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 Adjourned
February 10, 2022
Moved second reading of Bill S-201, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age).
She said: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to second reading of Bill S-201. This bill seeks to lower the federal voting age from 18 to 16.
I can think of no better bill to introduce than this wonderful bill, which seeks to include young Canadians in our democracy and is the product of several years of cooperation between my team and youth advisors, the Canadian Council of Young Feminists, and many other youth organizations across the country and around the world.
Today, I am pleased to once again begin the second reading of a bill — this time named Bill S-201 — that would amend the Canada Elections Act to lower the voting age in federal elections from 18 to 16. This bill would also make several minor amendments to the same act to harmonize the logistics of voting to reflect the age of 16 and the registration of potential voters for the ages of 14 and 15.
This marks the third time I rise to introduce this bill. And, while I certainly hope we can progress further this time, I tell you with all sincerity that I am deeply worried about our democracy and that, after 50-plus years of the right to vote beginning at 18, I am convinced that this relatively simple bill will help to revitalize our democracy, so this legislation remains a top priority for me.
I am deeply grateful to the many Senate colleagues who believed in the merit of studying this bill, then entitled Bill S-209, and voted to send it to committee in the last days of the previous Parliament, making it the first such bill to progress that far in our Parliament. Whether senators agreed or not with enfranchising 16- and 17-year-old Canadians, it was heartening that most in this chamber recognized the importance of allowing a committee to study, scrutinize and weigh the merits of increasing inclusion of younger Canadians in our electoral system.
To me, it was a clear signal of two things: first, that we recognize and respect the maturity, engagement and importance of young people and that their increased involvement in the electoral process deserves our sincere study and attention, not knee-jerk, dismissive rejection; and second, that we honour our mandated duty to give thoughtful and fair consideration to issues of national significance.
I acknowledge that there are passionate views on both sides of this issue, but, as senators, we owe our sober first, second and, in fact, our every thought and reflection to the legislative proposals that come before us. After listening to colleagues speaking on this bill, I would ask that you vote to support moving this debate forward.
I would also ask, out of respect for the fact that each senator in this place is an intelligent and dedicated Canadian, that the votes on this bill be left to the independent thought of each senator in choosing how they will vote.
Honourable colleagues, this is not really a complicated bill, but it has the potential for tremendous impact as a catalyst and force multiplier in the revitalization of our democracy. The rationale is simple and straightforward: We should lower the voting age to 16 because Canada’s young people are capable, informed and engaged enough to vote. Lowering the voting age will increase voter turnout by providing young people the opportunity to vote for the first time in an environment supported for the most part by their schools and their families.
Additionally, research confirms that those who vote at an earlier age for the first time are more likely to be lifelong voters. It’s lamentably ironic that polling stations are often located in high schools, even as most students must watch from afar as others exercise their right to vote.
These are not anecdotal affirmations. We know these facts because an ever-growing body of quantifiable research in several countries confirms this — research from countries like Austria, that extended voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds in 2007.
Furthermore, let’s do away once and for all with the hollow platitude that young people are “the leaders of tomorrow” when the truth we all know is that we share leadership with them today, because they are genuine stakeholders in the institutions that govern our country. This is a substantive opportunity for us to extend their rights and extend our arms to welcome them to participate fully in shaping our common future.
When this bill was debated in the previous session, some in this chamber argued that the voting age of 18 years was a de facto, immutable constant. However, we know this is not true. The accepted threshold age for voting is a social and legal construct. The voting age was changed 50 years ago by statute, not requiring a constitutional amendment. Moreover, the current consensus of 18 years is only one step in an evolution that has been more than a century in the making, shifting downward over time in various Western countries from 21 to 18 and now, in some, to 16.
At Confederation, the voting age was 21. However, at that time, only White men who owned property could vote. Women, Indigenous peoples, Black and other people of colour and members of certain religions were prevented from participating in the democratic process. In 1917, with the First World War raging, the right to vote was extended to all Canadian military members, including, with some limitations, women and Indigenous people recognized as Indians under the Indian Act. After certain women in Manitoba were the first in Canada to gain the vote — a hard-won battle — the vote was extended to many more women over the age of 21 in 1918, but still not to Indigenous women.
By 1960, the Canada Elections Act extended the vote in federal elections to people recognized as Indians under the Indian Act. And amidst great national debate about how people so young could not possibly exercise such responsibility, the Canada Elections Act was amended to lower the age of voting from 21 to 18 in 1970, more than half a century ago.
We are on the cusp of another period of change. This bill is a response to ever-growing calls for widening the franchise in Canada. This movement is led by youth, but they are not alone. Frankly, they are a lot more impressive, engaged and responsible than many of us probably were at their age. They are watching. They are waiting to be heard by parliamentarians. Regardless of political affiliation, respectful listening to younger members of our society is what a senator can and should do.
