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Bill to Amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age)

Second Reading--Debate Continued

March 16, 2021

Hon. Robert Black [ + ]

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Bill S-209. In 2019, 4-H members from across Canada sat in this very chamber for their annual Citizenship Congress. They held a mock Senate sitting, during which I played the role of the Usher of the Black Rod. The question of lowering the voting age to 16 was their topic of debate. I was very impressed by their debate, and I only hope that ours has done it justice.

While 4-H members were not able to visit Ottawa and I was unable to host the congress in the Senate chamber due to the pandemic, the quality of last year’s event and the accompanying debate was extremely impressive. In fact, I posed the question of lowering the voting age to congress participants. While I heard from both sides, the majority of young Canadians supported changing the voting age to 16.

18-year-old Isobel Kinash of Wishart, Saskatchewan, shared that she had recently voted for the first time but, if given the opportunity, she would have voted at 16. The main barrier she highlighted for youth voter engagement was the lack of information around the voting process. I wholeheartedly agree with Isobel and echo her sentiment that, “a crucial part of lowering the voting age would be to promote the information necessary for youth to make educated decisions.”

I think it’s easy for some of us, especially those of us who are no longer young, to dismiss the idea and say that 16-year-olds don’t have the knowledge or interest to make an informed decision, but I don’t think that’s true. At 16 years old, we hand our children the keys to the vehicle, we give them the ability to get married and join the military, all of which require both maturity and responsibility. Furthermore, 16- and 17-year-olds are old enough to work and pay taxes, yet they have no say in the way their tax money is spent by the government.

It is a slap in the face to 16- and 17-year-olds to tell them that they can do all of these things but that they can’t vote. We teach our teenagers to take responsibility for themselves and to make smart decisions about their futures, their friends and their relationships. Allowing them to vote at 16 is just another way to show that we have faith in our youth, and that they can make responsible decisions.

When we say that they shouldn’t vote because they are not mature enough, we do our youth a disservice. Anyone who spends a lot of time around youth can tell you that many are very politically engaged and interested in social issues. According to Statistics Canada, youth are among the most socially engaged. In 2013, 74% of youth between the ages of 15 and 19 were part of a group, organization or association, compared with 65% of individuals from 45 to 54 and 62% of individuals from 65 to 74.

Over the past year, we have seen young people pour into the streets to call for equality, an end to racial injustice and to bring attention to the global climate crisis. Of course, not all of them are knowledgeable about politics and current events, but I could say the same thing about 18-year-olds, 30-year-olds or 65-year-olds. Knowledge and experience should not be a criteria for voting. All Canadian citizens get to vote because they are Canadian citizens, not because they pass some sort of test on their knowledge and politics.

The youth are our future and are just as affected as adults by the results of an election. In fact, there are many important policy issues that will affect them more than they will affect us, such as environmental protection. Allowing them to vote at 16 will help youth feel empowered and give them agency in a political system that they are directly affected by.

As I noted above, education will be key to engaging youth and allowing them to make more informed decisions. School curricula should be adapted to ensure that students are educated about elections, candidates and platforms in a non-partisan manner. Teachers could help students to make sure they are registered to vote. Classroom learning could provide the opportunity to equip students with the knowledge and tools they need to vote — real hands-on learning. The 4-H motto is “learn to do by doing,” which is especially appropriate when involving youth.

Here in the Senate of Canada, we have a great program called SENgage. At SENgage, they work hard on outreach to grade schools, high schools, universities and colleges to bring further and better understanding of our political system to the younger generation. I am proud to support this program in any way I can and have visited numerous schools across Ontario, in person and virtually, to talk about the Senate. This is just one example of how schools can be more involved in helping youth to vote and understand the voting process.

At this time, I would like to take a minute to thank Kate McCarthy from SENgage for all her hard work over the years. Kate has left our Senate family for new opportunities, but I wanted to thank her for all her hard work. She will be missed.

After 46 years of involvement with 4-H Canada, I remain dedicated to supporting, representing and engaging with youth as a senator. I recently virtually visited a class of Grade 7 students from the Upper Grand District School Board. I also posed the question of lowering the voting age to 16 to these students. Even at 12 years old, many of them had interesting opinions to discuss with their classmates. Regardless of whether they were supportive of this bill, I was heartened by the discussion they engaged in on this important topic.

Honourable senators, it is time to show our support for our youth by voting in favour of this bill. Voting is habitual. Getting youth to vote early on increases the likelihood that they will continue to vote and perhaps engage politically in other ways throughout and going forward in their lives.

