Teens take office: conversations with Canada’s Gen Z politicians

A 2018 study found that 70 per cent of Canadians don’t believe young people are prepared to be “active civic leaders.”

The same study, however, found that 56 per cent of Canadians believe youth don’t have enough influence on public policy.

Youth-led climate strikes and political protests held across Canada in recent years have changed the narrative. Beginning in 2018, students organized school strikes and met with politicians to state their climate proposals, inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. 

Youth are no longer being held up as the future of politics—they’re fighting for a seat at the table.

For some youth activists who organized and participated in climate strikes, the protests didn’t translate into enough governmental change. Harrison Johnston was one of the organizers of the climate strikes in Vancouver, B.C. over the past two years.

He is also one of the young people running for office in this month’s provincial election.

“We were out there demanding that our government take real climate action and we hadn’t seen any change in their policy for a year,” Johnston said in an interview with The Pigeon.

Following the protest—which was attended by over 150,000 people—and a meeting with the provincial environment minister, Johnston found the government response to the protest unsatisfying.

“[The provincial government] kept doubling down on forcing pipelines that run through Indigenous territory [and] giving massive funds to fracking projects,” Johnston said, “I couldn’t wait another four years with a government like this, so I’m stepping forward.”

Johnston is a 21-year-old candidate running to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) with the B.C. Green Party in B.C.’s North Vancouver-Seymour riding, aided by a campaign team which includes other young student activists.

The B.C. Greens have several young activists turned candidates running in this provincial election, on ballots in ridings from Coquitlam-Burke Mountain to Prince George Valemont and ranging in ages from 18 to 24.

One of those candidates is Kate O’Connor, who turned 18 just two weeks before the Oct. 24 election date.

Like Johnston, O’Connor—who is running in Saanich South—is a climate activist who started organizing in high school. Mitigating the climate crisis and representing youth perspectives are the cornerstones of both their campaigns.

When each candidate spoke to The Pigeon, they said the fact that B.C.’s current youngest MLA is 35 demonstrates a critical lack of youth representation.

“The fact that the youngest MLA is 35 means that no one in B.C. under 35 has a representative in the legislature who looks like them,” O’Connor told The Pigeon. “Young people are the ones who are going to have to deal with the [long-term] consequences of decisions that are made now.”

“We need people in the legislature who are not just thinking of five years or 10 years, but who are genuinely waking up and thinking in 50 years what their lives will look like.”

O’Connor is not the first 18 year old to run for office, but according to her campaign, if she wins the seat, she will be the youngest person in Canadian history to take political office.

There’s more to the platforms of these climate activists than just environmentalism. Johnston, although he clarified he doesn’t like labels, advocates for policies related to democratic socialism, such as guaranteed housing and improved public transit.

O’Connor wants to bring Indigenous programming to schools in her riding, as well as better resources to help those struggling with their mental health, whether they are LGBTQ2S+ youth or senior citizens suffering from loneliness.

Johnston and O’Connor both expressed that if they’d felt their government was responding to the climate crisis responsibly, they would not be running in this election. O’Connor would be at university beginning her degree in political science and philosophy, and Johnston would be studying to be a high school teacher.

Instead, Johnston is being endorsed by famed environmental activist David Suzuki, and O’Connor’s criticisms of the B.C. New Democratic Party (NDP) are getting hundreds of likes on Twitter.

When an election is announced, parties scramble to get candidates in as many ridings as possible because, naturally, more candidates mean more possible seats in provincial or federal government.

In CTV’s coverage of the 2015 Canadian federal election, they reported that the majority of student candidates were from the NDP in Quebec—they noted the NDP had difficulty “recruiting more experienced candidates” in the last election.

When a party is looking to nominate a candidate for a riding it has little chance of winning, it may turn to enthusiastic party members—like students in political campus clubs—to serve as the nominees. Oftentimes, these candidates aren’t “supposed” to win, but are nominated in order to have as much party representation during the election cycle as possible.

