TORONTO — Just before the psychology class begins, Kyle Visvanathan bounds to the podium. His enthusiasm catches the attention of the few dozen students seated in the lecture hall in early September.
“Hey everyone, raise your hand if you know there’s a federal election in October,” Visvanathan begins. About half do.
“Raise your hand again if you plan on voting!”
A few more hands shoot up.
Visvanathan, 23, dives in as the University of Toronto Scarborough class listens intently — “We are collecting pledges to vote, to show politicians our generation is mobilizing. Baby boomers and corporations may have more money than we do, but we have the people.”
He’s one of hundreds of young people deployed on campuses from Charlottetown, P.E.I. to Nanaimo, B.C. by the new non-partisan organization Future Majority. Its aim is to get the country’s largest voting bloc — Canadians aged 18 to 38, making up 37 per cent of the population — out to the polls Oct. 21.
“We have the power to make sure our voices get heard and politicians seriously address these issues that are squeezing our lives — climate change, the unaffordable housing market, mountains of student debt,” Visvanathan says.
By the end of his pitch, he’s enticed a number of students to pull out their phones and scan a laminated printout of an oversized QR code, directing them to Future Majority’s website to make their pledge.
As of Tuesday, about 10,000 people have registered — on track for Future Majority’s goal of 80,000 pledges by Election Day, said Tyler Valiquette, one of the organization’s five founders.
“We’re a group of young, millennial Canadians who wanted to see serious change happen in our country and are tired of the status quo in Parliament,” Valiquette said. “We started Future Majority six or seven months ago, and it has exploded. Nobody else in Canada is doing anything like us.”
Future Majority is present on more than 20 university and colleges and will have about 20 organizers and close to 300 canvassers by Oct. 5, when voting begins on some campuses, making it “one of the largest field efforts in Canada,” said Valiquette. It has a partnership with Environmental Defence Canada, and receives funding from the Ivey Foundation and David Suzuki Foundation, as well as private donors.
The organizers, including volunteers and staff like Visvanathan, direct students to Future Majority’s website and educational materials, including a map tool that shows the size of each riding’s eligible voting population between 18 and 34. Future Majority will soon be launching “microsites” that explain how, where and why to vote, a quiz to help young voters figure out which party they want to support, and a page called, “WTF does the prime minister do?”
“We want to help young people realize how much power they have in the election,” Valiquette said.
Since the 1980s, Canada’s youngest voters have failed to turn out for federal elections in the same droves as their older counterparts, according to a parliamentary information report in October 2016. There was slight progress in the 2015 federal election. Fifty-seven per cent of 18 to 34 year olds voted, up about 15 per cent from 2011, but still below the national average of 61 per cent voter turnout.
Young people are more likely to vote if they are confident in their knowledge of politics, trust the political system, and feel engaged in the election process, the report said.
Walking around the University of Toronto Mississauga campus, Future Majority organizer Sarah Hassanein talks to a lot of students who don’t know there’s an upcoming election. Prospective MPs haven’t visited the campus with 16,000 students, she said.
“Nobody has made an effort. It’s really shocking to me,” Hassanein said. “It’s easy to ignore a population that isn’t making noise, but I think young people are here and for the first time they’re powerful.”
This election could be different.
For the first time, Elections Canada is opening 121 offices at 109 campuses Oct. 5 to 9 for students to register and vote by special ballot, following a successful 2015 pilot project. The schools selected each have more than 4,000 students eligible to vote.
Young Canadians are engaged in politics. More than half discuss politics face-to-face and online, and follow politicians on social media, compared to 40 per cent of Canadians over the age of 30, according to a recent report by the Samara Centre for Democracy. They’re also more likely to attend political meetings, give political speeches and volunteer for a political party.
The increased interest could have something to do with U.S. President Donald Trump, and environmental issues, said Samara research director Michael Morden.
“Maybe global political change has grabbed people’s attention, but they’re also bringing it back and investing in Canadian politics,” he said.
To capture the young vote, the party leaders need to ease insecurities about the future, said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.
“Who can offer some hope we can deal with climate change, make housing more affordable, provide good jobs with good pay, and maybe even a pension?” Coletto said. All parties appear to be more focused on this bloc than previous elections, with leaders already talking about making changes to tuition fees, parental leave, and how Canada addresses the climate crisis.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Wednesday, at his campaign launch, he’ll be rolling out a platform “designed” for Canadians to feel confidence in their future.
“We move forward on the most ambitious leadership ever seen by a Canadian government on protecting the environment, at the same time we continue to prepare for future prosperity of families right across the country,” Trudeau said. “These are the things young Canadians expect of me and all Canadians expect of me.”
Kaytie Newby, 22, works two part-time jobs to help cover living expenses as she completes her degree in international development studies at the University of Toronto. She said people like her are angry — about housing, the cost of living, climate change and “hateful populism that’s happening in the U.S. and Canada.”
What’s special about her generation, she said, is they think bigger than their individual problems.
“It’s about us (collectively) and what’s going to get us through to the future,” Newby said, who volunteers for Future Majority on the Scarborough campus. “Personally, I’m looking for someone who genuinely cares about the issues, not because it’s trendy.”
Shyal Ahmed is also a Future Majority volunteer, although he can’t vote in this election because he’s not a Canadian citizen. The 19-year-old environmental studies student just returned from visiting his home of Bangladesh, and is fired up to make a difference.
“I can barely recognize my country anymore,” Ahmed said. “It’s so hot right now, plus pollution is increasing and deforestation is so much at this time. It’s worrying me.”
He said he hopes young people vote for a stronger climate change plan that will set an example and help curb global warming in smaller countries like Bangladesh.
Ahmed and Newby will be part of Visvanathan’s team, informing students, many of whom are already engaged in school clubs, causes and studies, that voting is the next step in making a difference.
“For the first time, we feel like we have the power,” Visvanathan said. “These issues aren’t partisan. They’re our future.”
With files from Zi-Ann Lum.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that Future Majority has a partnership with Environmental Defence Canada.