Benjamin Mowat has been a student at both the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University for two years, but he’s no stranger to politics.
As soon as he graduated from high school, he began work on Olivia Chow’s campaign for mayor of Toronto, where he lived at the time.
“And that was an incredibly rewarding experience, working for a leftist cause,” he says.
Now, Mowat is the events coordinator for the Nova Scotia Young New Democrats, a group he became involved with in January of 2017.
The Young New Democrats aren’t hard to get involved with – membership in the party is only five dollars. There’s also a free campus club at Dal – but it can still be difficult to bring students in.
Mowat attributes the challenge to conflicting commitments and the fact that politically engaged students might be more interested in student union politics.
“The student unions in Halifax take up a lot of room, and they focus a lot of energy onto those causes,” he says, referring to issues such as free tuition, a cause championed by the Canadian Federation of Students.
Other political groups have found it challenging to get youth engaged.
Dominick Desjardins, the current president of the Nova Scotia Young Liberals, says that students often feel like “there’s nothing in politics for them.”
“They feel like they might not be able to make a change, or positive change, and I think that’s wrong,” he says.
The Nova Scotia Young Liberals function similarly to the Young New Democrats, but boast larger numbers. They host events with local MPs and MLAs, draft policies to present to the Liberal party, and make sure youth voices are heard.
Desjardins considered himself politically engaged when he was younger, but got more involved during university.
“I found that being active politically got my voice out there,” he says.
According to Ray Anjoul, the current acting director for the Nova Scotia Young Liberals, it’s only recently that they’ve been able to once again build a strong presence on university campuses. At campuses like Dal, it’s easy to get people to come to events, but harder at smaller schools like Mount Saint Vincent University.
“If you don’t engage them in a specific way, it’s very hard for them to come back,” Anjoul says, adding that while some youth are interested in policy, “there’s also a lot of youth that just want to have fun.”
They try to make their events fun for students, providing food and inviting local MLAs and MPs to speak.
Similarly, second-year Dalhousie student Aaron Sophocleous had to rebuild a political society where there was a void. He re-started the Dalhousie Campus Conservatives in his first year. Since then, their membership has grown from three members to approximately 25.
Sophocleous, who serves as president of the group, says they’ve been successful in using social media to advertise their club.
He thinks students are timid about getting involved with political groups and aren’t always aware of the differences between parties.
“In addition, I believe that some students may fear that if they get involved with a political party that is not in power that they may have issues in the future, or be judged,” he says.
Hannah Porter, the secretary of the club, helps to promote their society on campus. She admits it can be difficult because Nova Scotia isn’t very conservative. But she considers herself strong in her beliefs and isn’t bothered by anyone who might disagree.
Porter says that joining a political society, or any society, has potential career benefits, even for students that don’t plan on becoming politicians.
“I see myself working for the party itself, working for the better cause,” she says.
Porter and Sophocleous both recently completed an internship with the Conservative Party of Canada. During the internship, Porter met prominent Conservatives such as Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier, and Rona Ambrose.
Working for a political party, or becoming a politician, is a common dream for the students involved with these political groups.
Sophocleous hopes to become a politician eventually, and Mowat says joining a political society gets your foot in the door of working in politics.
“This is a direct portal to getting jobs on campaigns, to getting jobs working for provincial parties, to getting jobs writing about politics,” says Mowat.
Despite differing ideologies, the three groups are friendly with each other, save for the occasional “heated words” according to Mowat, at political events.
The Young New Democrats plan on arranging a series of talks at high schools in Halifax to inform students about their campus group and the party. They’re hoping the Young Progressive Conservatives and Young Liberals will join in, too.
Mowat wants as many people as possible to come to events, and be politically engaged, even if they don’t support the NDP.
“We just want to see young people involved,” he says.