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Democracy Talks probe at the root of civic apathy

Politicians may try to catch the interest of youth and new Canadians, yet a recent study found these two groups consider themselves politically disengaged.

Voter turnout among young people in British Columbia is particularly low. Just 34 per cent of those age 20 and 24 years-old voted in the last provincial election.

Samara, a national non-partisan charitable organization, is trying to change that. Through Democracy Talks, Samara staff travel around the country to get people talking about politics. They target three groups of people who consider themselves politically disengaged -- youth between 18-25, newcomers to Canada and low-income people.

Since its start as a pilot program in fall 2012, 27 talks have sprung up across Canada. B.C. has hosted four so far, with three more coming up this May.

Álvaro Moreno, who participated in the discussion group in Victoria, became a Canadian citizen in 1990 after moving from El Salvador 27 years ago. He said he initially thought Canadians were uninterested in politics.

"I thought [Democracy Talks] was very profound. People were not hesitant at all to express their opinions," he said in a phone conversation with the Tyee.

Aside from voting, many citizens don't know how to engage politically, said Marissa Lawrence, coordinator for Democracy Talks in B.C. Participants in the discussion groups said they're frustrated with slow-moving policy changes and the general political process, she said, and this was especially true of people from B.C.

They reported "little to no incentive to participate when elected officials appear unable or unwilling to engage constructively," said Lawrence.

Another theme that emerged from the talks is the idea that "political participation is not seen as a Canadian value." Many youth felt they couldn't apply social studies class to real life.

Yet participants also said they wanted to become more involved. They recognized the significance of a democratic society, but in order to more deeply invest in politics, people said they "require an invitation from someone they trust."

After the discussion groups conclude, Samara plans to work on implementing suggestions for more Democracy-Talk style book clubs or pub nights, more relevant civics education, and more accessible information to politics.

Democracy Talks continues to travel across B.C. Two talks will be held on May 6 -- one for newcomers to Canada, and the other for youth. The final talk is on May 10 in Vancouver.

Meghan Mast recently completed a practicum at The Tyee.

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