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By Erica McCollum

In Canada, like in all democracies, the health of our political system is dependent on how engaged citizens are in politics. Yet our participation rates over the last 20 years have been relatively low, often not reaching over 65 percent of eligible voters in federal elections. Provincial and municipal election turnouts are even lower.

While participation in alternative forms of engagement, such as protest activities or petition signing, has increased, the general decline in political participation in Canada and many other Western nations over the last half century presents a worrying trend. Even more concerning is that this decline appears to be driven by the younger generations, who are less engaged in traditional political activities than previous cohorts.

These issues around turnout increase the importance of political participation research. Social scientists have been trying to understand the key influences that support political participation and the barriers to participation. While most previous attempts to answer this question have been through quantitative research, my research on political participation of young Canadians approached it through qualitative methods. This allowed a focus on people’s life experiences, worldviews (the way people understand the world) and values (how we evaluate desirable or undesirable behaviour) as they relate to politics. I argue that social experiences and the larger cultural contexts in which people are embedded shape the way they understand politics and participation and, in turn, their own activities related to political engagement.

I interviewed 63 high-school-aged Canadians in low, mid and high socio-economic areas in Vancouver. Interviews were comprised of semi-structured questions, a life history calendar and a survey, tools that sought to capture participants’ life experiences related to politics, and the reasoning and perceptions used when thinking about political participation.

Cultures of Participation

In people’s accounts, the most common influence promoting higher political engagement appeared to be that, throughout various stages of their lives, they were immersed in social contexts and cultures that helped to produce political attention and participation as an expected, everyday activity. While these contexts could be created in school or social networks, they most often started in the home.

It is commonly noted that those with high socio-economic status (high education and income levels) are more likely to participate in politics. A prominent assumption is that this is primarily due to the impacts of their high education attainment. However, my research suggests people from these backgrounds often start to engage in politics before heading into higher education. Their participation is encouraged through social contexts, where habits of political participation are normalized and promoted as desirable. These social contexts tend to be more available to people from high socio-economic backgrounds throughout childhood and beyond, including in educational settings.

Immigration and Narratives for Participation

Another insight was that the experiences of immigrant families could provide powerful narratives for participation, which contrasts the image of immigration as a barrier to participation.

Nineteen of the 63 participants interviewed came from homes where English or French was not the primary language spoken in the home, and many interviewees were either immigrants or second-generation Canadians. A number of these participants pointed to their families’ experiences as important motivators for participation.

For example, whereas a common representation of Canadian politics was that it “took care of itself,” immigrant stories highlighted the value of democratic participation. These stories included parents losing freedom or wealth to an undemocratic government, which created a powerful family narrative of the value of democracy, including the idea that you have to constantly work at freedom and democracy, because if you do not it can be taken away. Others’ parents explicitly told them to vote, using stories from their home countries as a justification for why participation in their new democratic country was essential.

Lessons from the Research

Social contexts where positive political talk and action are promoted seem to be a powerful impetus to participation. We might think of how we can promote these contexts beyond the family, such as in grade school, and, perhaps more importantly, how we can support a range of families to engage in politics by providing opportunities for participation that are relevant to differing socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

Our worldviews and values impact how we engage politically, and these worldviews are shaped both by our larger culture and the ways in which politics are portrayed in home and social contexts. One everyday practice that both politicians and citizens can take part in to improve political engagement is to promote political talk and action that is positive and inclusive.

Erica McCollum finished her doctorate in sociology from UBC last year. She also obtained her MA in Adult Education and Community Development from the University of Toronto where she studied participatory governance in the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. She studies culture, political participation and social psychology and is currently working on publishing articles from her work on culture and political participation. She is also focusing on being a new mom with her six-month-old baby, Taykla. She lives in Smithers, BC, where she loves to get out cross-country skiing and hiking.

Erica McCollum

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