New Democrat MP Megan Leslie is using her time off from the House of Commons to re-connect with her riding this week. On Feb. 9, Leslie talked to a group of 30 students and community members about youth involvement in politics. The Dalhousie Political Science Society hosted the event.
According to a Statistics Canada report, Canadian voter turnout has dropped nearly 20 per cent in the last 20 years. It dropped below 60 per cent for the first time in the 2008 election.
Dr. Kristin Good, a political science professor at Dalhousie, says voter deference is to blame for the most part. In four years, Canadians have gone to the polls for three separate federal elections. In the same time period, there have also been two provincial elections and two municipal elections. With frequencies this high, many Nova Scotians have cast ballots more often than they’ve gone to the dentist.
Voter turnout is not the only thing in decline. Participation in all aspects of formal politics has dropped. The population hit hardest by the political apathy bug seem to be the youth. But Leslie says that dwindling voter turnout numbers can be misleading.
“Just because you’re not volunteering with the Liberals, or a card holding NDP member, or you’re not involved with electoral politics doesn’t mean you are not involved in politics. Student government, community engagement, and activism are all important parts of political culture,” she says.
Many Dalhousie students are involved in student groups such as Students Mobilize for Action on Campus (SMAC) and Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group (NSPIRG), which both have mandates to help promote grassroots politics and to develop political, social and cultural awareness on campus. SMAC and NSPIRG have recently been working with other campus groups such as Campus Action on Food (CAF) to provide alternative food options to students.
Sébastien Poissant Labelle is a member of NSPIRG. He says that last year’s “Stop NSPIRG” campaign dealt a serious blow to the activist movement on campus.
“What freedom do students groups have to be critical of student-run political institutions if what they say puts their group or some other group at financial risk?” asks Labelle.
One of NSPIRG’s goals is to maintain accountability between the students of Dalhousie. Labelle says they can’t perform that job to the best of their ability if the future of their budget is unclear. To maintain a healthy and vibrant student activist community at Dal, he believes NSPIRG needs to be able to act freely.
Jennifer Chisholm, president of the Dalhousie Political Science Society, says these interest groups have undeniable value on campus because they bring political discussion outside of the classroom and into a more social setting, which automatically makes politics more accessible to students.
Leslie also stressed that community matters.
“A politician can talk in the House of Commons until she’s blue in the face but if the community’s not behind her, nothing will get done. And the same goes in the community: They can get behind an issue but if the MP doesn’t then their voice won’t be heard,” she says. “Don’t assume that your MP knows the issue and is purposely ignoring it. He (or she) could just be ignorant on the matter.”
She says if the politician doesn’t know the facts, it’s the constituents’ job to inform him or her.
Leslie is still concerned with the growing mantra that one vote won’t change anything.
“I really believe that every vote does count. I really believe that every letter to an MP counts. I really believe that every community meeting counts.”