The 1991 Lortie commission is instructive in this regard. Although recommending no alteration to the voting age at that time, it concluded emphatically, at page 57, that it was a decision subject to change:
Since Confederation, the franchise has undergone regular change to include an ever-increasing number of Canadians. As our society continues to evolve, it is possible that a lower voting age will become the focus of stronger demands by those concerned and greater support on the part of Canadians . . . . The voting age is not specified in the constitution and is therefore relatively easy to change. We therefore conclude . . . that Parliament should revisit the issue periodically.
It has been 52 years since the voting age was lowered to 18 years of age, and 32 years since the Lortie commission called for a parliamentary review of that decision.
To highlight how this issue continues to evolve in response to demand, I remind senators that there are presently two bills on lowering the voting age before our Parliament, and that, in fact, over most of the past 20-plus years, there has always been such a bill in play. Internationally, more than 20 countries have implemented a full or limited form of #Vote16 and have observed positive outcomes such as increased civic engagement among youth and people connected to these youth.
#Vote16 campaigns have steadily gained momentum at the provincial and municipal level, notably in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. And most recently, in December 2021, a group of young Canadians filed an application at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to challenge the voting age in Canada, arguing that the Canada Elections Act, in preventing citizens under the age of 18 from voting in federal elections, is in violation of sections 3 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is therefore unconstitutional. It will be some time before these arguments will be determined by a court.
The arguments against lowering the legal voting age to 16 today echo the debates on lowering the voting age to 18 in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, they are remarkably similar to the arguments were made against women’s right to vote.
Today’s common criticisms of youth echo those historical debates. Young people are collectively charged with being too uninformed, too unengaged and too immature. Today there is ample evidence to counter all of these stereotypical claims. Indeed, the evidence verifies that 16- and 17-year-old Canadians are more than sufficiently mature, informed and ready to exercise the right to vote in federal elections, commensurate with their 18‑year-old peers and older adults.
Let’s look at some of the concerns and stereotypical tropes raised thus far in the discussion of lowering the voting age to 16.
Maturity: Critics argue that 16-year-olds are not mature enough to vote. But let’s look more closely at the concept of maturity, which is often equated to age.
In a research paper I received from Manitoba high school students Sarah Rohleder and her sister Meaghan, aged 15 and 16 respectively, they made the succinct observation that “Age doesn’t make everyone wiser.”
When we look outside the voting context, Canadian lawmakers have already decided that 16- and 17-year-olds are mature enough to engage in many activities that require maturity and responsible decision making.
Canadian society sees 16-year-olds as mature enough to enroll in the Armed Forces under the reserves. We entrust them to shoulder one of the greatest responsibilities one can have — serving your country and accepting unlimited liability imbued with the ultimate sacrifice for one’s country.
We believe 16-year-olds are mature enough to drive a car, which is fundamentally a killing machine, on the same roads as everyone else. We trust them to get behind the wheel and engage in an activity that is statistically one of the most dangerous acts in everyday life.
We believe that 16-year-olds are mature enough to provide informed consent to having sex and enter into a contract of marriage with the consent of their parents. We defer to the maturity of young people to know their bodies and to have the capacity to speak autonomously for what they do and do not want in the pursuit of their health.
We believe that at age 16 you are old enough to earn an income and be taxed on that income. Governments take money from employed 16-year-old Canadians, create policy and legislation that affects them but without them. Youth as young as 12 years can be charged with criminal offences under the Criminal Code of Canada. At 14 years, they can be tried as adults and sentenced to incarceration. We hold youth accountable and responsible for their actions before the law, and mature enough to bear the consequences and penalties for their actions, yet incapable of casting a ballot — mature criminals but immature voters.
In summary, 16- and 17-year-olds are already considered mature enough to navigate the responsibilities of joining the military, providing sexual consent, driving a car, paying taxes, adult prosecution, getting married and becoming parents. Yet they do not have access to the most fundamental, democratic form of engagement: the right to vote. This contradictory and inconsistent view of youth voting maturity is at odds with the heavy responsibilities that our society has already placed on their shoulders.
Why are we keeping young people away from the heart of our democracy within which the right to vote resides? Instead, we need to harness them as partners in the revitalization of our democracy. This is an essential opportunity to demonstrate to young Canadians the respect they deserve because they have earned it. They are our partners in the stewardship of our country and the institutions that govern us.
Look around you. Although 30 years of age is the threshold to be considered for appointment to the Senate, no one within a decade of that age is a senator. For the first time in our history, Canada has become an old country, by which I mean that older generations outnumber the young. Statistics Canada indicates that this imbalance in the population will only grow and that in less than 10 years seniors could represent almost a quarter of the population.
