They’re mostly young and they’re all disgusted. Ahead of the next federal election, a new generation of political lobbyists are preparing to toss Prime Minister Stephen Harper out of office. After nine years, they’ve had enough.
But they bring more than a uniform dislike of Harper and his cabinet cronies and their policies; the new progressives possess sophisticated tools, tactics and followers and they’re ready to mount a serious challenge to the Conservatives come next election.
While Harper badgers Justin Trudeau and fends off the Liberals, the progressives plan to mobilize the youth vote, target swing ridings and try and unite disparate parties in a bid to see anyone in office but Harper.
The National Observer spoke to a number of the leaders in the current progressive movement. All expressed dismay over a government that has consistently imposed its political will and vision on to Canadian citizens without any regard to the citizenry itself. Everyone is fed up.
Meet some of the leading progressives who are determined to unseat the prime minister.
The youngest of the progressives is Brigette DePape. The National Observer reached DePape on the phone in Vancouver as she was on her way to collect vote pledges from area youth.
From protest to political organizing
At 25, these days DePape is the Pacific regional office organizing assistant for the Council of Canadians. But most people remember her better as the page in the House of Commons who caused a commotion when she suddenly hoisted a sign reading: “Stop Harper.”
DePape doesn’t regret her action, nor has her opinion changed one bit. At the time she pulled out the sign, DePape was worried about the repercussions, but today she says, “I think a lot of time as young people, especially young women, we’re often supposed to just smile and pretend like nothing is wrong.
“But for me that was really a moment and a choice I made to finally stand up for what I believed in and for my community and people around me. It was actually one of the best choices of my life and I’m so grateful now to be working the Council of Canadians and young people across the country to really do something about this federal government that’s going against our will and wishes.”
DePape’s current task is to get out the youth vote in advance of the next election. She’s recently toured across the country visiting with youth leaders whom she says are hungry for change, and the council has launched its Rock the Vote Challenge, which involves having young people collect vote pledges from others their age at all manner of venues, including rock concerts, festivals, coffee shops and more.
Getting out the youth vote
“Two-thirds of young people didn’t vote in the last election,” DePape notes. “Right now we have a government that really does not reflect our values or our priorities. There’s a real desire for change. We believe young people can make that change. Our generation really has the power to turn things around given that the Harper majority government was only granted with 6,200 votes in key areas.
“Meanwhile there were more than 1.8 million young people who did not vote.”
DePape isn’t the only person who views young people as disenfranchised. Paul Kershaw, is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health and also the co-founder of Generation Squeeze. At age 40, Kershaw jokes that he’s starting to age out of the very organization he founded in 2011 to raise awareness of challenges facing younger Canadians.
Generation Squeeze began as an awareness raising campaign, but in March 2015 they changed to group to build what Kershaw calls the most overdue lobby in the country, one for Canadians in their 40s and younger.
The economy has allowed full-time wages to plummet while housing prices have doubled across the country, according to Kershaw. He says in his city of Vancouver the housing situation is even worse. “It really made it clear that hard work doesn’t pay off for young people around me. Being in this place where it’s particularly challenging in the country heightened my sense that the economy is not working effectively for young people and we need public policy to adapt urgently.”
While Kershaw agrees with DePape that younger Canadians deserve a strong lobby, he's not as certain of the impact they'll have coming into the next election. Currently Generation Squeeze has support from some 8,000 people, but Kershaw wants to see that reach 50,000 by year-end. Even then, he suggests the lobby will need to speak for hundreds of thousands if it really intends influence federal elections.
On the other hand, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition may be relatively small – the umbrella organization’s members number in the hundreds – but it’s prepared to make a lot of noise. The group plans to send 17 youth delegates to the Paris climate change summit to lobby for better climate goals for Canada, and ahead of the election will encourage its members to endorse candidates who are most likely to set ambitious climate change goals.
