Speaking at the Democracy Bootcamp event in Calgary on Sept. 21, Taylor Gunn of Civix explains how teachers can have an impact on students' political engagement through the organization's Student Vote program.
"Engaged teachers engage their students."
That’s what Taylor Gunn, president and chief election officer of Civix, told the more than 300 politically engaged teachers who converged on Telus Spark in Calgary on Sept. 21 for an event dubbed Democracy Bootcamp.
Civix, a non-partisan charity, hosted the conference to improve teachers’ civic knowledge, interest and instructional capacity, as well as enhance their delivery of Student Vote, a parallel election for students under the voting age that coincides with actual federal, provincial, territorial and municipal elections.
The next instalment of Student Vote is slated to be held during National Student Vote Week from Oct. 13 to 16, just prior to the Oct. 19 federal election.
Alberta Teachers’ Association President Mark Ramsankar, who welcomed participants to the conference, said he wasn’t surprised by the large turnout.
"The reason I’m not surprised is because, when we talk about civic duty, that’s very important to us as teachers," he said. "It’s through events like this that we hope to be able to encourage young people to understand (a) their civic responsibility and (b) how they can, in turn, start to encourage parents and themselves to hold elected officials accountable for the promises they make, the statements that they say and the fact that they represent us."
In a presentation entitled Why Are We Here?, Civix senior program manager Caitlin Hayward pointed out that voter turnout has been declining in Canada since the Second World War and especially since the 1990s. While 75 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1945 federal election, only 61 per cent voted in the 2011 election.
The decline is not uniform across all age groups. Younger Canadians are significantly less likely to vote than older Canadians, and each generation is voting less than the last. In the 2011 federal election, 39 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots, compared with 70 per cent of those aged 55 and up. That electoral imbalance is creating a crisis of democratic legitimacy, Hayward said.
Teachers make a difference
Following the 2011 federal election, Elections Canada commissioned a national youth survey to investigate the causes of youth electoral engagement and non-engagement. The survey identified two kinds of barriers that inhibit youth from engaging in the electoral process —motivational barriers, or "getting to the door," and access barriers, or "getting through the door."
Motivational barriers, which are far more significant than access barriers, include a lack of knowledge of and interest in politics, a belief that all political parties are the same, a belief that none of the parties cares about issues of concern to youth and a lower sense of appreciation for voting.
Elections Canada used the survey results to develop two profiles — one of young non-voters and the other of young voters. In addition to exhibiting less knowledge of and interest in politics and other motivational barriers, young non-voters had few political influencers. In contrast, young voters discussed politics while growing up; they were contacted by candidates or political parties; and they were influenced by family, friends and politicians. They were also influenced by teachers.
"This is where you are already making an impact," Hayward told participants. "You are already modelling for [students] an engaged person, a politically engaged person, who wants to talk about politics, who is sincere to talk to about politics, who’s willing to answer questions."
Since it began in 2003, Student Vote has grown steadily to the point where 563,000 students in 3,750 schools cast ballots in the 2011 federal parallel election. Alberta mirrors that growth, with more than 92,000 students in 838 schools in every constituency participating in the 2015 parallel election that predicted, with uncanny accuracy, the general election results.
"You shattered records in the spring of this year," Hayward told participants. "We don’t want to play favourites or anything, but honestly, Alberta teachers are right now the most engaged teachers across the entire country."
Not only does the province have the highest registration rates, but 95 per cent of participating teachers also report the results of their parallel elections.
An independent evaluation of the program conducted in 2011 found that 99 per cent of teachers surveyed said that they would likely participate in Student Vote in the future, and 85 per cent reported that the program had increased their confidence in teaching civics.
Students reported improved political knowledge, increased interest in politics and increased dialogue with family.
"Every single one of those is a marker of a young voter," Hayward said.
While parents also reported improved political knowledge, increased interest in politics and increased dialogue with family, 20 per cent of them reported that their child’s participation in Student Vote had positively affected their decision to vote.
"Twenty per cent of parents ... may have gone to the polls because their kids were in Student Vote," Hayward said. "Imagine 20 per cent of your community votes because you’re talking to their kids about politics. That’s doing a really good thing in resolving the crisis of democratic legitimacy."