Johnston’s riding of North Vancouver-Seymour has a long Liberal history with a Liberal incumbent MLA who’s won the past three elections.

O’Connor’s riding typically goes NDP with its current MLA, who has also been in office since 2009. However, in the last provincial election, O’Connor’s riding had a tighter race, with the NDP, Liberal, and Green parties all within a 3,000-vote margin. The riding has been marked as a possible location for Green Party growth.

On federal election night in 2011, when Laurin Liu made Canadian history as the youngest woman to be elected as a federal Member of Parliament (MP), she wasn’t even watching the results come in.

Liu’s Quebec riding, Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, had gone to the Bloc Québécois for the past four elections. In 2008, the NDP came in fourth with 6,741 votes compared to the Bloc Québécois’ 23,216.

In 2011, 20-year-old Liu agreed to put her name on the ballot for the federal NDP because she was involved with the NDP-McGill campus club and volunteering on campaigns, but she didn’t expect to win.

“I went from [being] a college student at McGill to spending Monday to Friday in parliament and spending my weekends in my riding talking to constituents,” said Liu in an interview with The Pigeon.

Liu was one of four undergraduate students from McGill involved in the NDP-McGill club who were elected to the House of Commons that year. 

That election was dubbed the “Orange Wave” in reference to the NDP’s sudden success across Quebec. The reasoning behind the surge in NDP seats was attributed to several sources, from NDP party leader Jack Layton’s charisma to a rejection of prime minister Stephen Harper.

Liu didn’t feel prepared to enter the House of Commons, but she wasn’t alone.

“There were 200-some other new MPs who were entering the house for the first time at the same time that I was,” Liu said. “There’s really nothing like lived experience to gain knowledge of how to do a job in politics.”

Women are already a minority in parliament, and Liu’s race and age made her a further statistical minority in the federal government.

“Some days felt like a constant battle to prove my worth and reinforce the fact that I truly belonged there as a representative for my constituents,” Liu said.

Looking back on her four-year term, Liu is proud of the parliamentary bill on unpaid internships she put forward to eliminate loopholes allowing employers to exploit youth. She also tabled a motion on eating disorders, requesting the creation of a national eating disorder strategy.

Liu ran again in the 2015 election and lost. She noted that none of the McGill undergraduates she was elected with are still in office.

For Liu, her time in parliament sparked an interest in international human rights law, leading her to a master’s in human rights and her current job at the Open Society Foundation, an international human rights organization based in New York.

Although she is living abroad, Liu is keeping tabs on the increase in political conversations being led by young people in Canada, from the climate crisis to student debt.

“I think there’s a growing realization that we need voices of millennials [and] Gen Z in politics because the world is changing in ways we are only beginning to understand and the way young people are living right now is not the same reality that their parents lived through.”

Last year, a student in Kelowna, B.C. named Justin Kulik ran in the federal election as the NDP candidate for B.C.’s Kelowna-Lake Country riding. He was 18, making him the youngest federal candidate in Canadian history. Kulik received just over 12 per cent of the vote, losing to the Conservative Party candidate who received over 45 per cent.

This year, he’s running as an MLA.

Kulik regrets allowing his youth to be the centre of last year’s campaign. As the only candidate fresh out of high school, interviewers focused on his age rather than his platform.

However, going door-to-door on both campaigns has been a positive experience for Kulik.

“It’s one thing to read a newspaper saying that there is an 18 or 19-year-old candidate in your election; it’s another thing to have a conversation with them, to understand where they’re coming from, why their running, and who they are,” he said in an interview with The Pigeon.

Kulik has a more personalized social media presence than the average campaign account. His Tweets vary between reflections on his University of British Columbia Astronomy classes, genuine political statements, and memes.

Kulik shares the sentiments of his young Green Party peers when discussing the lack of youth representation in the BC legislature. He sees age as an issue of equity and is similarly motivated by the climate crisis.