Let’s think about the fact that the federal debt surpasses $1.2 trillion. It is not our generation that will bear the full, long-term impact of the long recovery ahead.
Informed citizens: Some critics argue that a 16-year-old is not informed enough to cast a ballot. The 16- and 17-year-olds that I know, the 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who sent me research papers arguing in favour of my bill, delivered papers that I happily would have given a high grade measured by my standards as a university professor. Based on the evidence, 16- and 17-year-olds are able to make an informed decision based on their values and vision of inclusivity and progress.
Colleagues, my dad first ran as a Conservative at the invitation of the late senator Dufferin Roblin, who was then premier of Manitoba. I knocked on dozens of doors, beginning at the age of 12, for several candidates over the years running for a number of political parties. For those among us who have this experience, we know there is many a voter much older than 16 who is neither mature nor well informed, but we would fight for them to retain their right to vote.
A voter may be unsure about their position on some issues, but that does not prevent them from being informed and effectively casting their ballot. An informed voter understands their own values and can translate those values into their vision for Canada by casting their vote.
You don’t need to take my word for it. Take the evidence of the past decade from researchers who have established that 16- and 17-year-olds are equal to, in some cases superior to, 18‑year‑olds in the ability to vote responsibility.
I’m going to quote from the paper authored by Sarah and Meaghan Rohleder, both too young to vote, where they say that, in fact, federal elections in Austria, Malta and Guernsey — all countries that have already lowered the voting age to 16 — have seen high participation, at about 70%. Austria even tops the Eurobarometer for voter turnout for 15- to 30-year-olds with 79%, while the average voter turnout in Europe is 64%.
A Denmark study found that 18-year-olds are more likely to take their first vote than 19-year-olds. The more months that go by in those years saw a decline in first voter turnout. Lowering the voting age will allow people to vote before they leave high school and their home and establish lifelong voting habits.
Evidence from Austria, which lowered the voting age over 15 years ago, confirms that there is a higher first-time voter turnout that continues over time. It shows that they are ready to contribute sound decision making and quality participation in democracy. The feeling of voting, of stating your opinion, is a strong one. It is a simple act, but one that matters immensely.
In another research paper sent to me by three other Manitoba high school students several studies were cited, including a study published by the London School of Economics that a voter’s first two election cycles are key in determining their future voting habits. It increases twofold for every election in which they vote.
In the words of high school students Avinash, Rooj and Shiven, “That is the recipe for a lifelong voter.”
These student authors also noted that one kind of cognition is called cold cognition, and that is usually what we think about: attention, memory and everyday types of things. It’s really non‑emotional cognition. Then there is hot cognition, which is emotional and social cognition.
For decisions such as voting, our brains use cold cognition. While hot cognition continues developing until the mid-twenties, psychological research demonstrates that cold cognition is fully mature and developed by the age of 16. This bears restating. Viewed clinically via the lens of cognitive neuroscience, 16‑year‑olds are completely intellectually capable of making political decisions with the same mental efficacy as adults.
Colleagues, these are rational arguments and evidence that surpass the anecdotal dismissals of young voters that comprise the bulk of arguments we have been hearing from talk show pundits and other opponents.
A study from the American Academy of Political & Social Science verified the adequate level of political knowledge held by teenagers. Finding that on measures of civic knowledge, political skills, political efficacy and tolerance, 16-year-olds, on average, are obtaining scores similar to those considered adults.
Engaging youth and lowering the voting age are mutually reinforcing actions. In the past 20 years, significant studies attest to the corollary effect of education and formation on voting habits and electoral confidence. Lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, or 18 to 16, triggers a parallel increase in civic education and support for those potential new electors, something that Elections Canada has been doing for more than 100 years.
I would point out that every single research report on lowering the federal voting age, at any age, has been accompanied by the recommendation to increase education, political awareness and acuity, dialogue and therefore capacity.
Most young people are in high school at the age of 16, which provides a supportive framework to absorb the knowledge necessary to make an informed vote. At 16 and 17, Canadians are in a uniquely advantageous position to learn about the political process, the history of our democracy and the importance of voting. I would agree with those who argue that this should, in fact, begin much earlier. They are in an environment where they spend time exploring the complicated issues that face all of us today.
In the classroom, young people have a structured opportunity to discuss the different federal and provincial parties and their positions concerning environmental, economic and social issues of national and global importance. Elections would provide students an opportunity to practise forming and acting on their own opinion, and the school setting provides them the informational resources to make an informed decision when voting.
Effective representation: honourable senators, voting is a simple but powerful act. It is an act that recognizes the credibility of the person’s voice in making a decision about their community and their nation. It allows citizens to participate in the decision-making process and hold accountable those in power. In fact, our young citizens bear the burden of the decisions we are making now. To some extent, it is their future earnings that we are spending now. Giving young people the right to vote will improve our political representation and help leaders make decisions that positively affect young individuals long after they are young.
