Youth issues got short shrift during Ontario campaign, advocates say

·3 min read

Young people and the issues they care about have largely been kept on the sidelines of Ontario's election campaign, say advocates with Future Majority.

The advocacy group identified climate change, mental health, housing and the cost of living as key issues for young people in its public outreach efforts and focus groups, including one that quizzed undecided young voters in swing ridings around Toronto.

“We didn’t hear about climate change much at all this election, whether it was in stump speeches or at rallies or at debates,” said Camellia Wong, a Future Majority spokesperson who noted it was mentioned five times — four by the Greens — during the leaders’ debate (there were more mentions of licence plates).

The political parties also failed to reach younger voters, who make up around a quarter of the province’s electorate, with their focus on the negative attributes of rivals, she said.

While young people broadly support universal mental health care, for example, many of those the group canvassed couldn't attribute support for such a policy to any of the parties, Wong said.

The NDP and Greens plan to include mental health support under OHIP, while the Liberals are promising $3 billion to help train 3,000 new mental health and addictions workers, a third of them for at-risk youth. The Progressive Conservatives say they’ll invest $1.9 billion over 10 years — with funds matched by Ottawa — to expand mental health services.

Future Majority sought to bridge this divide, inviting the leaders of the four parties to address young people's questions in video responses they collected on their votetube.ca website. PC Leader Doug Ford was the only leader not to participate.

For Future Majority volunteer Jad El-Ghali, a political science and sociology student, the disconnect between politicians and young people comes in part from an outdated idea that youth are apathetic.

"I still feel like they (politicians) underestimate the youth vote,” the 21-year-old said. “If they believe that young people don't vote, they're not going to go out of their way to court young people."

Elections Ontario does not publish data on the demographics of voters, but turnout among young people in federal elections jumped in 2015 and remained elevated in 2019 and 2021, despite last year's snap election not including campus polling stations. The votes of those aged 18 to 35 could prove critical, especially in closely contested races.

In Scarborough, Brampton and Mississauga ridings, for example, races are often tight and swing between major parties, and the cities boast higher concentrations of younger people. (Brampton has the lowest median age among Canada's 10 largest cities, three years younger than for the wider Toronto area and 4.5 years younger than the provincial and national averages.)

"If we can turn out just a couple of hundred people to vote in these elections, a couple of hundred young people, politicians have to start paying attention," Wong said.

When it comes to obstacles to youth engagement, El-Ghali said political parties and the system itself are not compelling and that “civic literacy is terrifyingly low.”

"If you go out today and ask any young person or even a middle-aged person the different responsibilities of the provincial versus federal government, I don't think they'll be able to give you a clear answer," he said, pointing to limited attention paid to the subject in the high school curriculum.

On the other hand, Meshall Awan, another Future Majority spokesperson, said many of the conversations happening now — on affordability, mental health and the climate crisis — weren’t even on the agenda in Ontario's 2018 election. They just have to move from talk to "credible and robust plans," she said.

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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