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

November 5, 2020

Hon. Marilou McPhedran

Moved second reading 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).

She said: Honourable senators, I rise today at second reading of Bill S-209, which would lower the voting age from 18 years to 16.

This is a “herstoric” moment for me because this is the first bill I have introduced in the Senate. Could there be a better bill than one about including young Canadians in our democracy? I spent several months working on this bill with my team, my youth advisors from the Canadian Council of Young Feminists and many other youth organizations across the country.

It’s been 50 years since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Today, I’m excited to begin the second reading of Bill S-209, which would amend the Canada Elections Act to lower the voting age in federal elections from 18 to 16. This bill will also make several minor amendments to the same act to harmonize the logistics of voting to reflect the age of 16.

Honourable colleagues, this is not a complicated bill, but it does have tremendous implications. Please join me in considering its potential for the revitalization of our democracy.

Lowering the voting age to 16 makes a great deal of sense. Our young people are mature, informed and engaged enough to vote. Indeed, research would indicate to us that young people today are more engaged, and I can say, with some anecdotal experience as a long-time professor and now with a very strong connection to young advisers across the country, that they are more engaged and better informed than I certainly was at their age.

Lowering the voting age will increase voter turnout by providing young people the opportunity to vote for the first time in an environment generally supported by their schools and their communities. Indeed, polling stations are often located in high schools, but most students must watch from afar as others exercise their right to vote.

We know that those who vote at an earlier age for the first time are more likely to continue to vote for the rest of their lives. Further, young people are so often told they are the leaders of tomorrow, but indeed the truth is that they are leaders now. They are leaders today. They are genuine stakeholders in the institutions that govern our country, and this is a substantive opportunity for us to show them that we recognize their rights and we take them seriously as citizens of Canada.

When Canada became a Confederation, the voting age was 21. 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 serving in the Canadian military, including women and Indigenous people who were recognized as Indians under the Indian Act.

After certain privileged women in Manitoba became the first in Canada to gain the vote, it was extended to 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. Amidst great national debate about how people so young could not possibly exercise such a responsibility, the Canada Elections Act was amended to lower the age of voting from 21 to 18. That was 50 years ago.

The arguments for lowering the legal voting age to 16 echo the debates on lowering the voting age to 18 in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, they echo the debate that women should not have been given the vote. Today’s common criticisms of youth echo these historical debates, but they are echoes without the evidence. This is a fundamental difference in what we’re facing today in being able to support a bill like this.

Today’s common criticisms are not matched by evidence around how young women, young men and young people of gender diversity are, in fact, highly informed, highly engaged and mature enough to vote. There is ample evidence to counter the prejudice.

Dear colleagues, the evidence tilts to verify that 16- and 17-year-old Canadians are sufficiently mature, informed and ready to exercise the right to vote in federal elections. I hope you as my honourable colleagues will support this bill by engaging our youth in the democratic process within your own circles for a more effective representation of our society and our country’s long-term economic and social viability.

On the question of maturity, critics argue that 16-year-olds are just not mature enough to vote, but the concept of maturity is often equated with age. In a research paper I received from Manitoba students Sarah Rohleder, aged 16, and Meaghan Rohleder, aged 15, they made this succinct observation: “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. We see 16-year-olds as mature enough to enroll in the Armed Forces under the reserves. We give them the opportunity 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: the principle that you must follow lawful orders even when it may cost you your life.

We believe 16-year-olds are mature enough to drive a car, which is fundamentally a killing machine. 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 for 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 pursuit of their health.

We believe that, at age 16, you are old enough to earn an income and pay taxes on that income. Governments take money from employed 16-year-old Canadians. They create policy and legislation that affects them, and they do it without them. 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, getting married and becoming parents.

Preventing them from voting because they lack maturity contradicts the current responsibilities that our society has already placed on their shoulders. Yet they do not have access to the most fundamental and democratic form of engagement — the right to vote.

We should not keep young people away from the heart of our democracy within which the right to vote resides. Instead, we need to invite them in 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 in the institutions that govern us. Let’s look around. Although 30 is the threshold to be considered for appointment to the Senate, no one within a decade of that age is sitting in this chamber today. Now think about the fact that the federal deficit surpassed $1 trillion. It’s not our generation that will bear the long-term impact of the long recovery ahead.

