Not long ago I was at a political event having a conversation with another young organizer, and as these conversations often do, they turned to some of our gripes with some of our older colleagues. Today, it was a particular frustration, the elusive “youth vote.”
Politicians, political organizers and pundits have made a lot of hay over the past decade decrying, appealing to and discussing the crisis with what they tend to call “young voters.” With an election in British Columbia right around the corner, it’s beginning again.
Why were we sharing this moment of frustration? Because there is no such thing as a young voter.
Our generation has many identities. We are artists, writers, film makers and poets. We are musicians, fashion designers, community organizers and educators. We are workers, business owners, friends, allies and family members. No young person defines their primary identity, even their political identity, through such a narrow and reductive lens. Even our political identities are seldom reduced to something as asinine as being a young person who marks a sheet a paper every four years and shoves it in a box.
This is not to say that my generation is divorced from, or uninterested in, politics and how governments can impact the world we are inheriting, its just that were not deluded enough to think that voting alone will change anything. We are not a generation of apathy, but a generation that cares enough about politics to demand to know the origin of our coffee beans, how far away our food was grown, where our beer was brewed and whether or not what we are using and consuming is facilitating another’s oppression.
Where politicians and pundits are right is that there is more political power in our generation than even we realize. Organizations, social movements and politicians lusting after “young voters” is actually making the problem worse. The narrowing of electoral participation as a direct translation to political action has led us to miss the forest for the trees, a forest that in Canada is probably being threatened to be clear cut, plowed for a pipeline, or removed to make way for a new mine — and that’s a big, big problem.
Take one of the most commonly cited success stories for youth political action during the past federal election: the student and youth organized “Vote Mobs” that went viral across Canada. A great effort to get youth to the ballot box that despite engaging thousands of youth across Canada and being lauded by celebrities and the mainstream media, was followed by an election where youth voter turnout fell.
The problem was not the action itself, nor the intent. It made a clear statement that thousands of youth across Canada cared about the direction Canada is headed in. The flaw was a symptom of constant reinforcement from political parties and organizations that our generation’s only power lies in the ballot box.
Quebec students mobilized
Canada was lucky enough last spring and summer to witness the rise of one of the most powerful youth led social movements in history, and the most successful youth electoral victory in my lifetime. It was misunderstood by many mainstream political organizations in Canada and shunned by the majority of pundits, yet it managed to depose a leader it opposed, resist violent oppression and succeed in overturning legislation.
The Quebec student movement that filled the streets for months in the spring and summer of 2012, and continues today, mobilized hundreds of thousands of young people from all walks of life, along with allies of all ages. They constantly turned out crowds in the tens to hundreds of thousands into the streets and politicized a generation like no organization in Canada has done in decades.
Of course this was not a movement limited to the ballot box. It was in the streets, on the bridges and in the general assemblies where the Quebec students searched for victory, and while the terms of that victory remain contested by many, for the sake of argument lets look at what they did win at the ballot box. The exact age breakdowns of the Quebec student movement will not be released until this summer, but according to an estimate given at a recent event held by youth electoral group Apathy is Boring, the numbers may have jumped from 57 per cent before 2012 to 75 per cent last fall. This with many students choosing to boycott the election and stay in the streets.
It is impossible to say without a doubt that this is a direct result of the student strike, but I would hazard a guess that it played a significant role. What’s more, those groups who continued to organize for the streets, not trusting the electoral system to deliver what they need, were able to re-mobilize this spring when the new government turned on their promise to stop the tuition hikes. Some other groups who went all into the electoral strategy have found themselves struggling with co-optation by the same policies they were fighting only a year ago.
B.C. youth should take heed
Any attempt to explain the reasons for the success of Quebec students is going to be reductive by nature, the movement was years and thousands of meetings in the making, but there is one key lesson I learned from watching this movement rise, and a lesson that groups and youth in B.C. should take heed of as we enter an election.
Getting youth to vote was not the goal of students in Quebec. In fact if you asked 50 students why they were at a march or what their plan for political change was, you would probably get at least a hundred answers. For some organizations, a coming election in the province became a useful campaign target, for others it was a chance to remove an opponent from playing field, and even for those who boycotted the ballot box, it was a chance to raise the stakes, but very few were on the search for “young voters.”
I was lucky enough to attend a number of the hundreds of thousands strong marches, and at each one youth and students adopted and flew beautiful versions of the movement’s red square. The casseroles, that each night filled communities with the music of banging pots and pans rang not with calls to Elect Marois, but of the passions, desires and dreams of thousands of youth, students and others inspired by their actions.
The student movement appealed to youth — and people in general — because it was not prescriptive. It did not tell youth to be voters, or even to be of any particular political stripe. It rallied a frustrated generation against an unfair law symptomatic of a broken system. In doing so, it created a space open to artists, writers, musicians, workers, students, allies and more. Most importantly, even when groups asked supporters to vote out Jean Charest, they were never calling on “young voters,” they were calling on a movement.
Another example of this kind of power has starting to rise across North America over the past year with over 300 student campaigns being launched to push for campuses to divest from fossil fuels. This is only three years after the youth climate movement suffered a massive blow when the Copenhagen climate talks ended in failure, and after both of the most recent elections in the United States and Canada were devoid of any talk about climate change, and not for lack of effort by organizations like my own and the Energy Action Coalition south of border. Of course divestment alone wont solve climate change or stop the tar sands, but neither will voting without action.
There lies the lesson that groups in B.C. this spring, and more widely across Canada as we look to 2015 should take to heart. There is more power in our generation than you, or frankly even we, know. There are millions of youth who may be cast as apathetic but are really filled with a slowly simmering discontent that with the right heat and pressure could come to full boil.
We are a generation facing some of the highest unemployment in years, a generation weighed with student debt that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago, and at least I think, a generation that’s sick and tired of business as usual.
Using the political opportunity of the coming B.C. election is important for social movements in the province, especially for groups working to stop tar sands, fracking and the multitude of pipelines that are threatening, or already, pumping dirty energy across B.C.
That being said, by trying to appeal to the mystic species known as “young voters,” this election will go down as another missed opportunity to build the kind of political power that we need in B.C. and across Canada to revolutionize our energy system, and build a more fair society.
As young people, we need to step up our game, but politicians and organizations also need to seriously reflect on how they view young people. We do not need to be appealed to or convinced to vote, we need to be given the resources and support to organize our generation.
Cameron Fenton is National Director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post Canada and is reprinted here with permission.
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