a group of young people on the steps of a building

Leadership
February 10, 2021

Youth Civic Engagement: The Hallmark of a Thriving Democracy

By Teresa Marques and Marlene Floyd

On January 6th in Washington D.C., Canadians watched in horror as one of the world’s great symbols of democracy bowed beneath the weight of insurrection. In those heart-stopping moments, we as Canadians were compelled to consider the health of our own democratic institutions.  On that day, we saw how easily democracy could be jeopardized.  In the days ahead, we must take action to make sure our young people feel a sense of belonging, an understanding of their democratic institutions, and a commitment to, in some way, participate in them actively.  There is no other way to ultimately shore up our own democracy.

Educating and exposing young Canadians to civic engagement requires a concerted effort from all sectors.  It will require encouragement from thought leaders across the country and a commitment to support teachers and parents who are trying to do their part. Dismantling barriers and improving access to civic education starts by opening doors, thinking creatively, and communicating beyond the current echo chambers of people who are already engaged. Apathy and complacency don’t stand a chance against empowered young people who believe they have a voice and are just as much a part of our democracy as any other Canadian. Simply put, if young people feel a healthy and accessible democracy is in their hands, they are exceedingly likely to invest in it, be proud of it, and keep it safe.

In February and May 2020, on behalf of the Rideau Hall Foundation, Abacus Data conducted two surveys examining Canadians’ engagement with public institutions (self-identified interaction or the feeling that an institution plays an active role in their lives). While we saw an increase in engagement with public institutions across all age groups, younger Canadians (those aged 18 to 29) continued to view themselves as the least engaged. In fact, this age group scored 30 points lower than those aged 60 and over on basic engagement metrics. Many young people believe that they can (and they do) make a difference in more local or informal forms of activism, but aren’t involved on the larger, formal stages in the same numbers. It is imperative that we understand and address why young people don’t see an avenue for this kind of activism in our national institutions.

Young people, of course, reflect the fulness of Canadian diversity and are no more monolithic than the rest of the population.  They are connected to each thread that runs through Canada’s tapestry. This can make reaching them difficult, but it also means the return on those efforts will be particularly important when combined with the high energy, critical thinking and willingness to challenge authority that young people often bring.  We need an approach to civics education that ultimately encourages young people to be audacious, reach higher and embrace public service engagement and leadership.

Many of Canada’s current civic leaders in government across the country were inspired by Forum for Young Canadians – a national program established in 1975, devoted to empowering youth for lifelong and meaningful civic engagement through week-long peer learning experiences on and around Parliament Hill. This program, newly in partnership with the Rideau Hall Foundation, provided a turning point for these future luminaries to begin imagining the better Canada they wanted to see.

For decades, Forum has provided a unique space for high-school aged youth to experience our multifaceted democracy and the institutions that form its foundation. It does this by making connections, providing inspiration, exposing young Canadians to diverse perspectives and ideas, and encouraging them to remove any barriers from their imaginations and aspirations. After nearly a half-century, the time has come for Forum to be reimagined for young people today, building on its strengths and legacy while adapting to new and innovative opportunities for experiential learning and engagement.

Now is the time to nurture the exponential growth of young peoples’ bold ideas. Now is the time to make sure our young leaders receive the support and the tools they need to ensure their continued meaningful engagement in all areas of Canadian society. The strength of Canada’s democracy depends on it. Canada’s future depends on it.

Teresa Marques is president and CEO of the Rideau Hall Foundation. Marlene Floyd is Forum for Young Canadians Chair.