I was at a party for young progressive activists in Toronto this week and, of course, everyone was debriefing about the election. The mood, while elated that the Conservative government has fallen, was noticeably unsettled. As I scanned the room, it struck me. Many activists in their mid-twenties to early thirties have only known what it is like to live and work, as an enfranchised adult, under the leadership of Stephen Harper. They have never voted in an election where Mr. Harper was not at the helm of Canada.
Over the last ten years, a vibrant movement of democracy campaigners and organizations like Leadnow, the Dogwood Initiative, and Samara have come of age under conditions that were increasingly hostile to democracy. This hasn’t stopped, and has perhaps even encouraged, young Canadians to be at the forefront of developing online tools to encourage and engage citizens to vote, like Voxpoplab’s VoteCompass. Further, the gutting of Canada’s environmental legislation in 2012 helped spark increasingly empowered and youthful indigenous activists to organize Idle No More. The Conservative’s dream of full-throttle expansion of the fossil fuel industry faced unanticipated resistance from many young environmental campaigners who staff the swelling ranks of the country’s environmental organizations.
Evidently, Mr. Harper served as a convenient bogeyman for the last decade. But now things have changed. We have a Prime Minister with a strong mandate to change the way Canada is governed. For those activists who know nothing but the Harper regime, it can be hard not to be cynical about positive change coming from Ottawa. Will Mr. Trudeau’s government really be that different? Claims that the Liberals are bringing “real change” have recently been undercut by news of the resignation of Liberal campaign co-chair, Dan Gagnier, over emails he wrote when he was co-chair to TransCanada—the company proposing the controversial bitumen pipeline, Keystone XL—regarding how the company could lobby a new federal government. For those looking for a little more light between the oil and gas industry and the federal government, this development cannot but fuel skepticism.
So what’s the role of young activists in this new reality? Continue to hold the government to account. No problem here: Social media is already abuzz with calls to Canadians to keep the Liberals to their promise of electoral reform within eighteen months of forming government. The well-worn toolkit of social activists will continue to be of use. Canada needs principled dissent.
That being said, millennial activists should also not be afraid to constructively engage policymakers. To the extent that election platforms signal what governments will actually do when elected and that initiatives like this actually inform policy, the Liberals have pledged to “create a Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council, consisting of young Canadians aged 16 to 24, to provide non-partisan advice to the Prime Minister on issues facing the country.” So the odds are the new government will hold young people and the issues that matter to us with less contempt than the previous government. For the next while, the Liberals are looking for opportunities and policy ideas to implement that show how different they are from the Conservative government.
For public policy advocates, there is no shortage of issues that need reform: eroding federal relations with indigenous communities, belligerent foreign policy, balkanized and incoherent energy policy, increasing inequality, and persistently low innovation in the private sector, to name a few.
For young progressives, regardless of who you voted for on October 19th, things are about to change. Time to shake off the cynicism, remain vigilant, and demand meaningful engagement.