What about this question of whether 16- and 17-year-olds are sufficiently informed? Some critics argue that a 16-year-old is not informed enough to cast a ballot. Well, the 16- and 17-year-olds that I know — the 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds — and one 14‑year-old — who have sent me their own research papers arguing in favour of my bill — delivered papers to which I would happily have given a high grade 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 a vision of inclusivity and progression.

Honourable senators, my dad ran for the Conservatives at the invitation of the late Senator Duff Roblin, who was then the Premier of Manitoba. I knocked on dozens of doors, beginning at the age of 12. There were several candidates running for a number of different political parties over the years, and I have supported candidates in each of the political parties at different times for different reasons. For those among us who have this experience of door-to-door engagement in our democracy, we know there’s many a voter much older than 16 who is not mature or well informed, but we would fight for their right to vote, be they 18, be they 90, be they 100.

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 values and can translate those values into their vision for Canada by casting their vote.

I stand here today with this bill to argue that 16- and 17-year-olds are ready to vote, based on the evidence. 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 or, in some cases, superior to 18-year-olds in the ability to vote responsibly.

In the paper that I mentioned I had received from 15- and 16‑year-old sisters Sarah and Meaghan Rohleder, both of whom are too young to vote, they both brought to my attention the fact that in Austria, Malta and Guernsey, all countries that have already lowered the voting age to 16, their federal elections have seen high participation at about 70%. Austria tops the Eurobarometer for voter turnout for 15- to 30-year-olds with 79%, while the average voter turnout in Europe is 64%. A study from Denmark 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 will establish lifelong voting habits.

Further evidence from Austria confirms that there is a higher first-time voter turnout with the younger ages and that this continues over time. It shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are ready to contribute sound decision making and quality participation in democracy. The feeling of voting, of stating your opinion in a safe and private place that is protected by law, is a strong one. It is a simple act but one that matters immensely and is clearly set out in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a fundamental right with, by the way, no age specified.

In another research paper sent to me by three high school students from Winnipeg, several studies were cited including a study published by the London School of Economics last year which found 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 the high school students, Avinash, Rooj and Shiven, that is the recipe for a lifelong voter.

These student authors also noted 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 20s, cold cognition is fully mature and developed by the age of 16.

Sixteen-year-olds are completely scientifically and intellectually capable of making political decisions, a point also made by the student authors Sarah and Meaghan.

Colleagues, these are rational arguments and evidence that surpass the anecdotal and, frankly, prejudicial dismissals of young voters that I’ve been hearing from some talk show hosts and other opponents.

A study from the American Academy of Political and Social Science verified the adequate level of political knowledge held by teenagers. They found that,

On measures of civic knowledge, political skills, political efficacy, and tolerance, 16-year-olds, on average, are obtaining scores similar to those of adults.

Most young people are in high school at the age of 16, which can provide a supportive framework to absorb the knowledge necessary to make an informed vote. Some senators were able to engage in dialogue today in a webinar with some remarkable young leaders from different parts of Canada with a range of diversity among them. The question was asked about the ability to actually understand the political process and whether what we needed to do was wait until young people were receiving more education in our school systems.

Several of the panellists responded. Right now, I’m thinking particularly of Kamil from Calgary, who said that he has been receiving civic education in the Calgary school system since before he was in high school, and that the whole idea of being part of a democracy, of being a leader in civil society, was put forward repeatedly in educational programs that he’s experienced for a very long time. Most of the other young panellists nodded in agreement when he made this statement.

Young people like this are in an environment where they spend time exploring the complicated issues that face us today. In the classroom, young people have a structured opportunity to discuss the different federal and provincial parties and their positions regarding environmental, economic and social issues of national, global and local importance.

Elections would provide students an opportunity to practise forming and acting on their own opinion, and the school setting provides them with the information resources to make an informed decision when voting.

Then we come to the question of whether 16- and 17-year-olds would really contribute to effective representation.

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. Voting allows citizens to participate in the decision-making process and hold those in power accountable.

