Opinions

Are you(th) engaged?

written by Dalhousie Gazette Staff
January 24, 2010 10:34 pm

By Holly HuntleyStaff Contributor

During the event with Michael Ignatieff on Monday, Jan. 11, a student asked Ignatieff, “When youth political engagement is at an all time low, how do these attack ads give us something to believe in?”
Voter turnouts are low across all generations, but the second-year political science student who spoke forced me to ask: How can we increase youth political engagement? Why do I care?
I would like to live in a true democracy. One in which every single eligible person casts his or her vote. If Harper still wins, at least I would know that my country was full of nincompoops and there was nothing that could have been done differently.
So, I investigated the issue of youth political engagement further by asking Ignatieff during the media scrum: “How would you increase youth political engagement?”
“By showing up,” he replied. “By getting in a room with students and taking any question they ask you. That’s the key, I think, because that seems credible to them and we had a great turn out today. Then listening to students with respect. Listening to young people with respect. Being prepared to change your position if you’re wrong and then showing a vision about where you think the country ought to be in 2017.”
It all still seemed like an ego-massage to me.
How convenient that everything Ignatieff did on Monday is all that is required to politically engage youth.
When Stan Kutcher, the Liberal candidate for the Halifax federal riding, was asked about youth engagement he said, “The first thing is to respect young people, and I really mean respect young people, not pay lip service to young people. To provide opportunities for them to make their voice heard.”
Kutcher also says that meaningful youth engagement requires more dialogue between politicians and youth in order to be effective.
“Don’t just come to people and say what is on your mind and then leave,” Kutcher said. “What you do is you come, say what is on your mind, what your ideas are and then how can you stay involved with me so we can work on your ideas together.”
It was the lack of dialogue in Ignatieff’s response that was the erking me. But it was an interview with Kutcher’s son, Dan, a second-year Dalhousie law student, also a member of the Liberal Party, that made me realize students are engaged on many levels.
“The students’ questions reflected more than just university issues,” Dan Kutcher said. “It shows now that students have a broader outlook.”
Students questioned everything from the economy, to prorogation, to lack of Canadian environmental policy. Only a couple questions about specific student issues came up.
“I think it’s about taking the kids’ gloves off and not classifying (youth) as young people – classifying them as people who are learning and engaged and connected in a way that older generations aren’t connected,” Dan Kutcher said.
Many students were engaged and I was impressed. Approximately 400 people attended the Ignatieff event, but there were only enough chairs to seat 300. Even more surprising, hundreds more were turned away, and about 30 students lingered outside the event just to listen.
I had to wonder: Are youth actually less politically engaged? Or should I reconsider my traditional definition of political engagement? Voting and partisan commitment may be low, but what about other forms of political engagement?
Consider this: Have you made an ethical decision when purchasing something – for example, local versus fair trade? Or have you volunteered for something or someone you believe in? Or have you decided not to work for an organization or company that does not correspond with your values? These are all forms of political engagement and political decision-making.
Rob LeForte, DSU vice president (education), drew my attention to this.
“Direct political action isn’t required to be engaged in the political process,” said LeForte. “Sometimes people in social movements have more impact on policy development than somebody who is a member of a political party.”
I reconsidered my initial disappointment in low voter turnouts. Sometimes there isn’t a better option. Sometimes no matter whom you vote for, you will be left unsatisfied with his or her political platform. Perhaps the key is fostering these other forms of engagement and forcing each and every political leader to adapt to our values in these ways.
As long as you have a responsive government, this can be made possible. That’s another issue entirely.
But there is another important consideration for political parties attempting youth engagement.
“I believe that when people are trying to engage young people broadly they tend to sort of skew the line between student and youth,” LeForte said.
He believes this confusion can be problematic and might be the root of the problem political parties have when engaging youth. This might be crucial for politicians attempting to engage youth. They need to break the traditional idea that addressing student issues equates to addressing youth issues.
I drew a few different conclusions Ignatieff’s talk at Dal.
Youth and students cannot be clumped together and politically addressed as one. Students do more than just study, and not all youth chose to be students. Many students are politically engaged – some in the traditional sense and even more in the non-partisan sense. So while partisan participation can be extremely influential, non-partisan political engagement has the potential to be of a greater social influence.

Holly Huntley is a member of the Liberal Party of Canada. She interviewed her boss, Stan Kutcher, for this article.
Josh Boyter, Gazette Editor in Chief, took photos of Ignatieff’s speech for the Liberal Party.

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