As Canada’s federal election looms, the electorate has plenty of reason to feel undecided or disenchanted but voters should still cast their ballots, say University of Alberta experts.
“Voting is one of the positive things that citizens can do to express their ideas and preferences,” said Sandra Rein, a political scientist at Augustana Campus. “Voting only happens once every four years and in many ways it’s the minimum we can do. If everyone opted out, we would be handing decisions to a small segment of our population and that’s not the best use of our citizenship rights and obligations.”
But that doesn’t make it any easier to decide who to vote for or even whether to vote, she added.
A lack of detail on how parties would tackle issues like international relations and climate change could sour potential voters, Rein said. Waiting late into the campaign to release a full election platform also makes it difficult for voters to engage.
Events like the Oct. 7 leaders’ debate also tend to turn politics into “info-tainment” that lacks substance for voters, she said.
“During the exchange on immigration, for instance, there was not a single reference to the actual number of immigrant demographics in Canada or their social or economic contributions. Instead it was presented as if you were either for or against it, but no one talked about the impact of immigration.”
Dashed hopes from the last election could also be a factor in voter disenchantment.
“There was tremendous excitement around the 2015 election. People thought Trudeau was something different and new. Politics had looked old and grey to that point, and that explains in part the high youth vote. And then it turned out that ‘politics as usual’ just continued. There was a feeling of letdown among some voters,” said Rein.
That disappointment likely includes Indigenous voters who’d hoped to see more action on issues including reconciliation, clean drinking water, protection of natural resources, honouring of treaties and establishment of nation-to-nation relations, said Daniel Sims, a professor of history and Indigenous studies at Augustana Campus.
“Some communities take the stance that since neither the British nor the Canadians ended their sovereignty as a nation, voting in a Canadian election is wrong,” Sims said. “Others argue that the treaties their community signed with the Crown make them dual citizens. Both would agree that the entire system is colonial.”
But that’s all the more reason for them to vote, he said.
“Until Canada recognizes us as sovereign nations, we are in the system whether we like it or not. Not voting means nothing in one arena where we can fight to change this situation. Our ancestors wouldn’t have stood still and neither should we.
He said many Indigenous people don’t see a big difference from one party to another, but added that if they don’t vote, nothing changes.
In Canada’s North and in the northern part of many provinces, Indigenous people make up the majority of the population, and therefore the electorate, he noted.
Millennials—people in their 20s and 30s—and those with families also need to hit the polls, Rein said.
According to Elections Canada, the last federal election saw a record turnout of young voters, jumping from 38 to 57 per cent in 2011 for electors aged 18 to 24, and to 57 per cent from 45 for people aged 25 to 34.
People juggling young families should be interested in election issues like national pharmacare and taxation changes, she added.
“Key decisions around social supports and programs tend to have a very direct effect on them.”
Trudeau’s brownface and blackface incidents also give people another solid reason to vote, Rein said.
“Canadians were confronted about the need for discussion around race issues here, so people who are interested in how Canadian values are shaped should also take part in this election.”
Each person’s vote really does matter, Sims added.
“The margin of victory for one party or another is often small enough that if people had voted, they might have changed the results. And you have to vote in order to make politicians realize they have to earn your vote.”
Votes cast against a party also signal to winning candidates that they have more work to do, Rein noted.
“It registers that there are other ideas in the riding and makes the MP aware that there is still a broader constituency. In a good situation, they would still reach out to those people.”
She advises undecided electors to study platform points on each party’s website.
“Look at issues and ideas and try to move away from things you might dislike about an individual candidate or party leader,” she said.
“Think about what’s at stake in the election; if you’re concerned about climate change, job creation, social programs, international trade, whatever the issues are, you want to look at how that party engages with the questions. Does it have some ideas? Is it going to move forward?”
To become less jaundiced about politics, it’s important that people be realistic—but not disillusioned—about what a political party can deliver once elected, Sims said.
“Recognize that party platforms are aspirational. We need to get over the idea that they can do it all. Canada isn’t this closed system; we function on an international stage that has a lot of variables. Once you’re in power, it becomes a lot harder to deliver on promises—not because you lied to the electorate, but because it’s beyond your ability to make that change.”