Young people are not only affected by government policy on education, climate change and other issues. When a young person moves out of their home, they are impacted by housing policy. When a young person commutes, they are affected by transit and infrastructure planning. When a young person is concerned about how they are going to take care of their elders, they are affected by seniors policy. When young people enter the workforce, they are impacted by tax and economic policy. When young people need to buy groceries for themselves or their family, food prices affect them. When looking for medical attention, young people are affected by the funding levels of our health care systems. Many more young people wish to pursue post-secondary education than those who can. They are affected by education funding.
Young people face important and serious issues that intersect with the role of government. As of 2018, people under 18 are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as are seniors. Historically, youth unemployment has been higher than that of the general population. This pandemic has revealed the vulnerability and disproportionate burden young people are being forced to carry. During the first waves of the pandemic, youth unemployment ballooned to 29.4%. January 2022 statistics reveal youth unemployment is at 13.6%: more than double the national rate now.
With the rising impact and costs associated with climate change, young people will pay the most for our inaction on transitioning to a low-carbon economy and the development of infrastructure resilience. The consequences of government action affect this cohort of young citizens who are mature enough to form an informed opinion but are prevented from being able to exercise their democratic right to vote.
Strengthening our democracy: Lowering the voting age to 16 will strengthen our democracy by increasing the number of habitual voters. Studies have shown that voters who vote in their first election are more likely to continue voting in their lifetime. Failure to engage youth in the democratic process can have negative consequences in the long term for the health of our democracy. Voter turnout in federal elections has not once been over 70% within the past 70 years.
When looking at the demographic breakdown of voter turnout, it is easy to cast a disapproving eye on the 18- to 24-year-olds who are often listed as those least likely to vote. According to Elections Canada, Canadians between those ages have shown the least amount of interest in voting, and their 2019 turnout was 57.1%.
The responsibility for engaging young people is shared. There is a degree of responsibility on youth to get involved. After speaking from experience, young people are ready and willing to engage in meaningful conversations about serious issues. However, there is a reciprocal responsibility on us as a society to create opportunities for young people to participate in the democratic system and develop interest in their communities. We should consider too that part of the reason behind youth political disengagement is due to electoral exclusion to begin with. As the youth authors of the National Youth Dialogue on Lowering the Voting Age have concisely stated:
It is incredibly frustrating to be affected acutely by government policies without any way of tangibly influencing policymaking decisions. . . . When you are treated as though your voice does not matter, that acts as an incredible barrier to political expression.
— and participation.
A study of the relationship between voting age and voter turnout in Denmark suggests that individuals are more likely to vote at 16 while their parents’ influence is still stronger than that of their peers. Comparatively, individuals are less likely to vote at 18 when their peers’ influence begins to outweigh that of their parents.
Another study found that the benefit of parenting a newly enfranchised voter is that the parent is more likely to vote in the same election, further increasing voter turnout. Most importantly, the older you become before you cast your first ballot decreases the likelihood you will ever vote for the first time. In a study of Austrian elections, 16- and 17-year-old voter turnout was almost 10% greater than those who were 18 to 20.
Colleagues, the take away is clear. Lowering the voting age will allow young Canadians to engage with the democratic process earlier, is habit forming and increases overall voter turnout in the long term. There is clear evidence of this in Austria, Scotland and Denmark — all countries where lowered voting ages resulted in increased voter turnout.
In 2007, when Austria lowered its voting age to 16, researchers found a first time voting boost in the 16- and 17-year-olds that was greater than those between the ages of 18 and 20. They also found that the turnout in the 16- and 17-year-olds was not substantially lower than the average turnout rate of the entire voting population. Academics in Austria also found that those under 18 were able and willing to participate in politics. Their values were as effectively translated into political decisions as those who were older. The study also found no evidence that a lack of voter turnout was driven by a lack of interest or a lack of ability to participate.
Young people are interested. Young people are willing to participate. Let us take a step to strengthen our democracy by increasing the public’s participation in the electoral process. Let’s bring more people to the table who can help make important decisions about policy and spending that affect them. Let’s trust young people and help them develop into the leaders who will soon be at the forefront of the vast dynamic range of issues facing our society, if they are not already in the forefront now.
Last year, I collaborated with the Alberta-based Centre for Global Education and the Ontario-based Taking IT Global, which undertook an intensive cross-Canada consultation of high-skill students from coast to coast to coast on the topic of lowering the voting age. The final report was released in 2021 and presented to parliamentarians in a series of virtual seminars. Many of you attended, and I thank you for that. Among the report’s findings:
Young people want to vote. We want to be able to share our political beliefs in a way that makes a difference. We are living in this country, have voices, and want to make a change as much or even more than older individuals. The barriers we are facing today can be overcome to allow for more educated and involved youth. We are asking that you consider these barriers and help us to make the changes we feel strongly for. We are the next generation, and allowing us to vote will help to guide the changes occurring in the world towards our future.