In fact, our young citizens are to bear the burden of the decisions we are making here today. To some extent, it is their future earnings that are being spent now. Giving young people the right to vote will improve our political representation and help world leaders make decisions that positively affect young individuals long into their future, when they are parents and grandparents.

Young people are not only affected by government policy on education and climate change; when a young person moves out of their home, they are impacted immediately 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 policies. When young people enter the workforce, they are impacted by tax and economic policy. When young people have children and families of their own or are living on their own, they need to buy groceries for themselves and their family, and food prices affect them. When looking for health attention, young people are affected by the funding levels of our health care systems and whether they, as young people, are going to experience prejudice in accessing those services.

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 we are. Historically, youth unemployment has been higher than the rest of the general population, and we see that dramatically right now in the midst of this pandemic.

However, because of the pandemic, the economic disruption is hitting young people very hard. In May, as the Canadian unemployment rate rose to 13.7%, youth unemployment ballooned to 29.4% — almost 30%.

With the rising impact and costs associated with climate change, young people are going to 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 a group of people who are mature enough to form an informed opinion but are prevented from being able to exercise democratic rights.

Honourable colleagues, this bill aims to resolve this democratic slight and improve the representation of Canadian society at the voting booth by bringing in more people who should be able to voice their opinion on how their government is impacting their lives.

How exactly would reducing the voting age to 16 strengthen our democracy and increase the number of 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 on the long-term 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 to the 18- to 24-year-olds who are often the least likely to vote. According to Elections Canada, Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 have shown the least amount of interest in voting. Their 2019 turnout was only 57.1% in this country.

The responsibility for engaging young people is shared. There is a degree of responsibility on youth to get involved, but we know from research that they’re already, to a large extent, involved. And speaking from experience, young people are ready and willing to engage in meaningful conversations about serious issues, just as it happened earlier today during our webinar.

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 community, to understand the impact of the decisions and actions they take today on the future that is coming.

Academics studying the impact of lowering the voting age to 16 found that it positively impacted voter turnout in younger demographics and increased the likelihood that the adults in the family would vote as well. A University of Copenhagen study found that one of the most important relationships that predicted the probability of a first-time voter was the influence of parents and peers. The study empirically contradicted the assumption that younger people would vote less frequently. It found that young people living with their parents were far more likely to vote than 18-year-olds who had moved out of the family home.

The study also showed that as young people moved out for work or higher education, their peers’ influence became equal to or greater than that of their families, and they became less likely to vote than when they were living at home.

In sum, youth living at home with their parents are far more likely to vote compared to 18-year-olds who have often moved away and might be in relatively unstable conditions.

Another study found that the benefit of parenting a newly enfranchised voter is that the parent is more likely to vote more regularly and in the same elections. That also increases voter turnout. They found that the older you become before you cast your first ballot decreases your likelihood of voting for the first time.

In a study of Austrian elections, where 16- and 17-year-olds have been able to vote since 2007, voter turnout was almost 10% greater than those in the age group of 18 to 20. The takeaway is clear: Lowering the voting age will allow young Canadians to engage with the democratic process earlier and increase overall voter turnout in the long term. That’s win-win for our democracy.

There is clear evidence of this in Austria, Scotland and Denmark. This morning on our webinar, one of our panellists was a parliamentarian, a member of Parliament for the Welsh Youth Parliament. She was 16 when elected, now 17, and her name is Maisy Evans. Her articulation of the experience of being part of the Parliament and the way in which young people — younger than 16 in many cases, as she was — engaged for years in a campaign to convince the majority of people in the Welsh Parliament that there needed to be a youth parliament. With the results that are now showing up, certainly longer term in a country like Austria where we’re looking at more than 12 years — and more recently in Wales — the information that we have is very positive, for the most part.

When Austria lowered its voting age to 16, it was found that there was a “first-time voting boost” in that 16- and 17-year-old category. It was also found that the turnout among 16- and 17‑year-olds was not substantially lower than the average turnout rate for the entire voting population. Some of the research in Austria found that those under 18 were able and willing to participate in politics, and their values were effectively translated into political decisions as those of the people between the ages of 18 to 21. In other words, there was a finding of equivalency if not better.

