Taylor Byers and Jared Manzey

Taylor Byers and Jared Manzey

Student Vote BC gives lesson in democracy

A national program tries to ignite interest in politics among Chilliwack students.

The current election season isn’t just for adults. Thousands of Chilliwack students are following the campaign through their classrooms, and learning about the democratic process at the same time.

Motivating youth to care about politics, and encouraging young adults to vote, is a major challenge every election. Voter turnout has plummeted in recent decades in British Columbia, now hovering at just above half for those who register. In the 2009 general election, only 40 per cent of registered young adults cast a ballot. This is much lower than the turnout among the 55+ population, which sits at around 70 per cent.

For the past decade, a national program, Student Vote, has been doing its part to build interest among children and teenagers in the political process, in the hopes that they’ll vote when they can.

At Highroad Academy, a private Christian school in Chilliwack, all 250 students in Grades K–12 are taking part.

“It helps the kids understand the election process a little bit, and helps them understand that one vote can make a difference,” said teacher Julie Lade.

Twenty Chilliwack schools, including Highroad Academy, have received ballot boxes, voting screens, and lessons booklets from Student Vote. Teachers take students through the electoral history of B.C., how voting works, the different political parties and local candidates, and an explanation of why voting is important.

Students will hold a mock election on May 13, the day before the real election, to choose an MLA from among the candidates running in their riding.

At Central Elementary Community School, teacher Christopher Lister has even organized for the candidates in the Chilliwack riding to present their platforms in bite-sized, kid-friendly formats to students during the week of May 6. The students will ask questions, and the televised presentations will be streamed live so that other schools in the district can watch.

AD Rundle Middle School has been participating in Student Vote for several years.

“Usually before an election, students are quite disinterested in government and politics. Many cannot recall who the Prime Minister or the Premier are. However, after the program, and after we’ve done the vote, students are engaged with the politics, and have learned some of the local issues,” said teacher Paul Allanson.

All 290 students at the middle school are taking part.

“Hopefully, when they turn 18, they are going to be a civic individual, and want to participate in the democratic process,” said Allanson.

He has seen students take on the party affiliation of their parents, but this can sometimes change.

“When you start stimulating conversations, students start questioning some of their parents’ views on politics.”

In the 2009 provincial election, a total of 1,684 students in the Chilliwack and Chilliwack-Hope ridings mock elected New Democrat Gwen O’Mahony and Liberal John Les. While the students predicted Les’s real victory, they were three years too quick on the draw on O’Mahony’s, who lost in 2009 and won in the 2012 byelection. Provincially, B.C. students elected the NDP.

Teachers love the program, with 99 per cent saying they would run it again, according to an independent evaluation commissioned by Elections Canada in 2011.

“It’s definitely helped me along the way, in terms of my voting practices,” said Allanson. “For me, it’s had a positive impact, and I try to promote and influence as many individuals to get out and vote and have their say in this democratic process.”

Student Vote has even contributed to higher voter turnout among parents. Two-thirds of parents in the Elections Canada study said that their own interest in politics and knowledge of this election increased because their child participated in the program. And 20 per cent of voting parents said that their child’s participation in the program encouraged them to vote.

“It spurs on a lot of good debate,” said Lade. “For some of the kids, they go home, and if their parents weren’t too enthusiastic to vote, they’ll put some pressure on them, and say, ‘hey, why aren’t we voting? I’ll go with you.'”

Students also like to see how closely a real election day resembles the mock election at school.

“I’ve had a number of kids who have graduated who have gone on to volunteer, or to work with parties, or be scrutinizers, or work at elections, because they get engaged in the process and think it’s pretty cool,” said Lade.

One quirk among young mock voters is that they generally give much more weight to the Green Party than do adults. Student Vote students in the 2009 mock provincial election awarded the Greens 27 per cent of the vote. The party won among AD Rundle students that year. In Allanson’s class this year, the three big election issues that students chose to discuss are Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, drinking water chlorination, and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.

Local wild salmon activist Eddie Gardner believes that youth are especially concerned about their environmental future.

“The youth in our communities, they’re looking to the future with being very worried about what kind of legacy is going to be left behind for them. Our youth are very concerned about the current direction where things are going,” said Gardner.

Chilliwack Green Party candidate Kim Reimer is particularly looking forward to her presentation to Central Elementary students in early May.

“When my husband was young, his school had a debate where the politicians came and talked to the students. One of those politicians really connected with the students, and my husband was interested in politics from then on,” she said. “I believe that by participating in this kind of debate, my opponents and I have the unique opportunity to reach future voters and hopefully begin to break the cycle of politically disinterested youth.”

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