As part of a series highlighting the work of young people in addressing the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews 17-year-old Nahira Gerster-Sim, a founder and leader in the fight to give the vote to everyone 16 years and older.
With the realities of climate change, inequality and the pandemic, one could be forgiven for choosing despair. But the world is no better off for that, so I choose to study hope, a discipline that requires practice. Here, treat yourself to a few minutes of joy in the next instalment of my series profiling amazing — and yes, hopeful — young people contending successfully with the climate justice crisis in Canada.
Nahira Gerster-Sim is a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary. She is founder and co-lead of the Vote 16 BC campaign, a youth-led movement to lower the voting age to 16.
Tell us about your campaign.
At age 16, Canadians can drive, fight for our country, pay taxes and go to jail. Pretty much the only way they are still treated as children is the denial of their right to vote. That is unjust and short-sighted. Voter turnout in school parallel elections is always very high. And the decisions that are being made now will affect our lives longest. Climate change is upon us. We have the right to design our own future.
How did it get started?
In August 2018, at a Dogwood Initiative leadership camp, a group of us set up Vote 16 BC ambassador programs in 40 high schools provincewide. Now, with strong support from teachers, we are building public and decision-maker support.
Who supports you?
If you're old enough to drive, join the military and pay taxes, you're old enough to vote, young activist argues. #VotingRights #YouthRights #Vote16
BC New Democratic Party 2019 convention delegates voted in favour, and our campaign to lower the voting age is strongly supported by the BC Greens, the Union of BC Municipalities, the BC Federation of Labour, a number of large unions, and many civil society organizations.
What is the objection?
Whenever voting rights have been expanded, whether to women or people of Chinese descent or Indigenous people, opponents always say the new group is not able to make good decisions or to understand the choices or the full implications. But 16 year olds can vote in Austria, Scotland and some German states. If you vote once, you are likely to vote again, so voting in high school is a pathway to increasing participation in our democracy.
What motivated you to get involved?
I was adopted from China as a baby. I have come to terms with knowing I will never know my birth parents or even the region from which I came. I am grateful to my Canadian parents for giving me so much. But having had no agency in that life-changing situation I am resolved to make my own decisions whenever I can and advocate for others to have equal rights. A baby cannot choose, but Greta Thunberg showed the world how teenagers see the need for a just solution to the climate crisis more clearly than many adults. If they won’t act responsibly to protect our species, they must make space for us to do so.
Who are your role models?
My dad does a lot of climate volunteer work and is committed to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. When I was only 10, my mom encouraged me to become vegetarian and she herself is (an) activist. I am inspired by the suffragettes who wanted to make a better world for everyone.
What worries you?
We are nowhere near where we need to be to avoid climate collapse. I hear people talking about the need for action, but I don't think they really feel the degree of the emergency.
What gives you hope?
I work with a group of brilliant and passionate teens who are just not going to back down. My parents and the adults in my life understand that it is not enough for me just to focus on school. The adults around us are very supportive and respectful of us. I treasure the calm and added resolve I find from dance and music.
Do you have any advice for other youth?
Follow your interests and volunteer somewhere. Small steps turn into big ones. No matter what you care about, whatever your capacity is, pursue your passions and work with others to fight for your community in any way that you can. Support your local Vote 16 BC ambassadors. Collectively, we can have the power to make change.
What would you like to say to older readers?
You taught us to ride bikes, tie our shoelaces and be on time for school. Now you can support more of us to be politically literate. If we have the vote at 16, we will start preparing to take politics personally when we are 14 or 15. And remember, when you vote, don’t vote just for you. Vote for our future.