It’s the first day of October and the leaves are turning colour on Ryerson University’s downtown Toronto campus. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, 22, one of the most visible figures to emerge from Quebec’s student protests, is visiting as part of a cross-country tour to share the lessons of his province’s “Maple Spring.”
Bob Marley’s 1973 classic call-to-action anthem, “Get Up, Stand Up,” plays on loudspeakers in one of the school’s central courtyards.
Most of the Ryerson students in the area seem to have no idea a rally is planned. An on-stage organizer calls on the crowd to come closer to the platform and join in some chants. A few uncertain students shuffle forward.
Nadeau-Dubois looks on from the sidelines, drawing on a cigarette. Though he’s a front-page figure of some fame in Quebec, it seems few students here know who he is. Later this day, he’ll visit Toronto’s York University to lead a seminar on how Quebec’s students successfully blocked a bid to hike tuition fees and helped bring down former premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government.
At York, however, the turnout is even less impressive. The roughly 20 people in attendance, half from the media, do not come close to filling the room.
“It's clearly the smallest event of our tour,” GND, as he’s known in Quebec, said. “We were more than 150 in London, we're expecting a lot more people tonight at Ryerson, there are already 300 tickets sold in Vancouver.”
Even as he speaks, hundreds of students nearby swarm around fast-food kiosks and tap away on their phones in a scene that closely resembles a mall. If the fight is between capitalism and political activism, it’s not hard to see which side is winning.
TALKIN’ ’BOUT MY GENERATION
If you’re a member of Generation Y, chances are your parents are baby boomers.
And if your parents are baby boomers, chances are you’ve heard them boast about how they changed the world.
Civil rights, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution and protests against the Vietnam War are the legends millennials grew up with.
Today, many boomers bemoan their progeny’s political apathy, and you might agree had you attended some of the stops on GND’s recent tour, despite the best efforts of a few believers.
At York, GND is joined by Cloé Zawadzki-Turcotte, another prominent figure in the Quebec student strikes, and Ethan Cox, a political organizer and writer for the website Rabble. They explain how to organize an effective student movement. Leaders of York’s Marxist and socialist groups listen intently. A young woman with wood spacers in her ears doodles in all caps, “IT’S YOUR CHANCE FOR REVENGE. THIS WILL SHOW THEM.”
Asked if Ontario students lack purpose compared with their Quebec counterparts, GND is hopeful.
“If I remember two years ago in Quebec, we were exactly the same thing. Students were apathetic, they were cynical, not interested in politics,” he said. “It's something that can change very fast. Minds can open really fast to an injustice. It only takes people that work and go see them in order to convince them to mobilize.”
STORY CONTINUES BELOW SLIDESHOW
GND saw young people rise up in Quebec, but the numbers suggest the rest of Canada’s millennials remain firmly planted in their seats.
In fact, it has become something of a cliché that youth today simply do not vote.
“In the 1960s, newly eligible voters participated at a rate of 70 per cent; by the 2000s, it was in the 30 per cent range,” said Alison Loat, co-founder and executive director at Samara, a charity that works to improve political engagement in Canada.
Indeed, just 38.8 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 cast a ballot in the last federal election, compared with the overall Canadian turnout of 61.1 per cent. Interestingly, however, 74 per cent of millennials polled by Abacus Data and HuffPost said regular voting in elections is “very important” to being a good citizen.
Voter turnout is an important indicator of civic engagement, but other forms of political participation, while notoriously hard to measure, are perhaps more important to understanding Generation Y.
ELECTORAL CYNICISM vs. POLITICAL CYNICISM
GND thinks it is important to make a distinction between “electoral cynicism and political cynicism.”
“I think a lot of young people don’t recognize themselves in those old parties, in this big show that has become politics,” he said. “They prefer to do politics in another way.”
HuffPost’s poll of Canadian millennials suggests he's on to something. Just 15 per cent of millennials said active participation in political parties was a very important part of citizenship (behind donation to charities and involvement in social groups).
Generation Y gets involved in other ways.
“When you look at young people, they’re more involved than ever before in community organization, single-issue causes, NGOs, activism,” Liberal leadership front-runner Justin Trudeau, clad in his youth-friendly campaign uniform of jeans, blazer and wide open dress shirt, said at a Toronto event hosted by Facebook in mid-October.
The conference room for his appearance at the Art Gallery of Ontario ran out of chairs for all the journalists in attendance. For a political event, the crowd was young.
Reporters in hipster threads darted back and forth in front of the stage, taking photos with their iPhones as Trudeau intoned on Generation Y’s frustration with politics.
“They’re interested. They just don’t feel that politics is a worthy use of their time,” he said.
Research from Samara has found those under 35 are actually more likely to take part in protests, volunteer, organize public events and participate in specific-issue groups than their elders and are “twice as likely to engage in political discussion online,” Loat said.
Conversely, she said, those over 35 are “more likely to belong and donate to political parties, volunteer in election campaigns and attend political meetings.”
So why are Canadian young people alienated from traditional politics?
