In a letter to Canadians penned a few days before his death, the late NDP leader Jack Layton emphasized the importance of involving young people in the political process.
He wrote about his belief that young Canadians had the power to change this country and the world. He also outlined the many challenges that young people would face in the coming decades, including climate change, income inequality, and building a more inclusive Canada for all.
Jack Layton was a leader who truly cared about people. In a video played at his funeral, his daughter Sarah shared that Jack was never the first one to speak; he always listened to the thoughts and ideas of others before offering his own. Jack made time to listen to people, especially youth, and ensured that they had a voice at the decision-making table.
Young people, however, tend to be disengaged from our political system. Whether it is the rising cost of post-secondary education, lack of well-paying jobs after graduation, or a lack of affordable housing, young people don’t hear governments addressing issues of importance to them. When young people feel that political leaders aren’t speaking to them it should come as no surprise that youth voter turnout remains the lowest of any age group.
This disengagement from the conventional political process, however, is countered by the turn of many young people to social movements to exercise their political energies. Young Canadians continue to organize around many important issues: they’re fighting for affordable higher education, protesting against pipelines, lobbying for reproductive rights, and struggling for social and human equality on several fronts.
But to become equally engaged in electoral politics, young people also need to be inspired by progressive politics that promise a better future – they need to see their values reflected back at them from politicians.
This may explain the excitement young people feel for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. An older Jewish man from Brooklyn has caught the attention of so many young Americans because he is speaking with conviction about issues that students and youth care about: making colleges and universities tuition free, closing the gap between rich and poor, making government work for everyone, not just the insiders and the affluent.
Youth activists are now the lynchpin of the Sanders campaign. And that’s no surprise. From Occupy to the Orange Wave, from Alberta to our breakthroughs across Quebec – youth activists have been indispensable to new progressive energies all across the continent. Our party needs to build from those energies.
This is an exciting but challenging time to be a New Democrat. Yes, the federal election brought many disappointments. But disappointment cannot slow us down. Our obligation to be the champions of the powerless, disadvantaged, and marginalized still remains.
However, a major question for many young New Democrats concerns why our party wasn’t as bold in terms of policy as it could have been. There were obvious issues, such as Tom Mulcair’s debate strategy, or apparent lack thereof. I remember sharing frustration with fellow New Democrats in the early stages of the campaign when he refused to attend some debates. Worse yet, this happened at a time when we were trying to make some of our first impressions early in the campaign. We were trying to set a positive tone and instead, it undermined the campaign. This was an unforced error and to date, I have yet to hear a plausible explanation as to why he decided not to attend these debates.
In terms of policy, young New Democrats had been pushing for key policy planks such as affordable tuition, a progressive tax system, a comprehensible and anti-pipeline environmental plan, and a commitment to the Leap Manifesto. On all these issues, and many more, the party fell short of expectations.
The NDP convention in Alberta is just a few weeks away and the meteoric rise and momentum of the Sanders campaign gives many social democrats hope for a progressive President in the US. And while much attention will focus on the Leadership question, the meeting will also be an opportunity to renew our commitment to equality, fairness and justice for all Canadians. These are the values hardy New Democrats fight for.
What gives me hope is that New Democrats remain the only party advancing an uncompromisingly progressive vision for Canada. Everyone on our team is committed and passionate about core issues like pay equity, precarity in the workforce and income inequality. And despite the outcome of the 2015 election, especially here in Toronto, I know that Tom Mulcair remains dedicated to those shared values too.
My hope moving forward is that Tom Mulcair and the Party learn from the mistakes of the past, and start putting the voices of young people back on the table.
In his letter, Jack Layton wrote, “[Young peoples’] energy, vision, and passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.” These words still motivate and energize young New Democrats.
As we head to Alberta for our convention, it’s important for youth to push our party to remember our shared mission to build a Canada where no one is left behind.