So would Harper and his Conservatives fit that bill? Not too likely.
According to Kiki Wood, the 25-year-old, Halifax-based executive director of the coalition: “Historically, they’ve not been a climate leader at all. I think they’re actually the opposite.”
The Tories’ foot-dragging on climate change won’t win them any votes with the young coalition members, many of whom are members of the Divestment Movement, and who are actively campaigning in 30 Canadian universities to have those institutions “divest” themselves of fossil fuels.
“What we want to do is hold everyone who’s potentially up for a position in office to be accountable for the decisions that they make and accountable for our future,” Wood declares.
The coalition isn’t going to be quick to endorse any party, however. Wood says most have problematic positions on tar sands expansion and the group is uncomfortable with the federal government’s relationship with big oil and gas corporations.
“As a youth climate movement what we’re looking for is leadership and examining those institutional structures and then asking ourselves how we can change so that we can still be around in 100 years so we can support the next generation coming up - because the decisions we’ve made historically will not allow us to do that,” Wood says.
Youth "not a priority"
Bilan Arte, the incoming national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, doesn’t point fingers, but she also doesn’t mince words about the state of the nation for young scholars.
“The past few years have made it abundantly clear that Canada’s youth are facing a difficult future and are not a priority,” the 23-year-old says. She points to youth unemployment at double the national average while students are graduating with record levels of public and private debt.
As well, Arte points to the lack of action over violence against women, ranging from sexual assault on campuses to “disproportional violence” targeted at aboriginal women and girls. “Gender-based violence is pervasive, especially for young people, and while some provinces have stepped up to address this, it’s time for the federal government to act,” Arte says.
Arte says students unions across the country will be running intensive voter education campaigns, making sure every student has the proper ID and is confident going to the polls. “First and foremost, I hope that students turn up and are not turned away from the polls based on the new, restrictive voter ID laws,” Arte says.
“It’s up to us as young Canadians to elect a government that will respect us and speak to issues that matter, because this may be our last chance for the next four years.”
Groups like Generation Squeeze and the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition are in touch with the electoral sentiment of a younger generation, if a new report from David McGrane is anything to go by.
McGrane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan, released a paper in March 2015 titled Could a Progressive Platform Capture Canada’s Youth Vote? The question in the report’s title appears rhetorical.
Among other findings, the paper – based on information from 8,121 respondents – says “more younger Canadians are socially progressive than older Canadians and want a government that adapts its moral views to changes within society.”
The paper notes that younger Canadians are more likely to place environmental protection over economic growth, and are keen to see higher spending on health and education programs than older Canadians.
The report goes on to say that young Canadians, which it defines as 35 years of age and younger, “are more likely than older Canadians to want an activist government that is socially liberal and spends more on social programs related to health care and education. In many ways, more young voters support elements of a progressive political agenda than older voters.”
If groups like Generation Squeeze and the Council of Canadians are focusing on the youth vote, others such as Fair Vote Canada and Leadnow are concentrating on how they can influence broader voter patterns to defeat the Conservatives.
“People are really frustrated. It’s palpable,” says Kelly Carmichael, the executive director of Fair Vote Canada. “People are ready to go to the polls.”
Carmichael says Fair Vote Canada has over 700 volunteers in ridings across the country who are working to build a broad coalition. The group is looking for the 170 candidates or MPs who will vote in favour of proportional representation in the next election.
“I think people are really fed up,” Carmichael says. “Canadians don’t actually vote in majority governments, but they’re handed majorities with our skewed voting system. When you talk to Canadians – how many petitions they’ve signed, how many letters they’ve written, how many phone calls they’ve made to ask this government not to implement certain policies like Bill C-51, C-18 – there’s just a laundry list of things they’re doing that Canadians don’t agree with, and nobody has any control over it.”
Fair Vote is going to candidates with a questionnaire in order to assess their commitment to proportional representation. The group will then endorse those who back it to its list of supporters and the coalition that they’re building.
