Concerns have been raised about the lack of political engagement of Canadian youth. During the federal election, voting flash mobs at Canadian universities were seen as a way to get young voters excited and eager to vote.
Unfortunately, most efforts to engage youth have been initiated by groups and organizations that I feel do not reflect the ethno-cultural diversity of Canada's major cities. As an activist in Ottawa's Muslim communities who is passionate about civic engagement, I wanted to take a lead in addressing what I've seen as a lack of engagement among young Muslims of voting age.
In this case, I'm defining youth broadly, as those under the age of 35. Various reasons have been posited as to why there is a lack of youth voter engagement in Canada, one of them being apathy. I would argue that this is definitely not the case for Muslim youth. It would not be hard to find Muslim youth who could lecture you on regime change in the Middle East, the political reasons behind the famine in East Africa, or the political unrest in Pakistan. Canada's Muslim communities have, since 9/11, realized that events that happen outside of Canada affect how they are perceived within Canada, and Canadian Muslim youth are at the forefront of exchanging information through social media with their counterparts in countries around the world.
But ironically, the excitement shared by Canadian Muslim youth with their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt during this year's Arab Spring has not necessarily translated into an equal enthusiasm for Canadian politics. In order to begin countering this, I decided to organize a provincial election engagement session in partnership with a group of Muslim youth predominantly from Ottawa's Somali community called Voice of Muslim Youth (VOMY). This session aimed at engaging Muslim youth who were already concerned about social issues negatively affecting Ottawa's Muslim communities, but who lacked the interest and/or knowledge of how these social issues were connected to Canadian politics.
When designing the session, I understood that it was so important to have the youth learn about the Ontario provincial candidates as people, their personal histories, why they chose the party they are running for, etc. In this way, they could engage with the candidates as people and thus humanize the politics. They could relate to them and see how they reflected aspects of their own lives, backgrounds, struggles and concerns.
My first challenge was to identify which politicians should speak at the session. I wanted to have representation from all the major political parties but I wanted to ensure that I had candidates who the young participants could relate to in some way. I ended up choosing Wali Farah, who is running for the NDP in Ottawa-South, a Somali-Canadian; Yasir Naqvi, who is running for the Liberals in Ottawa Centre, a Pakistani-Canadian; and Fred Sherman ,who is running for the Progressive Conservatives in Ottawa-Vanier, a Liberian-Canadian (In the end, he unfortunately was unable to attend the actual session due to illness).
I knew each of these men personally and each had demonstrated to me that they were passionate speakers who had a proven track record of community engagement before they embarked on their political careers. This was important because I knew that many young Canadians, not just young Muslim Canadians, feel a deep distrust for politicians. Later, I decided to also include a representative from the Green Party. It was far more difficult to find a candidate from a racialized community but I was at least able to find a candidate who was young, 20 years old in fact, Alex Hill, who is running in Ottawa-West Nepean. While researching local candidates, I was shocked to see how few women were running; this led me to decide to devote part of the session to a presentation by Equal Voice Canada, a non-partisan organization aimed at increasing the representation of women in Canadian politics.
This session was not designed as a debate. The provincial candidates were not permitted to challenge their opponents or speak disparagingly about other political parties. Although I personally find watching people bicker at each other quite amusing sometimes, I knew that youth were clever enough to see through this as a tactic used by politicians to avoid explaining how their party would actually do things better than their rivals. It is easier to go on and on about how badly your opponent has messed up but much harder to explain how you would be able to fix the situation. This was probably the most difficult part of the session for the candidates who I did have to interrupt from time to time when they were going into "debate-mode". This was both a frustrating but also funny part of the session; I would tell the candidates that they had to stop "ish"-talking their opponents, using a euphemism from current youth slang for the obvious obscenity.
Each candidate was sent a list of questions that I had identified as priorities for Ottawa's Muslim youth in consultation with youth and youth workers. Many of these questions were likely not to be asked at any other All Candidates' Debates that these men attended. One in particular asked how each political party would go about improving the poor conditions for inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, which has made headlines over the last few years. Many Muslim youth have been and are currently incarcerated in this facility and many young Muslims may know someone who has been or is incarcerated personally as we are a relatively closely-knit community, particularly those of us who are economically marginalized. Other questions addressed increasing funding for child and youth mental health, improving academic standards at low-income schools, and lowering tuition fees.
Youth participants who I spoke to after the session, the youngest being 10 years of age, said they came out of the session excited and with a deep sense of empowerment. They did not expect to find politicians who would be interested in answering their questions or, frankly, interested in talking to them at all. Many of them were extremely surprised to learn that there were people running in the provincial election from similar ethno-cultural and religious backgrounds, from similar immigration/refugee backgrounds, and from similar age groups as themselves. They expressed that they now understood the connection between provincial politics and their own issues and concerns and are eager to learn more about the Canadian political system and figure out ways to actively engage in it. They also told me that they are now eager to organize a similar session after the election with elected MPPs.
My hope is that this session, which is now available to view as a Playlist on YouTube, will inspire other youth engagement sessions not only in the Canadian Muslim community but also amongst other Canadian youth from racialized communities across Canada as I believe such a session is a great way to kick-start political engagement strategies that are tailored for particularly for racialized youth.
Chelby Marie Daigle lives in Ottawa and works with youth and immigrant/refugee communities.