Our ability to make change ultimately falls in the hands of our elected leaders, so if you are going to protest now, make sure you vote later.
In the 2015 Canadian federal election, young voter turnout (between the ages of 18 and 24) was approximately 57%. When the remaining percentage were asked why they did not vote, nearly a third of youth stated they weren’t interested in politics or they were just too busy.
Give me a second to digest this – I’ll come back to this.
In the past few weeks, I have watched my fellow rightfully outraged millennials and gen Z’s marching down busy streets in their respective cities, protesting different forms of systemic injustice in our society. It was only last September, Greta Thunberg inspired over one million people to march in the name of climate all around the world. One would think that marching, sloganeering, and appearing eager to make change happen NOW would all appear to suggest that young people DO in fact care about issues political in nature, no?
As I sat in my living room watching the crowds make their way down the congested streets, I couldn’t help but wonder, how many of these people voted? Or will vote? While young voter turnout in the 2015 federal elections was much higher than previous elections, can we not do better than 57%? Are we saying that 43% of us don’t actually care?
Aaron Freeman, founder of GreenPAC and owner of Pivot Strategic Consulting, cited a few common reasons many young people do not vote: “It’s a very common notion among younger people, and generally among people who don’t vote, that the candidates are all the same, the parties are all the same, and it doesn’t actually make a difference.”
GreenPAC, founded by Freeman back in 2014, is a nonpartisan organization that helps to both elect and support environmental leaders in office. In addition to recruiting environmental leadership, GreenPAC offers a Parliamentary Internship program which places young environmentalists in the offices of MP’s that demonstrate environmental leadership. Mavis Chan, who participated in this program from 2018 to 2019, interned under the Honourable William Amos (Liberal), the MP for the Pontiac riding in western Quebec.
When asked why she feels young people might not vote, Chan said, “I think part of it is maybe cynicism of the political system, so not feeling like their vote would make a difference…I think there is a steep learning curve at the beginning where you’re just in your ‘baby adulthood’ where you have to grasp all these issues that are in an election campaign and you just don’t know where to start. Maybe some people have grown up in political households, but I think a lot of people don’t know where to start when they do have this right to vote.”
In the last few elections, the environment has been a key issue among young voters. “Getting credible environmental champions to run for office- and I’m talking from all parties across the spectrum- is critical if we want to inspire younger voters to show up at the polls,” Freeman says.
He continued, “[Environmental problems] extend beyond political mandates; they require a level of environmental literacy we don’t always have. What we [are] seeing, is when governments do deal with those kinds of problems, it usually boils down to one really important quality and that’s leadership.”
While not everyone can vote, there are other ways you can participate in a meaningful way. As Chan explained, “Everyone can make a difference in their own way; there are so many niches within the field. Some people are really good at fundraising and working for NGOs, and some people are good at being in the bureaucracy, and some people are good at political campaigning. We need all of it.”
Instead, we often direct our civic engagement in the wrong places. We virtue-signal our desired actions (in many cases without actually possessing said virtue). We decorate our social feeds with the latest campaign frames and hashtags to demonstrate our ‘wokeness’, or we click a button to LIKE and feel like we’ve actually participated in #meatlessmondays (or any other cause). We do this, I believe, to mask our disingenuity and desire to do the bare minimum. In reality, these kinds of actions arguably do very little – and many of us don’t show up where it really counts.
Now, protesting isn’t a bad thing – in fact, it’s a great thing. “There is importance to protesting in a way as it helps makes the issues really salient for policy makers and political leaders – to know that’s it’s important to their electorate,” says Chan, “I think those who are protesting on the outside are able to provide a completely different push to the political agenda.”
However, protesting Justin Trudeau’s approval of a pipeline expansion, when you didn’t exercise your civic duty to vote in the election that put him there in the first place, makes your words fall flat.
While protesting still has a purpose, the energy is lost unless we take it to the polls since our ability to make the kind of change that we want to see happen ultimately falls in the hands of our elected leaders. As Aaron Freeman said, “I think the protests that happened last year on climate change were inspiring, and the question really is – where are you going to take that? How are you going to convert that energy into meaningful results? …One of the most accessible ways we can create that change is by electing leaders. Certainly, if you look historically, that has been the X factor – that’s been what’s made the difference when we have made progress on the environment.”
I am not going to rant in this story about the Women’s Suffrage movement, or about the people in Sudan or Thailand who have had to fight for a free, and fair democracy. But I do think that we should recognize the vital power we hold toward making a change. That the power lies in our ability to choose our leadership. My point is, if you are going to protest now, make sure you vote later.