“Over the past number of generations, every generation has been able to pass the buck on to the next to deal with [the climate]. Our generation is the one that can’t do that anymore,” said Kulik.

Kulik’s riding of Kelowna-Lake Country has had the same Liberal MLA since 2009, with NDP coming in second in the last three elections by a difference of more than 4,000 votes.

In Ontario’s 2016 provincial by-election, the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party nominated 19-year-old Sam Oosterhoff for the Niagara-West Glanbrook region over Rick Dykstra, who happened to be the president of the PC Party at the time.

Oosterhoff was then elected, becoming the youngest Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in history.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Oosterhoff reflected on the success of his first campaign.

“I would say the career politicians had an approach that, because they had some experience, because they had some government background, that somehow was going to mean that people were just going to fall over and vote for them,” Oosterhoof said.

Since Oosterhoff took office, he’s continued to make headlines. City News called him the most “visibly fundamentalist elected official in Ontario.” They attribute his win to appeals to the church communities in his riding.

Most notably, last spring, Oosterhoff spoke at an anti-choice rally in Toronto.

“We pledge to fight to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime,” Oosterhoff told the crowd.

Oosterhoff has since stood by these statements.

The first political event he remembers becoming engaged with was the Loyola versus Quebec Attorney General Case.

“The Loyola Case was a Supreme Court decision where the government of Quebec at the time tried to force a private Catholic school to teach from a religiously neutral perspective” said Oosterhoff.

“I was very concerned seeing that […] my faith is very important to me, and as Canadians, it’s very important that we are able to express our faith, whether its Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Sikh.”

Oosterhoff was re-elected in 2019. At present, his largest success in office has been getting provincial funding to rebuild the hospital in his riding, something locals have been demanding for decades.

He encourages youth to get involved in politics, including considering a political run, but he also believes strongly in the value of older voices.

“Don’t try to cancel people out who speak from a different perspective just because someone is a senior,” he said. “They can speak about senior issues in a way you can’t as young people, and you can speak about youth issues in a way they can’t.”

“Embrace those differences, acknowledge them, but don’t let them create divisions between yourself and others you could learn from.”

Miranda Rosin is a 25-year-old MLA for Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP). Although she is Alberta’s youngest UCP MLA, Rosin doesn’t make too much of her age.

Rosin grew up in Saskatchewan and became politically aware during her undergraduate degree at the University of Regina, following the rise of the conservative Saskatchewan Party in the 2010s under the popular premier Brad Wall.

Rosin said that in her community, Wall’s government brought pride back to Saskatchewanians.

Wall’s politics weren’t just inspirational to Rosin, they were aspirational.

“I knew I really wanted to be, [at] some point in my life, part of a movement that changed the place I was living in for the better. Not just economically, but really the social fabric and the entire feeling of that province,” said Rosin.   

However, she didn’t know she would be getting involved in such a movement so soon. She moved to Alberta after her degree and saw the UCP’s Jason Kenney come into power.

She attended his leadership event the night he was chosen as the UCP leader and recalled feeling the same hope she had felt watching Brad Wall. 

“I just knew it was a movement I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to be a part of because I really felt it was going to change lives,” said Rosin.

During the month of the 2019 election, Rosin celebrated her 24th birthday—and became an MLA.

Ahead of the election, a Twitter user filmed Jason Kenney at a campaign event for one of his MLA’s candidates, seemingly mocking the NDP candidate in that riding for being young.

At the event, Kenney said that the candidate, Steve Durrell, was 19, and made reference to a wave of young NDP MLA’s who had won seats in the 2015 federal election.

Durrell was actually 29 at the time of the video, the same age as Kenney when he was elected to the House of Commons, and was older than Rosin, who was already the approved UCP candidate for Banff-Kananaskis.

In a statement emailed to Global News, Kenney’s office said “[Kenney] was simply highlighting the gulf of experience between the local United Conservative candidate, Peter Guthrie […] compared to the NDP’s acclaimed candidate.”

