof of address. Such changes create disproportionately more challenges to students, who may have recently moved, or do not have a fixed address. The voter turnout for eligible adults between the ages 18 and 24 is typically low—it was 37.4 per cent in the 2008 election, and rose to only 38.8 per cent in 2011. While these figures do not apply to McGill students completely, Bill C-23 may represent another hurdle for students to overcome during this election.
In Quebec—and Montreal in particular—students are known for their political engagement, but this involvement is typically focused on student-specific issues. Protests against austerity and tuition hikes have drawn crowds numbering in the thousands. What’s at stake for students in the federal election, however, is less clear.
As the term begins, students, student societies, and student associations must strive to be leaders on campus in engaging fellow students in the political process. There is an unfortunate tendency for student activism in elections to remain limited to parts of our society that are already politically engaged. Students at McGill must work to expand those spaces of involvement. Student networks in residences can be activated by floor fellows and councils; the election can be made visible on campus through information sessions and advertising. This does not mean these organizations should take a normative stance. Instead, this is a chance to be actively nonpartisan and encourage healthy debate. It may also be a chance to bring the issues that students care about to the forefront through promoting greater youth engagement in this year’s elections.
Elections Canada is limited to informing voters about the logistics of voting. While the organization will have voting booths open on campus, Elections Canada’s effort make voting accessible to students must be extended by our student organizations. Following Bill C-23, Pierre Poilievre, the minister of democratic reform at the time, said to The Star, “The role of Elections Canada is to inform, and the role of political actors is to motivate the voter.” So far, there has been no clear effort by any of the major candidates to ignite the student voter. It is therefore up to our campus as a whole to provide that motivation.
By necessity, the student vote is bound up in issues of access. For students to act on the information provided by Elections Canada, we students need to be made aware of the issues at stake. This may come in the form of assisting students in finding resources to help make their decision before Oct. 19 and encouraging students to get out to vote. While work is underway to do just that by SSMU, similar to what was done on campus for the 2011 election, the onus should not be on SSMU alone. Faculty and departmental associations, clubs, and societies must organize in nonpartisan engagement. Students acting as leaders within their own social circles can also make a difference by promoting involvement in the electoral process.
We all stand to benefit from staying politically engaged for the duration of the election period. Campus-wide mobilization and guidance on how to vote would help to eliminate confusion for first-time voters, especially those who are away from home for the first time. In order to ensure that student issues are further represented in future elections, we as the students have to be more engaged than we have been to ensure that this election hears us and recognizes that our votes matter. This must start on campus.