Every four years it seems that we all become political experts, oftentimes through some last minute cramming, for whatever election is going on at the time. What’s always interested me however, is where does all of this political engagement, energy and passion go after election day?
Why is it that immediately after people cast their ballots they put government and politics right back onto the back burner?
While yes, elections and voting are incredibly important, they only represent a sliver of civic life. These elections, especially when they elect majorities, give governments free reign and most people don’t even so much as bat an eye until the next time they have to vote.
Since we all know that the vast majority of people disengage from politics after election day, I wanted to find out how they can get more involved. To do this, I talked to some elected officials and other prominent community members to figure out what they do to engage with issues and government outside of election time and how others may be able to follow their lead.
Those who are elected members of governments, be they local, provincial or federal, offer a unique insight on this issue, as they not only deal with politics and government from the inside but also recognize the drop off in community engagement and involvement with the process outside of election time.
Greg Miller is a first time St. Catharines City Councillor for the Merritton Ward. He was elected during the last municipal election in 2018. Before his election, Miller worked for a decade in communications, social work and politics in various roles, but never as an elected member of government. However, he has always had an interest in politics.
“I took a particular interest in municipal politics in 2011 when I began working at the Niagara Region,” said Miller, “I saw clearly the impact political decisions, that might seem boring to some, were having on everyday people in my community.”
It was this frustration, he said, combined with his passion for the community, that ended up costing him his job with the Region. This prompted him to take on the challenge of being a political commentator and community activist. It was then, after his experiences in this newfound role, that he felt he couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore and had to get involved more directly.
In regards to getting involved in politics and your community more broadly outside of election time, Miller said that it’s all about working with who you know.
“Tap into your existing network, even if it is just your Twitter feed and start building new connections by volunteering, applying for boards and joining local service clubs,” said Miller.
He argued that the two most important things to remember when trying to better your community is to make sure you have a connection with the stuff you are working towards and that you have fun while doing it.
“If you want to see change happen, there is a niche for you, you have skills you can use and you have a network you can build on. Don’t be afraid to be bold. Nobody is too young. You all have plenty to offer and this is the time to gain a better understanding of what motivates you,” said Miller. “Reach out to a local politician and offer to get a coffee and chat. Find a local activist or group and ask how you can help them advance their cause. I can tell you that there will be nothing that can compare with the genuine feeling of making your community a better place. If we aren’t doing that, then what’s the point?”
While in each riding we elect a city councillor or member of parliament, there are usually four or more people who ran in that riding who didn’t get elected. This is an interesting aspect of electoral politics, as they often work as hard if not harder than those who get elected while campaigning but may end up feeling defeated by the loss and discouraged from engaging with the process.
This is far from the case for Dennis Van Meer, a candidate in the riding of St. Catharines during the last federal election. Van Meer has regularly taken his concerns to government through his job and even has some victories to show for it, despite not winning in the last election.
“I have been a union activist most of my adult life. As part of my union work, I helped lead the campaign for pension security. Noting the example of the recent Sears bankruptcy that left long-time employees without pensions, I have taken the fight to Ottawa where I effectively lobbied MPs of all parties for legislation that protectsworker’s rights when it comes to corporate bankruptcy and insolvency legislation,” said Van Meer.
Regarding his plans now that the election is over, Van Meer seems hopeful and optimistic about the future, for him personally and for Canada more broadly.
“I will continue to organize people in my own community that believe in social justice issues. I think it is imperative to continue the conversation of why being involved in all levels of politics is important,” said Van Meer.
As we have seen in recent months, young people are increasingly becoming engaged with the political system and government. Whether it be through protests, attending town halls and other public forums and even coming out to vote in record numbers, young people across Canada and throughout the world are becoming more engaged citizens overall.
But how does this momentum look in non-election years? Will there still be the same passion and drive amongst young people? How are young leaders not just staying engaged themselves, but also trying to bring more people into the fold?
Kailene Jackson is a fourth year Political Science and Sociology student at Brock
University. She’s also one of the Secretaries General of Brock Model United Nations, a group that simulates the regular activities of the United Nations. This is only one of the many organizations she works with.
“A lot of the work I do is centered in elections. However, a lot of politics and civic activity happens outside of election periods,” said Jackson, “Much of the work that I do is rooted in educating, empowering and mentoring young women, in order to get them involved in different levels of politics and to advance issues they care about.”