We cannot continue to talk about our youth as the future and praise them for the value they add to society but then deny them the agency to take direct action and be part of a system they are paying into. I will therefore be voting in favour of Bill S-209, and I do hope you will join me. Thank you for listening. Meegwetch.

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Bill S-209, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age). I would like to thank Senator McPhedran and her staff for their hard work in putting this bill together and allowing this chamber to debate this important issue.

The debate around lowering the voting age predates the legislation before us. Over the years, when I would discuss the issue, I would hear people say something to the tune of “when I was 16, I was too young or immature to make an informed choice,” or they would point to a young person they know who was disengaged from politics and either would not vote or vote, in their opinion, incorrectly due to their lack of understanding or appreciation of the politics of the day. To such comments, I say that we can all speak from experience that when an individual reaches their eighteenth birthday, a switch does not go on that equips them with the mental faculties to make informed, well-thought-out choices on any number of issues. I’m sure each one of us knows an adult or two to whom we can apply any number of anecdotes I listed above.

While we use the age of 18 as the legal definition of an adult, there are a number of actions a Canadian can legally take before the age of 18 that would be considered adult. They can enter into a consensual sexual relationship, drive a car, pay taxes or enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. Of course, we need definitive ages as set boundaries for any number of actions, but the consensus and understanding around which actions can be sanctioned at a specific age evolve. They evolve as our society and culture change over time. This is why we have to seriously consider this bill before us today.

I’d like to take a minute to look at what our students are presently doing in both elementary and secondary schools today. In researching this speech, I did two things: I met with secondary students who represented over 60,000 local students and covered all walks and needs of life, and I reviewed a handful of course descriptions related to civics in both elementary and secondary schools all over Canada. Through this research, I saw units, half courses and compulsory full courses teaching, but not limited to, the following expectations and outcomes. Listen to the language and the intent of this language carefully.

First, students apply the concepts of political thinking to investigate, debate and express informed opinions about a range of political issues and developments that are both of significance in today’s world and of personal interest to them. Students learn about democracy in local, national and global contexts and about political decision making across Canada. And students explore the issues of civic importance and influence in social media.

Almost across the country, before they completed Grade 10, students will use the political thinking concepts and political inquiry process to investigate issues of civic importance. They can describe the key values of democratic citizenship and how civic action contributes to the common good in Canada. Students are able to explain the roles and responsibilities of various institutions, structures, and figures in Canadian governance, understand the rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship in Canada and some ways in which these rights are protected.

I am still amazed by a Grade 5 student who continues to email me to critique our present Senate governance structure. When I asked about his learnings, he said to me that government function is part of his Grade 5 curriculum.

My round table with a variety of students representing all aspects of communities was the most informative work done in my preparation of this bill today. They were passionate, they were open, they disagreed and they debated this to the ground from all sides and all possibilities. I observed and facilitated this but they carried this important message at the end of the day.

Today, the local and global experiences and instantaneous exposure to information have resulted in young people being more informed, more articulate and more activist than we realize. As a learner, a teacher, a coach and now a senator, I am continually impressed by the intelligence and engagement I see in our young Canadians.

A quick look at the research bears this out. Younger Canadians are more likely to search for information on a political issue or topic or to participate in a march or demonstration than Canadians over the age of 25. They are more likely to have volunteered in the past 12 months than their older counterparts. According to one study, they are also 41% more likely to engage in informal political activities, and an incredible 97% are more likely to be engaged in a civic organization than Canadians aged 25 and over.

Some of my colleagues have already mentioned that voting at an early age enshrines in Canadians the importance of going out and casting a ballot and thinking critically about who it is you are voting for while doing it. This is more important today than it has ever been. Social media and news services that only serve to reinforce an individual’s point of view are increasingly polarizing the electorate in our country. Worryingly, an Abacus survey done a few years ago found that about one in four Canadians say they hate their political opponents. We must teach the next generation of Canadians to keep an open mind and to consider other points of view.

Jurisdictions that have already lowered their voting age, such as Scotland and Austria, have seen positive results in youth political engagement. If the evidence bears this out, then it is an idea worth pursuing.

Colleagues, this bill is before us at this critical juncture in our history. Even before the pandemic, it felt that the world was at a turning point in so many ways. COVID-19 has made the stakes even higher. In the coming years, decisions will be made by governments that will reverberate for decades into the future, not only affecting young Canadians today, but their children as well. I think it is only fair that we send this bill to the committee where the idea can receive proper scrutiny and consideration. We owe our young Canadians at least that much.

Thank you, meegwetch.

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