The study also found no evidence that a lack of voter turnout was driven by a lack of interest or ability to participate in this age group. Young people are interested. Young people are participating. 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 even better leaders at the forefront of the vast and dynamic range of issues facing our society.

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-209 gives senators a leadership opportunity to modernize and revitalize our democracy.

And to those who are concerned that young people’s voting will disrupt the current political landscape, let’s look at 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 800,000 16- and 17-year-olds to the electorate would represent only a 2.9% increase to the total number of eligible voters. This is a fraction of electors to the total amount, and it is unlikely to upset Canada’s political competitions.

If critics argue that all youth will vote for one type of party, let me push back against this idea of preventing an otherwise capable person from exercising their political preference. Maturity and social responsibility should play an important role in deciding whether to allow someone to vote, not their political beliefs. We have a freedom protecting that in this country. Such a notion is antithetical to the understanding of democracy itself when the voices of the people are the source of legitimate power.

I’ve often heard it said that young people are apathetic and young people are not engaged. 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 and other community organizations. They are involved in sports teams and drama theatres. They put on fundraisers for community initiatives.

Voter turnout numbers do not immediately prove the idea that youth are politically disengaged. All we really know for sure is that once you’re 18, you are actually less likely to vote than when you’re 16 or 17. This does not mean young people are not engaged in political or social causes. They are certainly present and using their opinion, time and effort to shape the society they believe in.

For young people who have not yet found a channel to contribute to their civic interest, we need to provide them with opportunities to get involved to strengthen communities across Canada. Lowering the voting age helps get young people involved by introducing them to the community’s issues, how government interacts with their community, what organizations work to better their community, and it gives them the opportunity to make it all better.

Lowering the voting age can expose interested young people to organizations or activities that can produce habits of long-term 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 standing up for.

When I began working with my youth advisers on the idea of lowering the federal voting age — and it came from them — they made it clear to me that a national campaign galvanized by youth leaders needed to be created. From across Canada, my youth advisers 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 Vote 16 Youth Steering Committee, composed of youth advisers, has been invaluable to me, providing feedback and their youth perspectives at every stage of developing this bill. It has been a long time coming, from 2017, when I first had this idea from the young advisers who sat around a table with me in Centre Block. Now I am committed to consulting young leaders as this bill makes its way through Parliament, as happened this morning between senators and panellists on our webinar.

A similar consultation happened in October. It started just about two weeks ago and is continuing throughout November. It again involves a number of senators and members of Parliament. This is a partnership through TakingITGlobal, which is the largest non-profit technology company in the world founded and run by young people. The partnership is also with The Centre for Global Education based in Edmonton. We’ve already commenced a cross-Canada consultation with high school students from coast to coast to coast on the topic of lowering the voting age. They don’t all agree, but the discussions are rich and the contributions of the young people and their teachers who are involved in this consultation are inspiring.

Over the next two months, we will continue to connect students with experts in the field of elections and political participation. For example, one of our panellists on the webinar this morning was from The Samara Centre for Democracy, a charity dedicated to good governance and democracy in Canada. It is non-partisan, does not take a position, but one of their researchers who specializes in youth engagement was able to give us some very important information as part of the panel discussion.

Ultimately, this kind of engagement will ask participating youth to produce a report on their position toward lowering the voting age. We look forward to working with them, to receiving reports back from them as stakeholders, to sharing them with parliamentarians and, quite possibly, taking another look at this bill to see if it’s the best it could possibly be.

I invite all of you today, and anyone listening, to consider joining our Vote 16 campaign. We have the opportunity for anyone in Canada, any young person in Canada, to become a Vote 16 Mobilizer, and the web page can be accessed through my Senate page. I want to hear from young people, and I’m committed to remaining open to feedback and suggestions.

In closing, I’d like to quote the president of the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française, an organization representing French-Canadian youth that played a vital role in developing the campaign to lower the voting age to 16. Sue Duguay said, and I quote:

The [proposed] bill puts an issue of utmost importance back on the table. I am pleased that lowering the voting age to 16 is still being considered. French-speaking youth are engaged in their communities, and that means in politics as well, often more than most people. As individuals eager to take a critical look at the Canadian political system, their voices deserve to be heard and considered.