That could end up being a fairly significant number of voters. Along with Leadnow, Fair Vote estimates that as many as 160,000 people could throw their votes behind progressive candidates.
Carmichael believes Canadians could see a big swing in the next election – provided they can galvanize people to vote. Carmichael says the “Unfair Elections Act” – the Fair Elections Act – is clearly trying to keep people away from the polls.
“When people don’t vote, this government does a lot better,” Carmichael notes.
Carmichael acknowledges that a lot of different groups are all focused on their own issues, but she says that Fair Vote’s campaign unites them. “We’re trying very hard to link the issues that Canadians care about to electoral reform and help them understand that giving a voice back to the people will help them all with their issues.”
Ask Jamie Biggar, 32, one of Leadnow’s co-founders what issue out of Harper’s last term bothered him the most and he replies that it’s hard to pick just one.
Biggar declares the current challenge to organize the country-wide desire for change in a way that ensures a defeat of the Harper Conservatives. At the same time he wants to build community power in order to “change the structures that are holding us back right now.”
Like many progressives, Biggar cites as barriers the first-past-the-post electoral system, an over-reliance on boom and bust fossil fuel industries and the way the Canadian economy is increasingly at the whim of global financial structures.
Leadnow is focused on its Vote Together campaign, which is meant to join people who voted for change in the previous election with new voters to overcome the problems of the first-past-the-post system and the way in which it splits votes in the opposition.
“The problem is, if you just get the vote out and you want to vote for change, but the vote is still split, then Harper will be able to get by with another minority and possibly with a majority again,” Biggar says.
With that in mind, Leadnow is concentrating on helping voters get behind the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservatives in their ridings. Biggar says Leadnow needs to provide voters with the best possible information on the party positions and the local state of the race so that they can make the best decision for their riding.
“It will all come down to the ability of voters in each riding to make a decision that will add up to being able to defeat the Harper Conservatives. And that’s step one,” Biggar says. “You have to defeat the Harper Conservatives in order to move the country forward.”
Like many, Biggar sees Rachel Notley’s recent Alberta win as a sign that the Canadian political climate is changing. He says Alberta’s rejection of the Conservatives equals push-back against an entitled, corporate power elite and the yearning to replace that with authentic voices calling for meaningful change. It’s a movement spreading across the country.
Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, agrees that a lot is at stake come next election. Defeating the Conservatives means potentially heading off what he calls the “ludicrous” tax shifts the government proposes, as well as a chance to repeal “brutal anti-democratic initiatives” like Bill C-51 and change the country’s approach to climate change.
“I think progressives are determined to make progress for the country again,” Smith says.
Coming into the election, the institute plans to dramatically crank up its level of activity. The institute has announced a new Montreal office, which will give it much more of a presence in French-speaking Canada. And it’s also hosting a series of movement-building events across the country.
Says Smith: “We and other progressive movement organizations are going to be pounding the pavement like never before in the next four months and what you see - whether it’s environmental organizations, trade unions, civil society organizations like ours - is a level of organization and coordination in the progressive movement that’s really quite unprecedented.”
Mira Oreck, the Broadbent Institute’s director of public engagement, echoes Smith: “I think that people are motivated right now in Canada and you see that on a whole variety of issues. People have a vision for the country, what they want and what they don’t want – and that includes people of all ages, and a significant number of younger people.”
Oreck certainly believes younger people will be a force at the polls, but she notes they can have a more direct impact as well., pointing out that the election also offers them a chance to get involved with the political parties and work on a campaign or through organizational work on an issue.
But as the campaign machinery starts to grind into action and the parties prepare to unleash terabytes of rhetoric, Oreck gently reminds people that the election is more than just throwing someone out of office.
“There’s so many people raising issues and working on issues, which is so important; of course, as much as people may want to get rid of Harper, they may also want to think about the progressive government that takes its place.”