To those who are concerned that an influx of young voters will disrupt the current political landscape, let’s run the numbers. Lowering the voting age would be giving around 800,000 people the ability to vote. Canada’s total eligible electorate was just over 27 million people in 2019. Adding the 800,000 16- and 17‑year‑olds to the electorate would represent a 2.9% increase to the total number of eligible voters. Honourable senators, this is a fraction of the total electorate and will not upset Canada’s political competition.
To critics who argue that all youth will simply vote for one particular type of party, the research pushes back against this idea by recognizing it for what it really is: a form of gatekeeping and voter suppression, and of preventing an otherwise capable person from exercising their political preference out of fear that it may not align with our own. Maturity and social responsibility should play the defining role in deciding whether to allow someone to vote, not their personal political beliefs. Such a notion is antithetical to the understanding of democracy itself, where the unfettered voices of the people voting are the source of legitimate power.
However, if this ethical reasoning is insufficient to dissuade critics from making false assumptions as to youth voting biases, then I would like to share another fact. In the recent national student vote mock election, which paralleled the federal election of September 2021, organized by CIVIX in partnership with Elections Canada, in which more than 780,000 students cast a ballot, guess which party received a larger percentage of the popular vote than the governing Liberal Party? Senator Plett, this one is for you — it was the Conservatives.
While there have been previous private members’ bills to lower the voting age to 16, they have all originated in the other place. Bill S-201 gives senators a unique opportunity to frame this debate in its initial stages, which at its core concerns the modernization and revitalization of our democracy.
I wish to remind honourable senators of the argument raised previously that presupposed that the Senate is not the proper forum for this type of bill, and that legislation affecting the Canada Elections Act should originate in the other place. I refute the false premise of that assertion, and I spoke to it in my rebuttal at the time. But it was used erroneously as a major objection to the passage of the bill previously, and I really want to restate my argument with three clear points today.
First, the Senate has every right to introduce, debate, advance and study any type of legislation. Indeed, the Constitution Act, 1982 grants as much legislative power to the Senate as to the House of Commons, with the exception that the House of Commons has the exclusive power to originate appropriation and tax bills. Numerous bills seeking to amend the Elections Act in various ways have originated in the Senate in recent years. All of these were debated openly and went on to pass or fail based on their relative merits as part of the recognized legislative process, either in this chamber or in the other place. In like manner, the members of the other place will eventually have the same opportunity to weigh the merits of this present bill as they see fit, should we send it to them. The same applies for the bill that is currently in the other place. We too will have the opportunity to fully examine that bill, should it reach us.
Second, I would posit that the Senate is actually an ideal place to consider the federal voting age in Canada. By its very design, the Senate is meant to engage in the legislative process in a fashion that is removed from the pressures of the electoral cycle and the partisan politics of the day.
As one of our esteemed colleagues, Senator Harder, argued in the National journal of constitutional law, and I quote:
. . . Because senators were appointed for a long tenure, it was originally expected that they would not place the interests and fate of political parties at the heart of its deliberations. Rather, senators would take an independent and dispassionate approach to the task of legislative scrutiny and debate, and apply their thoughtful judgment unimpeded by electoral or partisan pressure.
Freed as we are from the pressures, constraints and imperatives of the election cycle, we senators may be able to apply a level of nuance and dispassionate distance to voting age reform that may not be possible for a body of elected members who must deal with the biases and pressures, both known and unknown, that attend their elected positions.
Third, the Senate serves an invaluable purpose as a body that can lead substantive, in-depth studies and move forward debates and policy considerations that may well inform future government legislation and public policy. We have seen many examples of this in the last three sessions of Parliament, while I have been a senator. The Senate is a complementing not competing actor in the legislative process, providing value to Canadians. Senate public bills significantly influence public policy by simply being proposed and debated.
Engaging youth; youths are often accused of being disengaged, apathetic, absent. Honourable senators, that’s not what I see. That’s not what I hear. Young people are already engaged in their communities. They get involved in their high schools through clubs and student councils. They are involved in sports teams and drama theatres that put on fundraisers for community initiatives. They volunteer for political campaigns, organize rallies and advocate for causes.
I have encountered a lot of opposition from people who don’t think that young people are thoughtful or knowledgeable enough, but give them the space to talk and you will see an astonishing amount of depth and sophistication in what they have to say. It amazes me to see the way our young leaders are enacting new visions from the grassroots. If you take the time to listen to the young people in your regions, you, too, will be persuaded by their convictions and insight.