Voting at 16 is a much broader issue than simply exercising one’s right to vote. We need to work together, with the provinces and territories, to enhance civic education amongst all young Canadians. We strongly urge the federal government to consider this bill carefully, since it responds positively to an issue that has been a top priority for young people for quite some time.

In the webinar that we had this morning, one of our panellists was an Indigenous young woman leader from Saskatchewan. In answer to a question, and I think it was a question from Senator McCallum, she made it very clear that among her peers — she’s an education student at the University of Saskatchewan — and she made it very clear in answering and contributing to our discussion, for young Indigenous leaders, they understand where they are within their communities. In many cases, they form the majority. They understand that they will carry on their shoulders, for decades to come, responsibilities that are probably far greater than many of them at their age should be carrying. She made it very clear to us that young Indigenous leaders are ready, willing and more than able to vote beginning at the age of 16.

I entrust these words to you, my colleagues, and I close by pointing out that these young leaders, young citizens of our country, are our partners. They are crucial in the long-term governance of our institutions and in the revitalization of our democracy. They deserve the right to vote, and we can help to make that happen. Thank you, meegwetch.

Hon. Leo Housakos

Senator McPhedran, I listened with interest to your speech and your argument. I have to say I was a bit skeptical at the beginning, but as you went along with your argument you made me think about how there is a great inconsistency currently in the democratic political process in this country.

The reality is, if you look at all of the major political parties, they allow membership to start at the age of 14. Of course, that’s where democracy is actually in action in this country. That’s where it all stems from and where it all begins.

We allow people at the age of 14 to become members of national political parties. They can participate in the voting process to elect the candidates in their riding, who ultimately can be elected as members of Parliament. They can participate in the leadership races of these political parties, which ultimately chooses a leader who can go on to become prime minister. But we don’t give them the right to vote in a general election. There’s that inconsistency.

My question to you in terms of your bill and your argument: Why should we make the threshold 16 and not 14, when political parties are already engaging 14- and 15-year-olds in the democratic process within the political party systems?

Senator McPhedran

Senator Housakos, thank you very much for your observations and for your question. I think it would be great if we discussed possible amendment, if that was something that interested you. One of the reasons that we’ve looked at 16 being the threshold is because most of the research has been done at that level. When we are countering as much prejudice as we are, it is my sense that the best way to do that is with evidence. Right now, the evidence strongly supports the capacity of 16- and 17-year-olds. That doesn’t preclude what we might find out a few years from now if research is being done on the capacity of 14‑year-olds, but at this point there’s little doubt in terms of the responsible voting ability of 16- and 17-year-olds in Canada.

Hon. Pierrette Ringuette (The Hon. the Acting Speaker)

Senator Martin, a question?

Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Opposition)

I thought Senator McCallum rose before I did.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker

I’m sorry, Senator McCallum, Senator Mercer would like to move on debate.


Honourable senators — I’m sorry, there’s a question.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker

I heard that you wanted to adjourn instead of Senator McCallum.

Senator Martin

Senator McCallum rose before I did, so I thought she could ask a question and I would follow.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker

Sorry. Senator Martin, you have a question.

Senator Martin

First of all, Senator McPhedran, thank you for your very thoughtful speech. I know the incredible advocacy work you do with our youth. I wasn’t able to attend the Zoom session, even though I was quite interested. As you know, I was a classroom teacher for 21 years and I absolutely agree with you. Our students are amazing. I’m a mother of a 25-year-old, and my daughter has taught me so much from a very young age.

I refer to my daughter as an example of some concerns I have about this bill and if we were to lower the age to 16.

We always say that the Senate is a master of its own domain, and I know teachers are masters of their own classrooms. There’s no way for Elections Canada or a principal to be in every classroom at all times. We put a lot of trust in the teachers, who have a lot of authority or power in the classroom. They probably spend more time with their students than some of the students spend with their own families. Now we have a very different reality with these hybrid schools, but they are in school as well.

