Last fall, coverage of America’s midterm elections flooded our news feeds, including no small number of stories about voter suppression. It made us wonder what kind of issues Canadian voters face—especially since there will be a federal election this October, and there are three by-elections happening on February 25.
As it turns out, Canada doesn’t have the same voter suppression issues we’ve seen in the United States because we have one unified oversight body in Elections Canada. (Though it does happen. See: the 2011 Robocall scandal, when voters received misleading calls directing them to the wrong polling station.) But before we can give themselves a pat on the back and breathe a collective, “At least we’re not the USA!”, we should acknowledge that Canadians, especially young people, definitely experience barriers to voting. According to Jane Hilderman, the executive director of the Samara Centre for Democracy, a nonpartisan group that works to make Canadian politics more accessible and inclusive, there are access barriers, which come up when you don’t have enough information on what you’re voting on or how to vote, and motivational barriers, such as when you are made to feel like your vote doesn’t matter.
We wanted to look at how those barriers impact young Canadians, so we spoke to eight millennials about what keeps them and their peers from political engagement—and showing up on election day. Here’s what they said.
Marginalized groups don’t always see themselves reflected in the candidates
“Historically, certain marginalized populations (such as youth and some racialized communities) have not seen themselves reflected in politics, and are led to believe that Canadian politics is not relevant to them. It’s hard to care about politics, watch candidate debates, or volunteer for a local candidate when you don’t feel it will make an impact.
Also, some demographic groups have lower voter turnout than others, which means that candidates don’t knock on those doors or attend events in those communities, because they don’t think they will get votes. This in turn fuels the sentiment in those communities that politicians don’t care about them, and makes them less likely to vote, which confirms to politicians that those groups are not worth their time. It’s a catch-22” — Seher Shafiq, 28
It can be hard to get to polling stations
“As someone originally from the Swan Valley in Manitoba, I’ve noticed that polling stations are quite far from farmers and rural folks, and this can make voting more difficult. For example, if the election falls during harvest, some farmers can’t afford to take the time from the field to go to the polls to cast their ballots, so their votes are lost. Since moving to Guelph, Ont. for university, I’ve had the privilege to have polling stations brought directly to me on campus, making voting incredibly accessible and easy for myself and other students. Moving forward to the 2019 election, I think it’s important to place emphasis on rural votes, making voting accessible for rural and northern Canadians, and bringing polling stations to more locations—including campuses. I also hope that more outreach is done for northern and rural voters, so they know their votes are valued” — Jayden Wlasichuk, 21
The political process can be ableist
“I believe that the political climate is not accessible in sign language, and that itself is a major barrier to those who are language deprived. I have encountered a Deaf person who is so removed from this world, [they don’t] have a clue who Donald Trump is. That makes me feel very frustrated.
In my entire professional life, I have only been to one political debate that has ASL interpretation. I was the only Deaf person in the audience. There is a lack of outreach activities from politicians and I feel that if they had partnered with a Deaf consultant in the process, they would have a better understanding of the best inclusive practices. I would recommend having three interpreters to support each other and a brief meet + greet with the candidates in order to ensure that the access is more equitable rather than be an afterthought in the process. In my perfect world, each politicians at a debate would have their own interpreters representing them” — Landon Krentz, 28
First-time voters—like immigrants and students—can feel intimidated by the process
“As an immigrant, my first experience with voting was when I was 11 and I went to the polls with my family. As the only one who could read English, it was my job to translate the names and parties on the ballots so my parents and grandparents could vote. It was the first time, I saw how empowering the act of voting was for my family of new Canadians. Fast forward seven years and I’m voting for the first time in the advanced polls with all my new friends at university. But I also saw that voting was a confusing and intimidating process for first-time voters and youth—students change their addresses too often due to moving for school and jobs, so they’re often not registered.
And now, [as the program manager for the Samara Centre for Democracy,] I’ve talked to youth across Canada, who told me they care about democracy but don’t believe their vote mattered under the first-past-the-post system. Overwhelmingly, young Canadians felt that politicians talked at them not to them” — Yvonne Su, 29
Canada’s political systems aren’t equitable
“Equity in elections is difficult to find. There’s an automatic assumption that everyone has access to the polling station of their riding, but it’s not that simple. Not everyone has a method of getting to their polling station, whether that be the vehicle or the funds needed for a different form of transportation. This is especially true in Indigenous communities. Not all First Nations communities have polling stations.
Elections are not designed in a way that considers the intersecting axes of disadvantage that individuals experience. Able-bodied, financially stable, employed, (usually) white, cisgender people benefit from the way elections are structured. Am I denying Canada’s multiculturalism? Absolutely not. However, I am highly critical of our country’s political/electoral system, in that, despite being so vocal about our multicultural society, these systems are still built upon structural racism, ableism, heteronormativity and settler colonial ideals. These systems still benefit the archetype they were designed for and exclude the others who don’t fit that mould”— Ava Truthewaite, 19
How will intentional misinformation play into this year’s election?
“I have been voting in every election since I was 18. I was really interested in politics at a young age, but many of my friends were not. My personal experience is young women are taught from a young age that their currency comes from being agreeable, pretty, easygoing. It’s part privilege—their day-to-day life was not affected by politics—and part being a young woman in a patriarchal society.
My concern going into the 2019 federal election is misinformation. I think the 2016 American election really energized voters, and not just in the U.S. But it also highlighted the problem of intentional misinformation on social media” — Erin Graves, 33
Polling stations often aren’t accessible
“As a person living with cerebral palsy who uses mobility aids to participate in the community, I need to make sure that the polling station I go to in my local community is wheelchair accessible. This involves searching the location online or calling the polling station myself before Election Day to find out if it is equipped with an accessibility ramp, accessibility ‘push-to-open’ buttons at the main entrance and exit, and to find out if the walkway leading to the building has a curb cut, so that I can easily maneuver myself from the outdoor parking lot into the building. There are also many other barriers that people with disabilities may face when it comes to voting.
I think people—especially people my age—might decide not to vote in elections because they don’t pay close attention to political issues or current events in politics. Or, perhaps they might not be highly informed about where the various political parties stand on different social and political issues that may directly affect their lives, or they might not know a great deal about the government policies and legislation that impact and shape their everyday lived experiences the most. As a young person with a disability, I think it is extremely important to vote because voting is a huge way in which people with disabilities can exercise their voices on the issues that matter most to them” — Andrea Luciani, 25
Sexual violence can isolate women from political engagement
“I started Young Women’s Leadership Network as a result of my own experiences as a teenager and young woman in politics, coming up against barriers like sexism and ageism, and different forms of gender-based violence that didn’t exactly make politics the world of civic engagement the most welcoming space.
Say you are 16, volunteering with a party, and are faced with an incident of sexual violence and don’t have the supports needed to ensure that act of gender-based violence isn’t the last interaction you have with the political system. That doesn’t really create a feeling of belonging and inclusion in that system. That can have huge implications on your future and how you proceed to get involved with the politics of our country. In the It’s Time research that we did with 60 women in Ontario who had worked and had an experience with sexual violence in politics, we found out that 80 per cent of them had either left politics completely or it had dramatically changed the way they engaged with politics as a result of sexual violence. That’s a huge number” — Arezoo Najibzadeh, 20
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