By Chelsey Gould
Noah Parker was a busy student at Ryerson University up until his graduation in May 2018. Besides being a business management student and faculty representative on the RSU’s board of directors, the Liberal supporter could often be found making phone calls, sending emails and doing what he calls a “big ticket” item in campaign strategy – canvassing door-to-door.
He says it is all about getting the message out. “I found personally the best conversations happen at the doorstep,” he says. “Elections are won or lost at the doorstep, and any Canadian election victor – and losers – will tell you that.”
The reality is that political parties need young people like Parker to win elections. Young people are more likely to have the flexible schedules needed for campaign work. They are tech savvy in an era when social media and targeted voting is increasingly the norm. And they help parties keep in touch with the next generation of voters, because young volunteers tend to become members, influencing policy-making decisions and electing leaders.
“If there’s representation of youth in the membership of the party, then it’s more likely that policies that reflect youth’s issues and issues that are important to youth will be reflected in party mandates and platforms,” says Adelina Petit-Vouriot, an analyst with Samara Canada, an advocacy group that researches Canada’s democracy. “The average age [of party members is] late 50s, early 60s, so it’s a pretty ingrained group, and that does distort the information that makes it to the political executive and the members in the local party association executive.”
A January 2019 Samara Centre for Democracy survey found that 26 per cent of respondents aged 18-29 had volunteered for a party or candidate, compared to 18 per cent of those aged 30-55 and 16 per cent of those over 56.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says that she was impressed with young people’s engagement and competence to talk public policy in the latest Ontario NDP campaign.
“I can remember when I was that age, and I was a little bit nervous to knock on people’s doors straight up and just start talking politics,” she said. “We see too many instances where people talk about young people, but not with young people. They talk about the future but they don’t make sure the future is happening right now. And so [young people’s support] brings energy to our campaigns, it brings thoughtfulness, and it brings a perspective that sometimes wouldn’t be there if the young people weren’t engaged.”
Jonathan Espie, past president of the provincial Liberal association in Toronto Centre, acknowledges that young people are invaluable to the riding’s team. As an example, he pointed to the mobile apps that are replacing clipboards during canvasses, which can be difficult for older people. Young people are often more comfortable than their older counterparts when it comes to using apps to track their canvassing progress and voter information.
He said students can also fill in volunteer time that working adults cannot: “A lot of people could maybe give a day to a week, whereas students’ schedules are more flexible and they’re able to go in more often.”
Keyaan Nejad, a politics and governance student involved with the Ryerson Campus Conservatives, says the group receives messages during election time from candidates looking for volunteers and members will sometimes organize canvass runs themselves. The door-to-door work, he said, is a great way for new people to dip their toes into party politics.
“[Volunteering for campaigns] offer[s] the step in the right direction to get that experience, you’re not committing to anything huge,” Nejad said. “If you see that you are not enjoying it, or you don’t like it, you could always stay home the next time. Or you can go campaign for a Liberal or an NDP.”
Keyaan Nejad, 21, is an executive member of the Ryerson Campus Conservatives. After switching to Ryerson from George Brown College in order to study politics and governance, he got involved with the group in his first year in the lead up to the 2018 provincial election.
While political parties benefit from the involvement of young people, young people can also benefit from political involvement. By the time Parker graduated in 2018, for instance, he had worked in the offices of former Ontario finance minister Charles Sousa and Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, back when Vaughan was parliamentary secretary to the prime minister for intergovernmental affairs. Parker, who is still involved with the Toronto Centre Liberals today besides being an entrepreneur, said volunteering for the Liberal party really paid off and presented him with great opportunities for his resume.
“[The party really is] a meritocracy,” he says. “You earn your stripes, you put in your hours and they’ll notice you.”
Carl Qiu, president of the Ontario PC Youth Association, says campaigning helps a young person learn how to deal with criticism and that is useful training for the workplace. There’s no better training ground for criticism, he said, than going out to canvass and having a door slammed in your face.
He also offered advice for young people contemplating a leap into the political fray, noting that getting involved with the party does not mean having to totally agree with its stance on every issue.
“I have colleagues in the party who I will fundamentally disagree with them on everything, from pro-life stances, or whatever,” he says. “But the reason why I’m a Conservative is it comes from my business background and learning how to really be fiscally responsible… I’ve always said that the thing about politics is, you’re never going to find the exact fit for anyone. But what you can find is that politics is all about compromise, right?”
Noah Parker graduated Ryerson University last year and has experience working in the provincial and federal offices of Liberal politicians. He is involved with the Toronto Centre Provincial Liberal Association.
Carl Qiu is president of the Ontario PC Youth Association. He has a business background and is a graduate of University of Toronto.
Dan Zister, a former secretary of the provincial Liberal association in Toronto Centre who once ran to represent Wellington-Halton Hills at Queen’s Park, urged young people with an interest in party politics to start out by becoming involved in non-partisan political associations on campus as an alternative.
“Anyone who comes to first year, second year university and thinks that they know what party they’re with and they’re 100 per cent certain… I think they’re just misguided,” he says. “They should look at all the parties.”