I remember my daughter, when she was 15 — the year before she would be potentially allowed to vote if we were to pass this bill — came home one day and said, “Mom, my teacher says all politicians can’t be trusted.” She was in a very special leadership program. So I simply looked at her and I asked, “Do you trust me?” She said, “Of course.” And I said, “Well, I’m a politician.” I gave other examples of adults she knows and trusts who are also politicians. So she drew the conclusion at the end that it was quite a generalization.

If I may just —

The Hon. the Acting Speaker

Senator McPhedran, are you asking for five additional minutes?

Senator McPhedran

I would greatly appreciate that, yes.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker

Is the Senate agreed?

Senator McPhedran

But you’re in the middle of your question.


Honourable colleagues, as I stand to enter debate on this bill, I want to remind some of you who may not have read my glorious resumé that I have had the privilege in my career of being the executive director of a political party in Nova Scotia. I’ve also had the honour to be the national director of the most successful political party in Canada nationally, and I also had the opportunity of working with hundreds and hundreds of young, active participants in the political process.


In my previous life, when I was an active member of the Liberal Party.

The point of this bill is very good. Senator Housakos commented on the fact that political parties have memberships starting at age 14. Many successful political parties and candidates, both provincially and federally, know that engaging young people is providing energy. Yes, they put up signs and they stuff envelopes, but they also bring their ideas. And Senator Jaffer is nodding her head because she knows this herself; she has two children who are very active in a political party at a very young age.

I can’t name all of the bills or all of the laws that I have seen that were developed by Young Liberals in Nova Scotia, and Young Liberals across Canada, that have then ended up as legislation.

I remember when I was a Young Liberal. Anne McLellan, the future Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, and Mary Clancy, the future member of Parliament from Halifax, the three of us were on the executive of a group called the Student Liberal Association. I represented Saint Mary’s University, McClellan represented Dalhousie and Mary Clancy represented Mount Saint Vincent. Years later, as luck would have it, we found ourselves standing on Parliament Hill together, they as members of Parliament and I as the national director of their political party.

The engagement of young people puts energy into politics. Some of you have come here and said you’re not political. Some of you have actually said that you don’t like political parties. Guess what, folks? That’s what makes this place work. That’s what makes the place across the street work.

All political parties up there are driven by volunteers, and the successful ones — the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, and to a lesser extent the New Democrats — are driven by young people. Senator Housakos was right when he talked about young people joining — in his case, the Conservative Party — a political party and making the changes within the party that are really important.

When I was a Young Liberal, I was so proud to go to a convention. When we called for the legalization of marijuana — it was a long time ago. But I was also very proud when I stood in this place and voted to legalize marijuana, finally. So some of the work we started does take a little time to get here.

However, I would encourage you to consider supporting Senator McPhedran’s bill. It is a dynamic change. In the first election after we pass this bill, you will notice a huge difference in how politics will happen. It will be a lot more fun, I can tell you that. I was always able to enjoy the energy that young people brought to the game. And, yes, they were also providing a great deal of support in getting our job done.

As a matter of fact, if you want to talk to people who have been through the process of being active in political parties as a young person, Greg Fergus, the Member of Parliament for Hull—Aylmer, Quebec was active for a long time as a young person. He was at one time president of the Young Liberals of Canada.

The former Speaker of the House of Commons, Geoff Regan, was very active in the Nova Scotia Young Liberals. I remember as an executive director, I was invited to come to speak to the Young Liberals and I said, “Do I need to bring anything?” They said, “Yes, a case of beer.” Which I did.

It is a great place for young people to cut their teeth on public engagement. Yes, many of them stay involved for years. Others across the country get involved in other aspects of politics. Some of them get involved in the administration of government in one form or another, but they come with the knowledge of how the political process works.

One of the frustrations that I’ve seen from some of you who are new to the chamber is not knowing how the process works. If you had been involved politically as a young person, or as an adult, you would have been able to be engaged. Some of you are still critical of the political process. Guess what? You’re involved in the political process, and it is so much better if you start off as a young person.

I am privileged, as I say, to have been the executive director of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia and national director of the Liberal Party of Canada. I’m also very proud of the fact that my son is now Executive Director of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia. He wants me to remind future leaders that he wants to follow the rest of my career and end up in the Senate. I said, “You’re on your own from here, pal.”

