Hey, democracy! Stop ignoring students

Hey, democracy! Stop ignoring students

Matt Farrell
Professor, Fanshawe College
Published: Monday, March 14, 2011, reprinted with the permission of the author

With a political upheaval underway in the Middle East, many political commentators are quick to draw a contrast with the democratic malaise that plagues our country. Far from taking to the streets in protest, the majority of Canadians can't even be bothered to show up on Election Day. The 2008 federal election saw the lowest voter turnout in any election since confederation. Citizens in Egypt and Libya are risking life and limb for the faint hope of democracy, while most Canadians won't even vote.

How did this situation arise? One where our citizens routinely forgo a right that others are willing to die for? Technology, urban sprawl and hyper-individualism are favourite culprits, but students often shoulder a disproportionate amount of blame. Young Canadians ages 18 to 24 tend to vote less often than voters in older demographics. It is easy and convenient to blame today's youth.

I however, have a slightly different perspective. As a professor of political science my goal is to engage students in the political process. Each term, I assign students the task of emailing their Member of Parliament (MP) with a policy question. This is a valuable exercise on many fronts, but most fundamentally, it urges students to pull at the levers of democracy to see what their elected officials can do for them. The results are surprising.

I am always shocked at the sheer volume of student inquiries that go unanswered. The questions are cogent, coherent and thoughtful, yet they illicit almost no response from Parliament. It's no wonder students don't vote. If students don't feel engaged in the political process, perhaps it's because they are being ignored.

While I do not wish to impugn all MPs, there are some who work tirelessly to address each and every inquiry from their constituents. Irene Mathyssen, member for London-Fanshawe, is one such MP who responds to each email personally. Perhaps it's her background as a teacher, but Irene recognizes the importance of engaging students.

"It has always been my objective," stated Mathyssen. "Students are smart, they have great ideas, and we dismiss them at our peril."

Despite the efforts of a select few, many politicians are content to ignore the concerns of students. This unfortunately applies to municipal politics as well. Several members of the Fanshawe student community recently inquired about getting a seat on the City of London's Transportation Advisory Committee. They attempted to contact Stephen Orser, councilor for Ward 4. Since Ward 4 is home to a number of Fanshawe students, Orser was a natural choice. Several students approached him and all were rebuffed. Unfortunately this is not the first time Orser has shown his antipathy for students, but it is nonetheless troubling.

Who is better suited to advise council on public transit than its biggest users? Why deny them the opportunity? Orser's refusal is indicative of larger and systemic problem facing youth. Political parties and candidates routinely ignore the concerns of students despite paying lip service to the contrary. If politicians continue to alienate youth in this fashion, how can we expect them to take an interest in politics? If young Canadians aren't participating in democracy, it's because democracy is neglecting them.

For the record, I also approached Stephen Orser for a comment but, as expected, he could not be reached.