Can’t vote but can volunteer: Teens dive into politics ahead of federal election

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They can’t yet vote, but they aren’t planning to sit this federal election out — teens are showing up to political offices across Canada and volunteering their time to push for causes and candidates they believe in.

Aidan Morton-Ninomiya, Garrett Breathwaite and Lynda Hansen gathered in the office of Kitchener Centre Green candidate Mike Morrice this past week.

There was a buzz around them with people working on computers and talking on phones while the group prepared lawn signs.

While their friends spent their summers working at jobs and hitting the beach, Morton, Breathwaite and Hanson have been volunteering for Morrice’s campaign. They work in the office and canvassing for Morrice, knocking on doors and talking to people about the issues.

“This is my first political experience where I’m actually going out myself and learning about it as opposed to hearing about it in a classroom at school,” Morton-Ninomiy said.

For Breathwaite, it started as an opportunity to get some much needed high school volunteer hours and then became a little more important.

“I realized that we have a lot of problems going on in the environment,” Breathwaite said. “I want to spread the word that, hey, this is a big problem.”

Aiden Fox-Ivey, age 16, sits in the office of Waterloo Liberal candidate Bardish Chagger before he helped put up signs around the office. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

‘I’m volunteering because I can’t vote’

Hansen said before she decided to volunteer for any party, she sat down and researched where each of the parties stood on issues important to her.

“I think I have a reasonable grasp of the whole situation or multiple situations and problems going on in our government and in our country and in the world,” Hansen said. 

“That’s kind of why I’m volunteering because I can’t vote. But I think that other people should vote for things that they think they believe in.”

In Waterloo, 16-year-old Aiden Fox-Ivey has been spending his summer knocking on doors for Liberal candidate and current MP Bardish Chagger.

Standing in a campaign office freshly painted a bright red, he says the environment, women’s rights and electoral issues are his top concerns going into this election, even if he won’t be casting a ballot.

“Even though I can’t have any effect, I suppose, personally on voting, I can at the same time go out and represent things that I believe in. And I think that’s probably the best way I can influence our democracy,” Fox-Ivey said.

Worried about their future

University of Waterloo student Allyson Hildebrandt is in her 20s and will get her first chance to vote in a federal election this fall. 

But she’s been out on the campaign trail, and organized other students to help with local Conservative efforts, particularly for Kitchener South-Hespeler candidate Alan Keeso, as well as candidates in Waterloo and Kitchener Centre.

“It’s honestly quite fun going out canvassing,” she said.

“One of the reasons I’m really interested in politics is how diverse viewpoints can be. So when I’m at the doors I can have conversations with people about how they feel and what issues are important to them specifically related to their own communities.”

She said she wants to take part partly because she’s concerned about her future.

“I’m graduating in a couple of years, and I’m worried about the job market. I’m worried about the environment and so supporting candidates that I believe will bring positive change to Canada is really important for me and my future,” she said.

University of Waterloo student Allyson Hildebrandt also heads up the on-campus Young Conservatives group. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Former MPP recalls volunteer years

The memories of putting together lawn signs and knocking on doors are familiar to John Milloy.

He’s a former Liberal MPP for Kitchener Centre, but his political career started at age 12 when he served as a legislative page in Ontario’s legislature.

After that, he joined the Young Liberals.

He jokes he joined the group “to make friends and meet girls” but went on to work on a Liberal campaign in the 1980 federal election and he learned all the behind-the-scenes work that makes a campaign tick.

He says it was part of what inspired him to run for office.

“I thought it’d be great to have my name on a ballot one day, and it seemed very natural to be working in politics,” he said. “Years later when I was working on my own campaign as a candidate, you would think back to those days and there were still some lessons that you learned … about how campaigns worked.”

Milloy served an MPP from 2003 to 2014. Now, Milloy works in public ethics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.

No desire to be candidates

But volunteering on campaigns had the opposite effect on Malcolm Standing.

He said his summer experience likely won’t lead to him to becoming a politician.

Standing, who is about to start his first year at the University of Toronto, has been alternating between his job at a local arena and volunteering for NDP candidate Scott Hamilton’s campaign.

“When I was younger I would have said definitely yes. I think probably, next to firefighter, the one job I wanted the most was politician. But I think seeing it behind the scenes kind of made me take a step back,” he said. 

He said he’s been able to see other jobs to get a person elected and “all the other different ways that you can help bring about change.”

Malcolm Standing drops off flyers for the NDP candidate in Cambridge, Scott Hamilton. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

In fact, none of the young volunteers CBC Kitchener-Waterloo spoke to for this article said they’d consider running for office.

But Milloy says even if the young people never run for office, there’s great benefit to them volunteering their time now.

‘Civil literacy’

There’s a growing problem with “civic literacy” he said, adding young volunteers learn what an election looks like and about the different pressures politicians face.

“You knock on all the doors and everyone’s saying something different. How do you govern in a system like that? So even if you never go into politics, the fact is you’ll have an appreciation for elections, for candidates, for government, for the fact that it’s very, very difficult to come to decisions and consensus in our society,” he said.

“Even if you’re not involved in the political level you may get a job as a public servant, you may get a job with a group or organization which has to deal with government. Government is everywhere and having that knowledge and background can be very, very valuable for young people.”

The federal election is set for Oct. 21.