“We’re in a very negative circle, a vicious circle in politics right now, where politicians don’t reach out to young people, so young people don’t bother paying attention to them; they don’t vote, therefore politicians reach out even less,” Trudeau said.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO
Does a lack of youth engagement worry boomer Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the ruling Conservatives? Or are they benefiting from millennial apathy?
“Harper picked the date for the last election to be on May the 2nd deliberately … the entire campaign would take place during the month of April, which is exam period,” said Paikin. “If you’re focused on exams, you’re not thinking of the issues of the election and maybe you’ll forget to vote.”
While the 21-year-old student grad student at the University of Toronto can only guess at Harper’s motivations, it is a near certainty the Tories would be hurt if more young people started to vote.
The NDP, at 36 per cent support, sits nine points ahead of the Conservatives in support among decided millennial voters, according to the Abacus/HuffPost poll. The Tories, at 27 per cent, lead the Liberals by just three points with Generation Y voters.
Only in Alberta and the Prairies do young Canadians favour the Tories over the NDP.
And one of those Alberta Conservatives urges millennials to get more involved in the political process.
At 32, Michelle Rempel is the youngest MP in the Tory caucus and a vocal champion of youth engagement.
The representative for Calgary Centre-North wants young Canadians to know it has never been easier to run for office.
“I think that a lot of people … especially in that age group, need to understand the uniqueness of the Canadian political system, in that it is so suited for anyone, of any age, to get involved and make a difference,” Rempel said, referring to the relatively low cost of campaigns compared with the U.S. system.
“I think we saw that in the last election. We have a very young Parliament compared to where we've been at historically. And I think that's a really, really good thing. … I think the categorization of that group as completely apathetic is false.”
Just ask Pierre-Luc Dusseault, one of several Gen Y’ers elected to Parliament in 2011 on the NDP’s Orange Wave. He was only 19 when he became the youngest MP in Canada’s history.
Now 21, the representative for Sherbrooke says students he spoke to on a recent campus tour related one major barrier to becoming politically involved: Time.
“Some people tell us that they have too many things to do, they are at university, they are working, it’s very hard for them to be involved in something else,” Dusseault said. “Today with the tuition fee higher, people have to work to make university.”
But that argument holds little weight for Paikin, who thinks it is actually easier for youth to get involved in politics because they generally don’t face the prospect of a career pay cut or responsibilities of marriage and children.
One thing it seems everyone agrees on is that the issue most likely to mobilize Generation Y is paying for boomers’ retirement while struggling to match their standard of living.
Changes to entitlements – in health care and pensions – and fears about the economy came up over and over again during research for this story.
“We’re going through a demographic crisis right now,” Paikin said. “My generation is going to care, first and foremost, about the economy and how they are going to be able to make ends meet – and particularly about how they’re going to be able to carry the load of a society and of an economy that’s going to be more and more expensive as time goes on.”
Something has to give.
Citing figures from the C.D. Howe Institute, Paikin said that “there is going to be a necessity to double everyone’s income taxes to pay for these things [pensions and health care] if we don’t engage in service reform over the near future.”
It’s exactly this issue that the government is most focused on, Rempel said, citing changes to Old Age Security in the most recent budget.
She touts the increase in the eligibility age for OAS from 65 to 67 as proof that the Tories are working to ensure Canada’s pension programs will be around for Generation Y.
But many have criticized the government for waiting until 2029 for full implementation of the change, allowing the vast majority of boomers to retire unaffected.
Moreover, the retirement age hike does not jibe with the hopes and aspirations of millennials polled by Abacus for HuffPost. One in four respondents said they want to retire before they are 60, although just 17 per cent expect it to happen.
“We all know that the votes are largely with the older generations,” Paikin said. “You’re not going to want to cut massively into people’s pensions or into their health-care services if you want to get re-elected at this point in time.”
“My generation needs to worry about that, and that’s why they need to get off their butts.”
A NASCENT POLITICAL FORCE
Could the dissatisfaction with the legacy left by the boomers be the very force that leads Generation Y to engage politically on the same scale as their parents?
Could the lack of voter turnout among young people be a sign of mounting frustration with the political status quo? Could that angst manifest itself in a massive popular movement?
There’s no shortage of issues keeping Generation Y awake at night, but one stands out above all others. The vast majority — 57 per cent — of millennials polled for HuffPost ranked finding good jobs among the top three most important issues facing their generation. Nearly one in three, 29 per cent, said it was the most important issue.
"Don't underestimate the power of this generation to use its size and its influence to get what it wants," Abacus’ David Coletto said.
"From a political perspective, from a broader perspective, it does present challenges for government as they try to figure out how to deal with this feeling of angst that exists.”
Just look at Quebec, where millennials are the least likely to think membership in a political party is important, according to the Abacus/HuffPost poll. Samara’s research has found Quebecers are “least satisfied with how Canadian democracy is working,” according to Loat.
Could it be a coincidence that students took to the streets by the thousands in the same province where cynicism about the political system is highest?
It was a crisis of fairness, both at home and abroad, that turned a generation of pot-smoking hippies into political activists. Perhaps it will take a similar crisis to light the fire of political activism in Generation Y.
Maybe the voice of Canadian boomers had it right all along: “Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.”
With files from Althia Raj
— Abacus Data has focused research on the Canadian Millennial. Read more here.
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