Rosin herself isn’t interested in grouping people by identifiers like age. She said it’s an honour to be a young person in politics but when asked if she feels a duty to represent the interests of young people in the legislature, she said her duty of representation remains to her constituents, young and old.

She also doesn’t invest in the idea that young people have shared interests to be representing.

“At the end of the day I think that young people are just people,” said Rosin, “and they are entitled to have very diverse viewpoints.”

Like the other young candidates and members of political office, Rosin encourages young people to run.

 “The sooner we get involved, the sooner we help to shape the world that we want to raise ourselves and our kids in,” said Rosin.

Saskatchewan has an upcoming election scheduled for Oct. 26 and the Saskatchewan Party’s youngest MLA candidate, Alex Nau, has come under fire for an unearthed article about his teenage activities, titled “The Land of the Booze Cruiser.”

Nau didn’t respond to The Pigeon’s request for an interview.

Nau, who was working on his undergraduate degree at the University of Regina in 2016 when the article was published, is described setting up a trailer at a Saskatchewan country music festival, convincing female passersby to spin a homemade “Wheel of Fun,” with options like “show your breasts,” or “funnel a beer.”

The Saskatchewan Party didn’t drop Nau as a candidate when this article came to light.

Instead, they released a statement saying they don’t condone Nau’s behaviour, but also don’t believe it should eliminate him, as “many have made mistakes at a younger age,” and they believe he’s changed.

This month, Saskatchewan Party leader and current premier Scott Moe has come under similar scrutiny for events from his youth.

In 1992 at age 18, Moe was convicted of impaired driving. Then, in 1994, at age 20, Moe was again charged with impaired driving, but those charges were dropped. In his later twenties, Moe was involved in a car crash—in which he wasn’t impaired—where the other driver was killed.

The Saskatchewan party is polling to win by a wide enough margin that Moe’s past, most of which was already disclosed, is unlikely to lose them the election. For Nau, voters may be slower to forgive when the mistakes of a candidate’s youth happened only four years ago. Either way, his riding of Regina-Rosemont has elected an NDP MLA in every election since the 1980s.

Each election, a new candidate seems to break another record for youngest politician—even if it’s just by a matter of months.

At the same time, youth turnout in the most recent federal election had dropped, and the age range with the highest turnout was 65 to 74. Canadians between 15 and 24 are more likely to engage in non-electoral civic and political activities such as petitions, contacting their politicians, boycotting products, and participating in political demonstrations, but this passion is consistently lacking in the voting booth.

In 2019, Vancouver’s youth-organized climate strike drew an estimated 150,000 attendees, rivaling 2018’s municipal election which drew 176,744 votes. Montreal, QC’s climate strike last year was the largest strike the city had ever seen with an estimated 500,000 participants.

Young Canadians continue to organize anti-racism protests and Black Lives Matter events, too. This past June, countless protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by police were organized by university and high school students. On Oct. 9 hundreds of Calgary students participated in a strike to protest systemic racism in the education system.

While increased youth participation in protests don’t equate political involvement, protests often act as appeals to politicians and indicate that young Canadians are becoming more aware of the details of their country’s political system.

Perhaps youth-led political campaigns could be the key to getting the youth vote, particularly for socially progressive parties like the Greens.

In recent years, both federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and former federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May promised to lower the voting age if elected.

Some advocates of lowering the vote have pointed out that objections to teenagers under 18 voting echo objections to women voting, centred around concerns about their general capacity for rational thought and ability to make important decisions.

Several of the politicians The Pigeon spoke to believe that electing young people into politics will be critical in Canada’s ability to face the next few decades.

“Over the past number of generations, every generation has been able to pass the buck on to the next to deal with [the climate]. Our generation is the one that can’t do that anymore,” said Kulik.

“Right now, we have a generation of young people who are pleading with the generation above us to deal with climate change in an appropriate way. It’s a life or death motivator for us.”

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