Annelies Fujarczuk wasn’t affiliated with a political party until 2013, when a friend dragged her to one of Justin Trudeau’s speeches at the U of T Mississauga campus.
She can’t remember a lot of what Trudeau said that evening, but remembers that he acknowledged the campaign was going to be a lot of work and that he didn’t seem like the idealist his political opponents accused him of being.
“As soon as he was done speaking, I was in,” said Fujarczuk, a master’s student of professional communications at Ryerson University. “I liked his passion.”
Two years later Fujarczuck is still committed. She helped out by canvassing for a provincial candidate during the last election and eventually became an active member of the Young Liberals. “Hearing Justin Trudeau speak is a religious experience,” she says.
Despite concerns that youth are apathetic and uninterested in politics, there are some who are actively engaged in the political process — if you look for them in the right places.
Fujarczuk is one of thousands of young people who claim membership in a political party.
They sit on party executive councils and policy committees, vote for party leaders, and campaign on behalf of party candidates.
They are members of the parties’ youth wings. They are passionate, engaged and committed to their party platforms.
They are not, admittedly, the norm. Political parties just don’t resonate with most young people, and this shows up in voting patterns.
“A lot of people have a distrust towards party politics,” said Brynn Harlock, co-chair of the Ontario New Democratic Party Youth. “Of course, I understand where that comes from, a history of past people not being spoken for or in favour of those in power.”
Nearly 36 per cent of those under the age of 30 can be classified as intermittent non-voters compared with just 10 per cent of those 50 and over, according to a 2004 study by Inspire Democracy — an Elections Canada initiative.
The report suggests that young people have less allegiance to political parties and therefore will vote only when they feel engaged.
Elections Canada released a working paper series on electoral engagement after the 2011 federal election. It linked loss of interest in political parties among young people with their decision to stay away from the polls on election day: “Because they tend not to identify with any party, they often do not have clear preferences among them, and the incentives to go to vote are therefore weaker,” the report says.
This unwillingness to identify with political parties shows up on the ground.
The Ontario New Democratic Party is the only provincial youth wing that is even able to put a number to its membership and the total comes in at only 800 people in the province. When they are in university, students are often bombarded with political paraphernalia, yet at Ryerson the on-campus Young Liberals and Campus Conservatives each only have about 30 members.
In a recent survey of undergraduates from the University of Toronto, Ryerson, George Brown, and OCAD, over 30 per cent of respondents agree or strongly agree that federal political parties don’t interest them.
The poll, conducted by Ryerson journalism students, also found that 32 per cent of respondents were indifferent to political parties whereas just seven per cent said they are interested in political parties. Over the last year, only 13 per cent of respondents said they donated to a political party or a social cause.
Elections Canada data tell a similar story when it comes to formal political participation: only 38.8 per cent of young people voted in the 2011 federal election.
Political veterans say there is reason to be concerned when young people stay away from parties in droves. Marie Bountrogianni, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister and current dean at Ryerson’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, says youth involvement keeps ideas fresh.
“It’s an important balance. You need the young people in spirit and the optimism. When you’ve been in politics a long time, people were jaded, or they’ve seen it all and they can be negative,” she said.
Bountrogianni, who didn’t get involved with the provincial Liberals until she was older, says she was in awe of the young people she encountered back when she was an opposition critic keeping watch on the province’s Conservative minister of training, colleges and universities.
“I mostly spoke with students, not just young Liberals … they were very open. Many of them wanted tuition freezes which we did do for two years (after the Liberals came to power),” she said. “I don’t think any of that would have gotten in the agenda.”
Olivia Chow, a former NDP MPP and distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson, says that there are many ways to get politically involved as a young person.
“I think young people should connect to an issue they are passionate about and ask the question: who makes these decisions?” she said. “Who has the power to take the issues they’re concerned about and to make it happen?”
A number of prominent Canadian politicians began their careers as youth wing members. They include former minister of foreign affairs John Baird, MP and Treasury Board President Tony Clement, former Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff, former prime minister Jean Chrétien, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Ignatieff told The Ryersonian that his time as a young Liberal helped shape his own vision of politics and gave him the courage to go forward.
“I knocked on doors for (former prime minister Lester) Pearson and then worked as national youth organizer for (former prime minister Pierre) Trudeau in 1968,” he said in an email.
“Without these experiences, I would never have run for public office myself, and I hope Ryerson students will step up and run — for whatever party. If you don’t, the bad guys win.”
The constitutions of each political party in Canada all indicate young people are a priority. Delegates chosen by the youth wings — the Young Liberal Party, the Young Campus Conservatives, and the Young New Democratic Party — sit on provincial and national councils.
They are also able to attend annual conventions and vote on policy issues but because they are under the age of 26, they are lumped into the “young” category.
Meanwhile, for those who are enthralled with Canadian political parties, elections can be incredibly exciting.
Just ask Fujarczuk, who is already getting ready for Oct. 19, 2015. “Everything from 2013 to now is just one spectacular red day,” she says. “There are votes with young people. Why would you rule them out?”
Do young party activists actually get heard? They say ‘yes,’ but the mechanisms seem to vary
Conservative Party of Canada
This is the only party with a constitution that doesn’t make it mandatory for a youth representative to be on the national council. Instead, it states that one delegate must “reflect youth participation.”
“While there is no direct link between our campus association and policies created by the party, that does not mean that it does not have any influence for the party,” said Philip Menocola, events co-ordinator with the Ryerson Campus Conservatives.
He says average turnout for a group event is about 15 and cites Ontario’s provincial Conservative leadership race — candidates have met with students to discuss issues — as an example of the campus group’s engagement with the provincial party.
Liberal Party Of Canada
The Liberal party’s constitution says that youth representatives will be active on the national and provincial councils, attend annual meetings, and sit on policy committees. Matthew Barnes, president of the Ryerson Young Liberals, insists that he and other younger members are listened to.
“You don’t join the party and then wait for some closed door to open up and they say, ‘here’s our policy,’” said Barnes. The legalization of marijuana, a platform plank voted on at the Liberal party’s annual convention in 2012, was presented by the youth wing, as was a death with dignity policy resolution. Both resolutions were adopted.
Justin Kaiser, president of the Young Liberals of Canada, says that the party welcomes volunteers and doesn’t require them to join and pay for memberships.
“We wanted to remove any barriers for people to get involved in Young Liberals,” he said.
Canada’s New Democratic Party
The NDP constitution indicates that young members may submit resolutions for conventions at a provincial and national level, in addition to having representation on councils. However, Paula Krasiun-Winsel, co-chair of the Young New Democrats of Canada (YNDC), admits she can’t remember the last time a resolution written by a member of the YNDC was passed at a convention.
“It’s really easy to get lost inside the machine and become accepting of the way they are,” said Krasiun-Winsel.
Often, Krasiun-Winsel says, the young wings take it upon themselves to campaign for issues outside of the party. For example, an August 2014 campaign changed the traditionally sympathetic stance the NDP have towards Palestinians, to focus on civilian casualties and to not pick a side in the conflict.