Hope Tuff-Berg is the Chief Executive Officer of Civiconnect, a youth-based not for profit organization that looks to raise government, political and community engagement amongst youth in Niagara.
“[Civiconnect] empowers youth to learn about how government works, influence government decisions and become active citizens,” said Tuff-Berg.
In the past two years, both of which being election years here in Ontario, they have organized two conferences hosting over 200 students where they taught them how politics and government works, how to form personally held political opinions and how politics, government and policy translates into the real world and their communities.
“In my final year of high school, I took my first class in politics. I personally loved it, but as soon as the class ended, so did the political dialogue,” said Tuff-Berg. “After diving deeper with my friends, we learned that youth have historically held the lowest voter turnout by age category. Most youth don’t know what a political party is, how Canada’s system of federalism works or how to vote. This is what motivated us to take action and do something about it.”
However, while Civiconnects focus has been clear for the past two years, namely to encourage voting and youth engagement during election times, now they are looking to expand and diversify their offerings going into the future.
“We plan to facilitate in-class workshops about how government works, how to advance social issues in your community, student leadership and more. We will also host monthly meet ups for youth to come together to discuss issues in our community and how we can overcome them. We are most excited to launch our mentorship program, pairing high school and university students to help them pursue social change and get involved,” said Tuff-Berg.
The hope, according to Tuff-Berg, is that by offering tailored experiences for smaller groups of students, they will be able to leave a larger impact on the students they are able to work with. If Civiconnect is successful, according to Tuff-Berg, we should see an increase in volunteerism, advocacy and involvement in local politics here in Niagara amongst youth.
As we have also seen in recent months, organization around issues like climate change has become increasingly viral, with public demonstrations, protests, walkouts and so on taking place across the country and the world, with tens of millions of people getting involved along the way.
One of the main groups that has been organizing for environmental justice is Extinction Rebellion. One of the members of their local chapter Extinction Rebellion Niagara, Kostyn Petrunick, is a student at Brock. I had the chance to sit down with him as well to discuss his involvement with not only a local club, but an international group that has recently made major waves in not only the media, but political and governmental spheres as well.
“I got involved as an organizer with [Extinction Rebellion Niagara] because I was thrilled to see a movement embracing non-violent direct action and demanding action proportional to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today. I am also impressed by their ability to escalate actions and by their demand for the formation of citizens assemblies,” said Petrunick.
Once he found out that an Extinction Rebellion chapter was being organized in Niagara, Petrunick simply reached out to their Facebook page and was able to get in on the ground floor.
“People can get involved in all sorts of ways. They can take up an organizing role like I did, they can support and follow us on social media and they can come out to our events,” said Petrunick. “Most of my time with [Extinction Rebellion Niagara] has been spent event planning, communicating with people and, more broadly, thinking about how our organization can make the biggest impact possible, how we can grow and how we can be a positive, sustainable and intersectional force in the community.”
Petrunick and Extinction Rebellion Niagara were involved in organizing the recent climate strike held in St. Catharines, something that Petrunick is extremely proud of.
“The [climate strike] in September showed the powers that be in Niagara that we care enough about the mounting environmental crises to demonstrate in the middle of a work day, closing a street and some businesses,” said Petrunick, “Its influence on political discourse in the community was felt immediately and leading up to the election, debates with local prospective MPs often cited the rally to introduce environmentally-related questions. It also connected people.”
Based on all the conversations I had, be it with elected city councillors, electoral candidates or students trying to make a difference in their school, their community or across the global, the central message remains abundantly clear. It doesn’t matter how people stay engaged or try and make a difference, the important thing is that you make the effort.
Finding an issue that you personally find motivating and important would be the best first step, as this will ensure you stay motivated and committed to the cause, whatever it may be. Again, as everyone that I spoke to demonstrates, it doesn’t matter if you’re looking to improve your school, your community or the world, as long as you can take ownership and pride in what you are working towards, you can make a positive difference.
Petrunick left me with some impactful words on democracy and our engagement with government and politics outside of elections that seemingly summed up my entire article better than I could have ever done myself.
“Electoral democracy is not the only kind of democracy and elections are not the end of involvement for anyone in a democratic society. Democracy means people power, it’s not enough to put paper in a box every few years and follow rich people on Twitter. After elections, people need to make themselves heard and hold their governments accountable. The best way to do this is by organizing because individuals can only do so much on their own.”