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Inspire Democracy Workshop Series
Highlights Report – Toronto, May 15–16, 2014

A participant from the City of Toronto Elections Services prepares a crest symbolizing the City’s commitment to providing accessible elections.

The second Inspire Democracy workshop was held on May 15-16 in Toronto, Ontario. The purpose of the workshop was to help youth-serving organizations understand the issue of declining youth civic engagement, equip them with tools to address it, and invite them to take action to ensure youth are ready to vote in the 2015 general election.

Thirty-three participants representing twenty organizations attended the workshop, including 13 youth delegates (see appendix for a list of participating organizations). Participants were actively engaged throughout the workshop and provided valuable feedback on both the causes of declining youth participation and the actions that organizations can take to reengage youth in civic and democratic life.

Below is a short summary of workshop highlights. A final report of the Inspire Democracy Workshop Series will be released later in 2014.

Day 1: Thursday, May 15

Participants began by developing a common understanding of youth civic engagement and the barriers that prevent youth from participating fully in civic life.

Several themes were raised, including the following:

  • Civic engagement requires action and support from all parts of society, including political and non-political actors.
  • Civic engagement is often framed as protecting the status quo, which doesn't delve into power and agency of marginalized groups.
  • Civic engagement needs to be accessible and happen where youth are.

Participants identify barriers to civic engagement.

Barriers to civic engagement were defined as follows:

  • Lack of education. Civic education is not adequately covered in school. Youth feel they lack knowledge about the value and importance of voting, about political parties and issues, and about the process of voting.
  • Civic engagement is not engrained in youth culture. The terminology is unfamiliar, there is a lack of culturally relevant mentors, and being civically engaged is not seen as cool.
  • Disengagement and disempowerment. Youth feel that their voices are not heard or not taken seriously, that nothing ever changes, or that participation does not have a meaningful impact in their lives.
  • Systemic barriers. The frequency of elections and variations in rules across different jurisdictions (municipal, provincial, federal) create confusion about where, when and how to vote. Lack of transportation, identification can be a barrier. Youth under 18 don't know how to become involved.
  • Lack of mentors. Youth lack politically engaged role models in their family and communities. Politicians don't speak to youth in accessible language.
  • Channels of communication are not adequate. Youth experience information overload. Messages are not reaching youth. Difficulty talking about controversial subjects can be a barrier.
  • The diversity of youth. Being treated as a homogenous demographic who all possess the same needs and desires is a barrier for youth becoming involved in issues they might be passionate about.
  • Lack of resources and incentives to participate. Youth engagement projects often are not supported, and youth often have little incentive to participate.

Day 2: Friday, May 16

Day 2 of the workshop included presentations and discussions on good practices in youth engagement and actions that organizations can undertake to encourage youth to participate.

Morning session

Elections Canada presentation and discussion on what the research says about civic engagement (Miriam Lapp)

  • Research shows that youth face both access and motivational barriers to participation. Actions can be taken by organizations to help youth overcome these barriers.
  • During the discussion, participants emphasized the importance of good civic education as a way to address some motivational barriers, as well as the impact of political role models. Some participants pointed to communications tactics – such as using text messages and social media to send reminders to vote. Employment opportunities are also a good way to engage youth in the process.
  • There was some discussion on the possibility of providing summaries of political party platforms. It was noted that the media and other organizations do this already. Youth need to be made aware of the information that is available and given the skills to be able to use it.

Participants take part in a Democracy Talks demonstration (photo taken by John Beebe).

Samara – Democracy Talks presentation and experiential activity (John Beebe)

  • John Beebe led participants through an experiential activity based on Samara's Democracy Talks. As individuals and in groups, participants identified what they felt were the four most important attributes of democracy. After in-depth discussions, groups were asked to reach consensus and create "democracy bracelets" that represented the attributes using different colours.
  • Beebe explained the other components of Democracy Talks and indicated how youth-serving groups can use the tool to host their own discussions.

Taylor Gunn talks about CIVIX (photo taken by John Beebe).

CIVIX (Taylor Gunn)

  • Taylor Gunn described CIVIX's three major programs: Student Vote, Rep Day, and Student Budget Consultation.
  • The driving factors for civic engagement are:
    • Knowledge – such as knowing electoral divisions; the distinction between levels of government; party platforms; when, where, and how to vote; etc.
    • Experience – having the experience of talking to an MP, meeting an elected official, having a dialogue or debate over a political issue, etc.
    • Action – practicing civic engagement, such as voting.

Afternoon session

Youth engagement – Discussion on what works and good practices

Participants identified the following good practices for engaging youth:

  • Make it relevant to youth. Use language that youth use, and go to where youth are. Employment opportunities are a good way to raise interest.
  • Politicians should have authentic and meaningful discussions with youth. Talk with them, not to them. And look for opportunities to connect to youth in unofficial ways.
  • Meeting youth "where they are at," using their personal experiences to generate civic engagement.
  • Use humour to make civic engagement fun.
  • Engagement should be consistent and perpetual. Youth should expect to be consulted on issues that are relevant to them.
  • Empower youth. Let them make meaningful decisions.
  • Recruit good role models. Support intergenerational partnerships.
  • Make it experiential. Whether it is through experiential civic education programs, or being directly involved on a youth council, youth learn best by doing.

Mobilizing youth to action: actions that organizations can undertake

Participants discussed actions that can be undertaken to increase youth engagement on an ongoing basis and during the 2015 general election. Organizations committed to undertaking the following actions:

  • Give youth groups budgets to have authority over
  • Consistent events between youth and political figures/candidates (not just during elections)
  • Encourage youth to vote in elections at all levels
  • Encourage youth to work at elections during electoral periods
  • Hold more Democracy Talks nationally
  • Have a focus group/discussion with youth based on reports that come out from Inspire Democracy
  • Support and promote groups that are already doing great civic engagement work
  • Have youth explore what political parties are doing on specific issues (e.g. gender-based violence)
  • Implement Keystone module
  • Conduct voter education through community animation

Participants identified a need for the following tools to support these activities:

  • More data and research on the issue
  • More social media support
  • Regular webinars for staff across the country – Network nationally
  • Funding

At the end of the workshop, Elections Canada Director of Outreach, Mario Lavoie, thanked all for their participation. He reaffirmed the agency's commitment to reaching out to youth through youth-serving organizations to disseminate information on how to register and vote in the upcoming 2015 federal election, and to sharing research on youth civic engagement. Mario encouraged participants to introduce or strengthen civic engagement programs for youth and to use the Inspire Democracy website as a tool to inform their activities. Elections Canada will maintain contacts with all workshop participants in the lead-up to 2015.

Appendix: Organizations that participated

  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada – National Office
  • Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement / Students Commission
  • Girls Action Foundation
  • Youth Employment Services (YES)
  • Coalition of Youth Councils
  • Albanian Canadian Association
  • City of Toronto (City Clerk's Office)
  • Toronto Community Housing
  • North York Community House
  • Agincourt Community Services Association
  • Maytree
  • The Next Edition
  • Afghan Association of Ontario
  • CanLeads
  • Hart House, University of Toronto
  • Dixon Hall / Mid-Toronto
  • Bangladeshi-Canadian Community Services (BCS)
  • Centre for Community Partnerships