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Friday, June 18, 2010

Engaging youth in the democratic process: responses in a short interview

The following are my answers prepared for a short interview conducted as part of a course project by a Leduc school student.

1.) Do you see a problem in the democracy we have in Canada, where only 50-60% of eligible voters vote? Explain.
As you’ve correctly mentioned in your question, there is definitely a problem with low voter participation, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the core issue at play here. There are two issues that, to my mind, build up a serious crisis of the democratic system in Canada. First of all, there is a great disconnect between federal politics and federal politicians and the rest of Canada. Much of the time, politics is filled with discussions that are difficult to follow, language that is hard to understand, and issues that don’t always strike home for the voters. This makes many people annoyed and eventually disinterested in politics. The second major issue is the fact that our electoral system disregards the votes of millions of Canadians. The first-past-the-post system that we have is similar to the first-come-first-served system. If you’d voted for the candidate that came first, then your vote is important. If your candidate came one vote behind the leader, then the system couldn’t care less for your vote. As a result, we now have a federal government elected by 15% of the population. These issues together bring about political apathy and low voter turnout.

2.) Why do you believe Alberta has essentially only elected Conservative MP’s for the past 30+ years?
Well, one of the reasons is the undemocratic electoral system that I mentioned just now: in our riding of Edmonton-Leduc, the Conservative MP was elected in 2008 with 33,000 votes – there are over 100,000 voters living here. Another reason is that over almost half a century people in Alberta are being told again and again that this is Conservative country, that this is a Tory stronghold, that no one else stands a chance. If someone tells you something for decades, you might as well believe it. But I think that the situation is going to change. A very hopeful sign is the election of Linda Duncan in Edmonton-Strathcona. The Tories are visibly losing ground in other ridings in the province as well. In South-West Edmonton, in Leduc, in Devon, when I go door-knocking or when we organize public events, there are always new people that come up to me and say “Thank you for showing that the Conservative ideology is not the only one, that we have a choice.”

3.) When did you first start getting into politics? Why?
I first got into politics when I was 15.5 years old. I had just graduated from school, when I found out that the government of the region I was living in at the time had decided to build an oil refinery inside a protected area. That’s when I went right into battle to do my best to prevent this from happening.

4.) What did you do when you first started getting into politics?
At the time, I was helping local environmental and human-rights groups with leafleting, door-knocking, organizing events. We also created human chains to stop construction from starting. In the end, the local government backed down. The natural protected area is still there.

5.) Why did you join the political party you are now going to run for?
I have been with the New Democratic Party of Canada since 2006. I was doing my MA at the time and my field of research is actually political discourse, the language of political parties and leaders. The language, if you look at it closely, can reveal a lot about a person or a group. When I listened to or read Conservative and Liberal speeches and press releases, I felt that these parties do not stand for the values that I hold, they contained a lot of self-congratulation for the work well done, whereas those prepared by New Democrats were about real problems and real challenges faced by Canadians, such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, the cost of university education, quality of health care services etc.

6.) What motivated you to run for MP?
My basic answer is that it’s the best way to get to know your neighborhood. But seriously, when I moved to this riding, all I could hear about local politics was that this was a Tory wasteland and nothing anyone did would ever change that. When someone tells me that something cannot be done no matter how hard one tries, I don’t believe it. It’s just like the favorite Conservative lie about the New Democrats – “They will never form government”. The people of British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia have shown that it is not true, but the lie keeps going. Change is possible if you really try. I believe that Canada needs change from the arrogance and short-sightedness governing us now and that is why I initially sought nomination as NDP candidate in Edmonton-Leduc.

7.) Do you or your party have any plans to change the downward trend of eligible voters voting in Canadian elections?
Yes. The first step is opening wide debate about changing the electoral system so that the voice of a New Democrat or Liberal in this and other ridings is worth as much as the vote for the Conservative Party. I personally favor proportional representation, in which each party gets the same percentage of seats as the popular vote. The second step is making politics interesting again – greater accessibility of our elected representatives, making recall of MPs and MLAs possible, changing the way that political discussions are structured so that the language and the issues are closer to real life.

8.) What can a young voter do to be engaged with Canadian politics?
There are a lot of ways to get involved. You can organize events to discuss current issues. Write to your local newspaper when something is close to your heart. Participate as a volunteer in a candidate’s campaign. Write a blog on how decisions in Ottawa affect you and your family and friends. Most importantly, encourage people you talk to to vote, and once you are 18, you can vote as well.

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