Voter turnout across the country is hitting all-time lows, polling shows Canadians lack confidence in their political institutions and our Prime Minister is among the least trusted leaders in the Western hemisphere. The past year’s numerous spending scandals and a third prorogation of Parliament only add fuel to the fire of public discontent many Canadians expressed by mobilizing en masse like never before — Occupy, Québec’s Printemps Érable and Idle No More saw thousands hit the streets. In this age of rapid communication, some believe Canadians are losing patience with traditional institutional channels of political engagement, turning to more individualized and informal activities instead.
A study released this summer surveyed 2,287 Canadian adults and found that Canadians aged 18-34 were more politically engaged than their elders over the past year in every category of activity — online discussion, offline discussion, activism, civic engagement — except for formal political engagement. This includes contacting elected officials and attending political meetings, and partisan activities like making political donations or volunteering for a political party or candidate.
A whopping 59 percent of survey respondents didn’t participate in any such formal political activity. Youth polled were only slightly more disengaged from formal methods of engagement (66%) than those over 35 (56%), though the smaller number that reported attending protests or demonstrations did so twice as much (21% vs. 11%, respectively). Outside formal politics, over half of participants said they were active in a community group (58%) or had volunteered with an organization (55%), and nearly half reported having signed a petition (51%) or boycotted a product (49%).
The study, titled Lightweights? Political Participation Beyond the Ballot Box, was produced by Samara Canada, a research organization that studies and encourages citizen engagement with Canada’s democracy. Executive Director Alison Loat says the numbers shed light on the different ways people get engaged in politics outside of voting. “Part of what we tried to do with Lightweights is show it’s not just during elections that we can be political, and in fact, to make democracy work, we have to think of the actions we do everyday.”
Dr. Henry Milner, author of The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts, attributes these numbers to a growing and potentially worrying trend toward political activity that is more individualized, especially online. “Choosing your own cause, your own timing, your own tactics, it’s hard to do anything coherent and lasting,” he warns, adding that, though it’s natural — especially for youth —to gravitate towards mobilizing informally and through online channels, this activity doesn’t necessarily contribute to concrete political outcomes. “Politics takes time and requires compromises.”
“This is my sense of what happened in Quebec. [The students] could have had a compromise, but the movement got out of control,” Milner continues. “Ultimately, all you could say is no; there was no way for the students to say yes unless absolutely everything was given.”
“We need to get over our obsession with instant gratification,” says Youri Cormier, Executive Director of youth engagement group Apathy is Boring. “Democracy is not as fast and energetic as people taking to the streets, but it has achieved, in one or two generations, the kind of progress that used to take hundreds of years and lots of political violence.”
Unfortunately, Canadians are choosing to opt out of formal democratic processes due to feeling let down by the system and politicians for either not meeting expectations or simply not listening. Samara’s survey showed that 75% of Canadians agreed or strongly agreed that “candidates for public office are interested only in people’s votes, not their opinions.” Loat noted that in a previous report from 2012, “the only passing grade [MPs received from survey participants] was for representing their political party, which is among the least important things Canadians think MPs should be doing.”
Paradoxically, those who don’t vote lose the attention of politicians, who then don’t represent their views in parliament. The vicious cycle continues.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, but there has to be pressure and change from both sides,” says Loat. She suggests that political parties, funded by grants from the government and public donations, could be doing more to engage electors. “Wouldn’t it be great if political parties had to report every year based on how well they engaged the public? There’s really a message here for political parties: [in order] to remain relevant, part of their function is to be open and participatory to the public.”
For other ideas, Canada could look to Scandinavian countries, which have markedly higher levels of political participation. Milner’s research indicates that strong civic education programs in secondary schools, subsidized public television and radio, fixed election dates, and proportional electoral systems are all contributing factors — and areas where Canada is lacking.
A lack of civic engagement through designated channels doesn’t necessarily signal a lack of public interest; it means something is broken. Ultimately, any solution to such a long-standing quagmire will require more nuance than the tired mantra of “go vote”.
This text originally appeared in print in the November-December Year in Review issue of THIS Magazine.