Lowering the voting age can expose interested young people to organizations or activities that can produce habits of civic engagement. Creating more opportunities for young people to be exposed to how they can contribute their time and effort to develop their communities is something worth fighting for.
I also want to add here that we need to understand that, in many ways, volunteerism is a luxury that many young people cannot afford. We have a very significant poverty level in this country under which many young people must live.
When I began working with my youth advisors on the idea of lowering the federal voting age, they made it clear to me that a national campaign, galvanized by youth leaders, needed to be created. But they also pointed out to me that there were many young people who would want to be able to participate but who would not be able to participate.
This holds true in terms of community engagement and engagement in other ways in our democracy. Relatively speaking, the right to vote does not take that much time. This is a way, with an equal distribution of the right, for a wide range of young people to be engaged in their communities and in our democracy.
From across Canada, my youth advisors have been diligently researching, consulting and proposing outreach strategies to ensure Canadian youth are involved at all stages of the process of this bill. The #Vote16 steering committee, composed of my youth advisors, has been invaluable for providing thorough feedback and youth perspectives at every stage of this process.
This has been a long time coming from my first year as a senator in 2017, with numerous youth circles across Manitoba and, eventually, other parts of the country. I’m committed to consulting young leaders as this bill makes its way through Parliament and to invite youth, youth-led movements and youth‑focused organizations to reach out.
Bill S-201 will improve Canada’s democratic representation by giving a political voice to people who are affected by government policy, but who have no significant means to influence it. Lowering the voting age will revitalize Canadian democracy by creating an environment where more young Canadians will vote for the first time and will thus be more likely to continue to vote for the rest of their lives, which will increase voter turnout in the long term. This will strengthen youth engagement. If we want young people to be full members of our society, we must make room for them at the table.
Senator McPhedran, I’m afraid your time has expired.
I ask for some additional time, please.
Senator McPhedran is asking for five more minutes. Is there any objection? Go ahead, Senator McPhedran.
It’s an honour for me to carry the torch once again for a fair and inclusive democracy.
Honourable colleagues, our young leaders are mature enough, engaged and informed members of our society. The decision-making table will be a more effective place if they are with us there. They are our partners and crucial contributors in the growth and vitality of our institutions. Extending to them the right to vote is a smart, low-cost, high-yield investment in strengthening our democracy. Please, let’s hear what they and international experts have to share with us at committee. Please join with me in inviting young Canadians to our table. Thank you, meegwetch.
Honourable senators, I rise today to lend my support to Bill S-201, which would lower the federal voting age in Canada from 18 to 16.
Colleagues, Bill S- 201 reflects a growing movement to include the voices of young people in our democracy, and I thank my colleague Senator McPhedran for her championship of this bill in the Senate.
In reflecting on Canada’s democracy and institutions, a foundational point has been that every citizen should have a voice. As such, one of the more powerful mechanisms that we can use to exercise this voice is through our ability to vote.
In Canada, voting is considered a right, not a privilege to be earned — a right that is not dependent on gender, race, religion, ethnicity or socio-economic background.
While there are reasonable limits placed on electoral rights, the question we must examine here is this: How does age, as one of the limits that we place on the right to vote, affect our young people in Canada today?
Throughout my work as a youth supporter, taking care of children both before and after joining the Senate, I have found that young people are ready, willing and able to engage in decision making and policy determination.
As Senator McPhedran has mentioned in several of her speeches on this topic, including today, 16- and 17-years-olds already have the capacity to gain employment, pay taxes, drive, join the military, give sexual consent, marry and have children. If we are already trusting young people with these responsibilities and rights, I would also argue that they are ready and able to assume the right to vote and that they are ready to assume the right to influence policy and to participate in a parliamentary process that directly impacts their lives.
Importantly, this movement to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote here in Canada is being led by young people across Canada, not by Senator McPhedran, me or by other colleagues here in the Senate; by other professional groups; or by youth advocates. It is being done by our youth themselves. Their voices are engaging in this discourse. They are clear; they are decisive.
Let me give you some examples. I will quote two young women who are litigants in the court challenge to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice case regarding the unconstitutionality of the voting age. First I will quote Amelia Penney-Crocker, a 16-year-old from Halifax who said:
Youth are the future. But as it stands, we can’t vote for who gets to shape that future – and particularly in this unprecedented climate crisis, lack of youth voting rights might mean that we don’t have a future at all.
Similarly, Katie Yu from Iqaluit says:
Our voices should not be ignored, as we know what actions are needed to address these issues and better the world for future generations, and we are already making change in many ways . . . .
Colleagues, our youth are eloquent, they are confident and they are firmly asking to be included in our democratic process. They are asking to be consulted, and they are taking the lead here. They want to be engaged on the subject of voting, and it is our responsibility as parliamentarians, I would propose, and as policy makers that we elevate their voices in this discourse.