It is so important that we engage young people in public discussion. Colleagues who have been here for a while will remember my discussion about providing vehicles for young people to be engaged. We’re not talking about being engaged in politics, but being engaged in the community. I live in a very small village outside of Halifax. Like all communities, we have good things happening, but we also have some things that aren’t so good. A number of years ago — about eight or nine years ago now — a group of people came together and decided they needed to find something to engage young people in the community. They formed a Sea Cadets corps in the community. My son, the same guy who is Executive Director of the party in Nova Scotia, was an officer in the cadet program. He was a naval lieutenant. He got involved in the local corps as an instructor and became the commanding officer as well.

The major point to this story is that after a couple of years, I met with the RCMP officers who police our community, and I said, “What’s the difference now, with the cadet program in the community, compared to before?” They said it’s night and day. It’s night and day because the young people were engaged in the community. It became their community. They helped manage it. They did things that the rest of us didn’t do, cleaning up the place that needed to be cleaned up; it was engagement.

I asked the principal of the local school what effect it had. She said it was like night and day. The young people who might have been on the edge of getting into trouble were now engaged.

This is an opportunity to engage an awful lot of young people in the political process, and that would be good for the political process. It would be good for Canada. Yes, it may be good for certain political parties, but guess what? That’s important too. The health of the Conservative Party is an important thing.

Senator Plett

Hear, hear.


Not as important as the health of the Liberal Party, but that’s okay. It’s our democracy. We’re helping teach young people to be good Canadians, and are giving them an opportunity to be good Canadians by getting out there and voting at age 16. What a change we would be making to our democracy.

I thank Senator McPhedran for bringing this forward. I’m sorry I couldn’t make the webinar this morning. Colleagues, I would encourage you to support this bill. It’s an important bill. If we ever get this passed, you will look back on it after the next couple of elections and say, “Boy, did we do good work.” Thank you, colleagues.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker

Senator Mercer, would you accept a question?



Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer

Thank you, Senators McPhedran and Mercer, for your presentations. I believe part of the success of the Liberal Party — I can only talk about the Liberal Party — is due to the vision of the young people within our midst. It’s not just to vote but the power to vote, so they can set the agenda. You remember that the same-sex marriage idea came from the 14- and 16-year-olds, and they would not let the party get away with not setting up legislation. Would you agree with me, Senator Mercer? The vote gives them the right to bring up policies that matter in their lives.


I think that those of you who have not been involved in a political party would not know — and Senator Jaffer certainly does — that the youth wings of political parties are the most powerful wing of the party, because they’ve got the energy and they’re disciplined when there’s something that they want. For example, I talked about the motions years ago for the legalization of marijuana. Guess what? That came up time and again, because Young Liberals in my political process — my history — wouldn’t let it go. And as they got older, some of those people are the members of Parliament who helped bring in the legislation that we also passed here.

It’s the energy that they bring. As I said, pass this bill and make it law, and you will notice a huge difference in the next two elections and elections beyond that.

Senator McPhedran

May I ask a question of Senator Mercer? It’s a bit of a historical question. In our research, it was actually brought to my attention by a former young leader in Nova Scotia that policies of the Liberal Party of Canada contain a policy adopted, I believe, at a 2009 convention, to lower the federal voting age to 16. My understanding was that that actually came from Nova Scotia, and I wonder if you can confirm that.


Yes, indeed it did, but with the concurrence of Young Liberals from elsewhere. Again, I was at the convention where that passed. Young people are so energetic but sometimes are not disciplined in meetings. When this motion was coming up at the meeting, the process required that they get it to the second level at the convention to actually get it into the policy of the party. Every Young Liberal who was at that convention was in that room. They knew they had the power to change the policy of the party, and they did change the policy of the party.

In the Liberal Party — and I don’t know about the Conservative Party — if a policy was adopted by the party and we were the party in power, then the parliamentary wing had to report back to the party annually on what process was made on the policies that the party had adopted. Every year they came back and said the marijuana one — they hadn’t got to that yet. However, it’s very real, and I remember, years later, I was the one who had to publish the reports when I was the editor of the documents that went to conventions. So yes, it’s very important.