by: Johsa Manzanilla
Recently, I sat down with a young American who had recently moved to Canada and discussed some of the differences between American and Canadian politics. In our conversation, he aired many criticisms of his country’s government, ranting about how “unfair” the existing social assistance systems were – that they were benefiting those who weren’t contributing anything to the economy anyway, how the U.S.’s borders weren’t secure enough, and how unfairly skewed the world was that, should there be some form of apocalyptic war, only the rich who could afford million-dollar high-security bunker would survive.
I patiently listened, acknowledging that although I did not agree with a large part of what he said, he had a right to express his opinion. After he finished, I asked him if, because he had such strong views on these certain matters, he had ever actively lobbied, organized, or even simply spoken to any of his community’s leaders or elected representatives who had more influence in actually making a difference in changing the society he felt was so flawed. To my question he scoffed and stated, “No way. I don’t even vote.”
There are a few who would agree with this young man – a shared sentiment that engagement in politics is futile, and there is absolutely no merit in participating in public forums that would provide legislators some insight into the actual concerns and needs of citizens. To this assertion, I would disagree, and rather speak for the value and in favour of civic engagement.
We live in a democracy. This means our government is made of individuals whom a fair number of us citizens have elected because we believe they represent our interests and will competently represent them on governing levels. This also therefore implies that our society’s concept of government is based on the idea that because it is the citizen who has the power to select leaders and tell them how to govern, it is the people –and not its leaders- who are the ones that truly rule. For a citizen to choose not to exercise their right in selecting a representative or voicing their interests and concerns to government officials weakens the very nature of democracy. Moreover, the disbelief in one’s individual power to influence political change is a dangerous one. Thinking that a single voice is powerless is essentially taking on disenfranchisement, accepting that an individual citizen cannot make any difference whatsoever. It is this sense of apathy that removes citizen participation, thus giving governments the power to lead societies without having to be transparent or accountable to the people.
Youth apathy is particularly detrimental. While some young people and children do not have the ability to vote, it is important for them to demonstrate that they are nevertheless a valued and contributing part of society. Youth engagement in democratic processes is extremely important. Accordingly, if public opinion should accurately reflect that of all of society, and not just those of our parents and grandparents, it is critical for us to demonstrate that we have a voice too, and a strong one at that.
Educate yourself in the issues that are affecting the community around you because they are relevant and directly influencing many if not all aspects of your life. Know that as a young person, only you and your friends can accurately speak on behalf of your personal experiences and that of today’s youth, so be empowered and speak out. Change is possible.