Let us consider in more detail the constitutionality of the current voting age from the perspective of youth themselves, which is the basis of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice court challenge. This court challenge, led by a group of 12- to 18‑year‑olds, proposes that two sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, sections 3 and 15, are violated by the current voting age of 18 set out by the Canada Elections Act.
Section 3 of the Charter guarantees that all Canadian citizens have the right to vote in an election. It does not qualify age.
Section 15 highlights that all individuals are equal before and under the law, and guarantees every individual the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, mental or physical disability or age.
Honourable senators, this is an important argument because it highlights the fact that the current voting age restriction is a direct result of the Canada Elections Act, and that this limitation has been subject to change in the past over the years — change that is based mostly on the progressive societal shifts in values that we have seen.
In truth, progressive enfranchisement — or the broadening of voting entitlement — has been a distinct part of the growth of our democracy as we have continually expanded our definition of the rights of the citizen. While we have reflected on those, we have also reflected upon who should remain excluded from this form of civic, political and social participation and, in this reflection, we continue to fail our youth.
I would argue that, as equal citizens of Canada, all youth deserve the right to vote, thereby including them in our move towards a democracy that is more inclusive, equitable and just.
Honourable senators, our youth, our young people under the age of 18, currently participate in other forms of political engagement in our democratic institutions and in our systems. For example, the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada, the Green Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party all allow entry of members as young as 14.
Our government has increasingly recognized the importance of elevating youth voices and consulting with young people on policy and programs. Even the Court Challenges Program — reinstated in 2017 and supports individuals and groups to bring cases that challenge perceived constitutional human rights violations before the courts — is accessible to Canadians, regardless of age.
Additionally, our government is actively consulting with youth, individually, in groups and in organizations to inform Canadian policy and decision making.
In February 2018, this government launched a national dialogue with youth to shape Canada’s Youth Policy — a mandate of the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth — yet another example of our growing recognition of young people as equal partners and leaders for tomorrow.
Now, more than ever, as we navigate a global pandemic — precarious financial and socio-political situations, and a recovery that will stretch likely years into the future — the right to participate in our democratic process is even more critical.
Young people have been handling this pandemic alongside us. They face the same challenges, including income insecurity, changing school conditions and precarious work. Young people have risen to the occasion on multiple fronts, working front-line jobs, keeping service industry businesses staffed, actively engaging and advancing our democracy.
We need to consider how we repay our youth for their commitment to family, country and Canada’s democracy. How are we engaging them to become the leaders of tomorrow?
The best way to do this, colleagues, is by respecting their rights to participate fully in our democracy and to encourage their active contribution to our parliamentary process, to the creation of our laws, policies and systems that will affect them and their future.
Lowering the voting age is one of many steps forward that we need to take to support our young people. As we have heard, it will empower 800,000 — yes, 2.9% — 16- to 19-year-olds. This may not be a significant number overall, but it is a significant number of youth who are affected.
As senators, we need to elevate the voices and needs of our Canadian youth because, in our democracy, they are equal partners. They are willing. They are engaged. They are ready to vote.
Thank you, meegwetch.
Honourable senators, I, too, rise to speak to you on Bill S-201, an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act for the purposes of lowering the voting age from 18 years to 16. I want to commend Senator McPhedran for her persistency on behalf of young people so that they can have a say in our democracy and welcome our efforts in bringing this amendment for the third time to the chamber.
The history of who gets to vote in Canada has never been set in stone. In 1885, only male, property-owning, British subjects aged 21 and older were eligible to vote. Today, all Canadian citizens aged 18 or older, regardless of gender, income or ethnic origin have the right to vote. Evolution has been at the heart of electoral law.
However, every time voter eligibility has evolved, objections have been raised. For example, before some women were enfranchised in 1918, Senator Hewitt Bostock argued that:
. . . women will be put in the position of receiving something that they do not appreciate, and consequently very probably they will not exercise their right to vote.
I’m sure many women cringe when they read and hear this point of view. I have heard many similar arguments against lowering the voting age to 16.
Instead of telling you the virtues associated with this idea, let me deal with the objections to it.
The first objection is that young people are too young to deal with complex matters such as voting. Plus, they are so young that we cannot reasonably expect them to make informed choices. In addition, their brains are not sufficiently developed at 16 to enable them to make logical choices. And, finally, what would be the point in any case, since young people would only vote the way their parents tell them to?
In other words, they are too young, too immature, too impressionable, too inexperienced to be granted the most valuable right of citizens: the ability to cast a vote.
Instead of giving you just my opinion, let me share the evidence from jurisdictions that have lowered the voting age.
