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Rise of the Really, Really Young Vote

Half of Canada's schools will host mock elections this week -- thousands more than in 2011.

By Katie Hyslop 12 Oct 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on the 2015 federal election for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

For Jordon Anderson, the economy and environment are his main concerns in the upcoming federal election, telling The Tyee he's mainly concerned with "oil tankers, hydro fracking, pipelines."

This is Anderson's first federal election, but he also voted in the 2014 municipal and 2013 provincial elections in B.C. Not bad for a 12-year-old.

No, Canada hasn't dropped the legal voting age. Rather, Anderson is one of 250 students at Vancouver's Charles Dickens Elementary participating in Student Vote, a national program educating students in Grades 4 to 12 about Canada's political process. This is the program's biggest mock election yet, with almost 7,500 Canadian schools registered -- nearly 3,000 more than in the 2011 election and over half of the country's schools.

From Oct. 13 to 16, students will check off ballots with their actual riding candidates' names on them using Elections Canada screens, ballots and ballot boxes. Results will be calculated nationally and released to the students and public on election night.

Taylor Gunn, co-founder, president and chief electoral officer of CIVIX, the national charity that's run Student Vote in 26 elections since 2003, says he attributes the higher turnout to CIVIX's outreach to teachers and school boards and the fact Canada's 42nd federal election is a contentious race that gets even mock voters excited to cast ballots.

"The only thing that's un-real about [Student Vote] is kids are casting a ballot that won't count," said Gunn. "Everything else is almost identical to the actual election."

Citizenship training

Student Vote's aim is to teach kids how to be engaged citizens. The program shares free non-partisan teaching resources on how government and democracy work in Canada, including both lesson guides and online videos.

At their teachers' discretion students can study party platforms, watch debates, and even meet candidates in their ridings, while identifying the issues important to them -- even if they're not mentioned on the campaign trail.

These are important life lessons that too many young people aren't getting these days, Gunn says -- at least not from their school.

"In the past schools might have been much more open that part of their mission was to build citizens," said Gunn. "But I think that now schools have become more about employability."

It's a message echoed by the BC Teachers' Federation. The union expressed concern about the B.C. government's ongoing Skills For Jobs Blueprint, which calls for Kindergarten to Grade 12 and post-secondary education to focus on building skills that match in-demand jobs.

That could be why Student Vote is so popular with B.C. teachers and schools. Over 60 per cent of the provinces' schools -- public and private -- have signed up for Student Vote, compared to 44 per cent in the 2013 provincial election.

Jody Polukoshko, a Grade 5, 6 and 7 teacher at Charles Dickens, has incorporated Student Vote's lesson materials into subjects as wide-ranging as math, art and social studies. It's the third time she's used Student Vote because of the impact on her students.

"I can't even tell you, first of all, how excited they are about democracy," she said with a laugh. "Kids can't wait to participate and start shaping the world around them."

Kids vote like adults

While schools are encouraged to have every student involved in the Student Vote program, Gunn says it works best when one class is responsible for organizing the vote.

At Dickens, nine of Polukoshko's Grade 6 and 7 students, including Anderson, are organizing the vote at their school. The students fill many of the roles Elections Canada volunteers do at official polling stations, like handing out ballots and ensuring no one votes more than once.

This year the vote crew was invited by CIVIX to submit one video question to party leaders. In total five schools across Canada submitted questions, and the leaders are expected to respond later this week via video posted on Student Vote's YouTube page.

Dickens' students asked leaders about the environment, particularly how they plan to decrease fossil fuel dependence. But while the environment's a top concern for Polukoshko's students, it's not the only one. Syrian refugees, transit, job opportunities, and even childcare are on kids' minds, too.

"I think the $15-a-day daycare is pretty good because it costs a lot, especially in Vancouver," said Grade 6 student Silas Hussey, who, for the record, doesn't have younger siblings in daycare but did avail of the service himself when he was much younger.

With the exception of British Columbia, where students tend to vote Green more than the rest of the country, Student Vote results tend to mirror adult vote results right down to the individual seats.

"That could be a bunch of different things going on there," said Gunn. "Kids develop the same capacity as adults to make their decision, so they make the same decision. Or what they're doing is regurgitating their family's values through the ballot box. For us both scenarios [are] a win."

Post-millennial voters

Getting out the youth vote is a popular concern in Canada and for good reason: in the 2011 federal election only 38.8 per cent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 cast a ballot.

CIVIX hopes repeated exposure to the electoral process will make voting feel natural when students' votes actually count.

"We're probably the only ones in the country that really appreciated when we were in a minority federal government because it gave us the chance to practice federal elections four times in the span of seven years," said Gunn. "It's kind of like 15 to 20 years of work smooshed together."

Despite being around for over a decade, Student Vote has no data on whether voting in fake elections leads to voting in the real thing. Elections Canada, which is funding Student Vote's current federal election campaign to the tune of $1 million, evaluated the project in 2011 and found students' knowledge of and interest in politics had increased.

That evaluation didn't determine students' voting record once they turned 18, but 20 per cent of polled parents credited their own decision to vote to their kids' participation in Student Vote.

At Eric Hamber Secondary in Vancouver, Grade 11 student Kendra Wong is part of the Social Justice 12 class in charge of running the Student Vote election.

Wong, currently 15, does plan on voting for real when she turns 18 in three years. But she recognizes that it's not easy for everybody to participate, particularly if it's not part of a homework assignment.

"It's a lot of effort for people at times to learn about different platforms and different policies," she said. "Particularly ones that don't interest them and don't touch their lives."  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Election 2015

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