December 14, 2008

What's the story about youth apathy?


By Johan Boyden, Toronto

For young people, the 2008 federal election could have been a critical arena of struggle to curb the vicious neo-liberal offensive of the Harper Conservatives. However, many young people did not respond by voting. In fact, in an election with the lowest voter turn-out in Canadian history at less than sixty percent, fewer youth appear to have cast a ballot than ever before. Over a million youth in Canada didn't vote.

Is this really about youth apathy, or the disinterest of the big parties to engage youth in the issues? Does the omission of youth issues from the discourse of the big business parties have an ideological goal, to disengage youth from the process?

It is worth noting that many youth were effectively administratively disenfranchised. Voter enumeration is no longer done before elections (surveys suggest that not knowing where and how to vote is the main reason youth don't vote). New regulations on I.D. meant students living away from home, young workers who have recently moved, renters who don't pay utility bills, and youth without drivers license or passport identification could not register at the polls.

CBC, for example, reported that two-thirds of Dalhousie students in Halifax were turned away from polling stations and could not vote, as were people from oppressed Aboriginal communities in the north, like Nunavut.

Some claim the low youth vote echoes youth cynicism towards parliament as an arena of struggle, and that it may even be positive(!). Certainly, Young Communist League members on the campaign trail heard comments like "voting doesn't matter," or "they're all the same," or even, in response to the Communist demand to elect a large progressive block of MPs, "maybe a coalition government could be just as bad."

Really? Despite my differences with their generally pro-market policies, I applaud the Green Party for raising the issue of coalition politics in the election, which I overheard discussed in more than one student bar. Of course, the effectiveness of any form of "coalition-ish" government would depend on the composition of the coalition, and especially public pressure. Medicare, federally legislated under a Liberal minority with the NDP holding the balance of power, comes to mind.

Municipally, Canada has seen left-wing labour-community formations including Communists and socialists, like COPE in Vancouver. Allende's Chile was a coalition including Communists, as are many of Latin American's contemporary anti-imperialist governments. Those coalitions reflect militant struggle on the streets, campuses, and workplaces. A powerful and broad People's Coalition on the streets could germinate a parliamentary expression, and move Canada in a fundamentally new direction.

This is a serious issue for anyone who seeks a better world, and asks what might create revolutionary conditions that would open a path to socialism. It's serious for anyone who wants to defeat Harper and the corporate agenda, because we are not going to see the resistance come from parliament or by electing the Liberals; it will come from the broad people's struggle.

Given that youth can be a radical and dynamic force for change, nobody should celebrate the lower youth vote. Not voting essentially votes for the incumbent. Youth should vote for the candidate who most closely represents their class interest. In fact, had youth voted en-masse, it would be unlikely that Harper's Conservatives would be returning to power with 16 new seats and less than a two percent increase in their popular vote.

Even though Student Vote had more private schools participating than ever before, and voted for a (very weak) Harper minority, it still gave the NDP 66 seats, and the Greens 25 percent of the popular vote. That's a good argument for lowering the voting age to 16. The Communists received, on average, five percent.

Still, if youth are now ideologically cynical towards elections, what then of the Obama phenomenon? Rather, isn't the low youth vote a reflection of the failure of the mainstream parties to put forward real alternatives for young people's concerns? And what confidence should youth have in our voting system, which desperately needs some form of proportional representation - or even the entire capitalist system, which today offers a bleak future of debt and financial crisis?

To be sure, the corporate media's election debates included many "youth issues" - youth crime, the arts, and climate change. Just before the election, Conservative MPs issued a taxpayer-funded flyer demanding police "get tough" against "young thugs" which would increase the already disproportionate numbers of youth of colour and Aboriginal youth in jail.

When announced, the platform plank to lower the Young Offenders Act to age fourteen drew widespread public anger. The Bloc correctly pointed out that jails were "a university of crime." In his acceptance speech, Harper refrained from mentioning this proposal in French. The warm sweater was swept away exposing the Harper Conservatives' dangerous anti-people agenda, and raising tactical problems for the right-wing. (I expect this proposal will now temporarily disappear into the dark crypt where Tory policy wonks live in vampire's coffins.)

Still, the large opposition parties did not project a real alternative. The NDP were relatively quiet about creating good quality jobs for youth, despite today's manufacturing jobs crisis. Their proposal for raising the minimum wage was below the poverty line. What about police racial profiling? And how seriously can we take their demand for tuition reductions when they are increasing fees in Manitoba?

I challenge any party to go ahead and steal this idea: abolish tuition fees. This is exactly the type of issue that would engage young people. Our reality is that youth unemployment is rising, young workers' earnings are falling, and murders of Aboriginal youth and youth of colour at the hands of the police are becoming a common occurrence across Canada.

Take Alwy Al-Nadhir, a young high-school student, shot last Halloween at age 18 by the Toronto Police. Or Michael Langan, a 17-year-old Métis who died shortly after being tasered in Winnipeg by police this July. Or African-Canadian Freddy Villanueva in Montreal, shot by police this August (the Ligue de la jeunesse communiste du Québec has prepared a music video of a recent demonstration against police brutality, at

Did you hear their names mentioned during the TV debates? Who is apathetic here?

Harper's criticisms of the arts also explosively exposed their anti-people agenda. However, funding for physical culture, especially women's sports, and emerging young artists was largely absent from the debate that followed. Likewise, only market-based solutions were presented on global warming.

In short, the scope of proposals by the big parties on youth issues was superficial and narrow. On many issues important for young people - military recruitment on campuses, two-tier contracts, or access to education - the corporate media silence was, generally, not broken.

Here is a big challenge for all progressive youth and student forces: to break that media black-out, confront the failures of the corporate parties to speak to youth, and unite young people behind a fighting agenda - all the more urgent, necessary and possible given today's systemic crisis of capitalism.

(Johan Boyden is the General Secretary of the Young Communist League of Canada. The next issue of PV will carry an assessment of the economic crisis, and its implications for youth and students.)

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