In 2007, Austria enfranchised those aged 16 and older. There is a 13-year body of evidence to draw from. What the data tells us is that the turnout among 16- and 17-year-old Austrian voters has not been substantially lower than the overall turnout rate. Evidently, young people will vote if they are given the opportunity.
Let’s deal with the objection related to immaturity.
Young people cannot be entrusted with the vote because they will make uninformed choices. If given the vote, they may cast their vote for the sake of voting without understanding the implications of the choices they are making. They don’t have enough political knowledge and are not able to tune in to the political discourse of the day. Honourable senators, frankly, if this holds true for young people, I would submit it holds true for many adults as well.
Once again, I looked to countries that have enfranchised youth to determine if this argument holds water. A study conducted in Austria before the 2009 European Parliament election showed that young people voted based on their political preferences just as much as older voters. They were not ignorant of the context — quite the opposite. They had distinct political preferences which they exercised through their vote.
Then there’s the argument that adolescent brains cannot manage the logical processes required for voting, even though they can drive cars. They can join the reserves. They can work. They can pay taxes. But apparently they cannot manage the logical processes required for voting.
According to neuroscientists, in scenarios where tasks are mainly cognitive, adolescents show competence levels comparable to those of adults. This means that when the level of stress is low and there is time to evaluate different choices, young people can make thoughtful decisions. Because voting is an activity that teenagers — and in fact all of us — can think about ahead of time, they are able to make just as reasonable decisions as adult voters.
Finally, regarding parental influence, people ask, “What’s the point of allowing young people to vote, since they will surely vote the way their parents tell them to?” I don’t know about your children, colleagues, but in my family the opposite is almost always true. Kids have perspectives, they have priorities, they have opinions, and they don’t hesitate to tell us — especially us parents — what is wrong with our world. Plus, the influence does not go one way. Young people can and do affect their parents’ civic engagement and attitudes as well. My children have been instrumental in influencing me about global warming and climate change.
Additionally, there are other reasons to look seriously at this proposal. It will have a positive impact on electoral participation in the long run. This is because young people under 18 are most likely to still be in school and to live with their families — two factors that have been shown to encourage voter turnout. In the long term, this higher level of participation at a young age, may then facilitate the development of a lifelong habit of voting. As Rick Mercer, he of the famous rants, has said, “Voting is learned behaviour and it is addictive.” I am a big proponent of lowering the voting age to 16 because we know if people start voting, they will continue to vote their entire life.
It is also important to consider the impact allowing younger people to vote can have on their families, for those young people whose families are not politically engaged. Learning how to vote at school or in their community may help them to empower their family members to vote with them. Youth can be and are incredible behavioural change agents.
We make decisions in this chamber that have significant impacts on the lives of young people — decisions about cannabis, the labelling of food, assisted death, slave labour in our supply chains and, of course, climate change. A common complaint I hear from young people is that the older political elites control their future. Giving them the right to vote at this age will ensure that we hear their views and take them seriously.
Even though I have frequently referred to Austria as one of the jurisdictions that has enfranchised young people, I would also add that the voting age is 16 in Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Malta, Jersey, Guernsey, Wales and the Isle of Man. There are also several countries where 16‑year‑olds can vote in certain regional or municipal elections, including Germany, Switzerland, Estonia and the United States. The idea of allowing young people to vote should not seem so unrealistic, considering it is already taking place in many parts of the world.
Young people are campaigning for the right to vote in not only federal elections in Canada but also provincial and municipal elections. The Vote16BC campaign has received broad support, gaining endorsement from the City of Vancouver, the Union of B.C. Municipalities, and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, among many others. The Samara Centre for Democracy finds that beyond voting, young people are the most active participants in Canada’s civic and political life. They talk about politics more than anyone, are present in the formal political sphere, respond through activism and are leading their communities through civic engagement. Whatever happens at the ballot box, political leaders overlook the passion and engagement of young people at their own peril. It therefore makes sense to leverage this enthusiasm for politics into the ballot box.
I don’t want to make the argument for lowering the voting age without linking it with civic education. I don’t believe you can do one without doing the other. For example, in Austria, the lowering of the voting age was accompanied by awareness-raising campaigns and enhancing the status of civic and citizenship education in schools. In terms of citizenship education, all provinces and territories include this subject area in their curriculums. Some provinces, including Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec, have even created separate civics or citizenship courses. The foundation for leveraging civic education in our system already exists.
Perhaps the best way to conclude my speech is to look to the future. It is young people who will inherit the future, uncertain as it is. It is young people who will live with the results of our choices today. It is young people who will need to fix the mistakes older generations have made. Lord knows, we have made many, and we will likely make many more. It only makes sense to let them into the ballot box, because the future is rightly theirs, not ours. Colleagues, let’s send this bill to committee for thorough study as soon as we are able to. Thank you.