'The walls are closing in on civic spaces.' But there is incredible possibility around empowering young Canadians.

By Victoria Kuketz, Digital Democracy Fellow, Public Policy Forum (PPF) and Shweta Menon, Policy Lead, PPF

The United Nation’s 2023 theme for the International Day of Democracy on Friday is “Empowering the Next Generation,” which explores the essential role young people must play in advancing democracy.

There are a multitude of studies that state young people are apathetic and disengaged from our democracy. However, after having spoken with young adults from 320 locations across the nation on behalf of the Public Policy Forum (PPF), our findings from Far and Widening: The Rise of Polarization reveal the opposite.

Canada’s young adults are deeply concerned about the issues affecting their lives, yet they have not been meaningfully engaged in political discourse, nor have they been included in decision-making spaces.

These persistent civic exclusions have led to disenchantment and disengagement among Canada’s young people. They do not view engaging in mainstream democratic channels such as voting as an effective pathway to change; this is a conscious disengagement which is often perceived as apathy.

A glaring statistic from a PPF-commissioned national survey of 1,500 young adults was rooted in the ways in which they felt change can be brought about in Canada. Fifty percent of respondents believed that voting can bring a change while 21 percent believed in protest and civil disobedience and 17 per cent indicated taking power away from elites is the best way to go forward. Dismally, 12 per cent believed nothing can enact real change in Canada.

We’ve seen stark declines in electoral participation, and we feel the tone of an increasingly frustrated nation. But there is hope and incredible possibility around empowering the next generation to be stewards and champions of democracy. Here are some reflections from our year-long immersion:

Voting itself is part of a continuum of engagement – young people need to be meaningfully engaged within their communities, within policy discussions and within national political conversations to build the trust and inclusion that can lead to greater participation. The 2015 federal election, which saw a surge of young voters, clearly indicated that when young adults vote, their representation within the political sphere has an impact. Their voices count and the power they can exercise in our democracy matters.

With that in mind, non-partisan nationwide campaigns that build capacity and democratic engagement with young adults are critical and must be done authentically to resonate. In turn, young people must take up the charge to empower themselves as well so they can exercise their own power within our democracy. And we must collectively design accessible entry points that pull them up the ladder of engagement.

We built community roundtables across the nation that met young people in their local environments and took a values-led approach to building the dynamic they needed to discuss issues that matter to them. Young people need a shared sense of power, as well as to feel they are being given equal responsibility in our democratic future. That is empowering!

Young adults also need to be supported when contributing to a culture of democratic engagement. In his recent message, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez said that the current spread of mis- and disinformation is “poisoning public discourse, polarizing communities and eroding trust in institutions.” Indeed, our study showed that 70 percent of respondents feel Canada is moderately to severely polarized and more than 45 percent expected it to get worse over the next five years.

Young people in Canada are coming of age in an increasingly fraught environment. Their greatest connection to their communities is still overwhelmingly online where misinformation thrives, call-out culture inflicts immense social pressure and truth becomes an option rather than a reality. As the UN chief aptly states, “The walls are closing in on civic spaces.”

To support the next generation in navigating this climate, we need to take a system-wide approach, particularly when it comes to insisting on a more functional form of political discourse. Thirty-seven percent of young adults reported not aligning with the traditional binary of “left versus right” politics. They report exhaustion with polarization’s ability to impede and distract from real progress on the issues that matter to them, including mental health, climate change and affordable housing, among others.

To put this into practice, we plan to continue empowering and supporting young people and their democratic futures by convening spaces for open and non-partisan conversation around issues that matter.

We will be partnering with the Democratic Engagement Exchange where Victoria Kuketz, PPF Fellow in Digital Democracy, will host a Democracy Dialogue on Oct. 3 to present our findings to the young adults who were part of this study and their communities. Justin Ling, Shweta Menon and some of the youth involved will join her as panelists. If you’re interested and invested in empowering young people too, then join us.