Urban Minds
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Urban Minds

Youth in Ontario’s Municipal Election

This is a guest blog by Gabriel Blanc to highlight the Ontario municipal election.

Young people have a special stake in the municipal elections taking place across Ontario on October 24th. As policymakers have pointed out, municipal policy can be used to promote effective action on climate change. It has also been argued that governance at the municipal level is the most important for addressing the housing crisis. Young people, more than anyone else, are already dealing with these twin crises. Municipal policy is key to ensuring that cities are inclusive of young people in every aspect of their design — part of Urban Minds’ mission. This is especially true of school board elections, given that over two million young people are under the care of Ontario public schools each year.

Despite this, young people tend to turn out to vote at significantly lower rates than their elders. Municipal elections also tend to have low turnout. The last municipal election only saw around 38 per cent of residents participate. In elections where it seems like most residents are disengaged, how do candidates reach out to young people?

I interviewed young candidates in municipal elections from across Ontario to get an idea of what it is like to try and engage young people in these elections. Evan Sambasivam is running for Toronto City Councillor in Ward 8 (Eglinton-Lawrence), currently held by Mike Colle. His platform puts a strong focus on housing and homelessness — Evan was inspired to run after losing a friend to homelessness in 2020. He took care to note that homelessness is something that affects young people more than others, and his platform includes policies intended to make more housing options available for students.

According to Evan, running for city council at 26 years old raises some eyebrows: “At every door, people ask ‘how old are you?’ I’m immediately having to explain why I’m competent enough to have a seat at the table. Older people who are less qualified do not have to deal with that.” That could be part of why young people feel so disengaged from municipal issues: when the prevailing perception is that young people aren’t qualified to contribute to the public discussion, they check out. Or, as Evan put it: “It’s easy to feel disenfranchised when all of your candidates are white landowning people in their 60s and 70s. But when a candidate shows them that their vote is the difference between the status quo and a livable future, they can get excited about that. They might be disengaged with politicians, but not with the issues themselves.”

Steven Warren, who is running to be Canada’s youngest school board trustee in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s Zone 5, agrees that being a young candidate presents both challenges and opportunities. He lacks the connections that older candidates might have. But his youth also offers him a unique perspective: At only 18, Steven was recently in a public school himself. He argues that having a young person on the school board is necessary for true representation, pointing out that “every trustee in the city of Ottawa is an older adult, except the student trustees who don’t even get a vote.”

Steven’s unique perspective has been helpful in building support: “I can most certainly relate to what a student is going through in the school system in Ottawa. I am the one person who knows what students are going through right now.” He has the endorsement of the Rideau Students’ Union, and says that those connections were easier to foster because of his age. The challenge, according to him, is as much about getting residents on board with a young candidate as it is about getting them to pay attention to school board races at all. Steven pointed out that he might lose his race for trustee because of where his last name is alphabetically, which puts him at the bottom of the ballot. Still, in a turnout-driven election, he thinks his energy and passion will be an asset.

For Sydney Brouillard-Coyle, nir identity as a young, queer person provides nem with insights other candidates don’t have. At 22 years old and running for Councillor in Windsor’s Zone 7, Sydney would not only be the youngest person on Windsor City Council, but also the only member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. As a recent graduate of Windsor University, ney understand the struggles that students in the city face. Ney are also a transit user, like many young people, while city politics generally prioritizes homeowners and drivers.

In fact, some voters have even made their preference for more established residents explicit to Sydney: “There have been some [voters] who claim that you shouldn’t even be a City Councillor unless you are married, have kids, and own a house — which eliminates the majority of people in the city.” Still, Sydney has found that nir social media presence has been effective for drawing in young people, especially video content that is “from the heart.” Like Steven, ney have also found that engagement in municipal politics can be an uphill battle, wishing that voters would “realize how much more our City Council can do… We can build a stronger, healthier, happier community if we make it a priority, and elect representatives who will be strong advocates for everyone.”

Candidates like Evan, Steven, and Sydney push against the grain of young people’s estrangement from politics and show that it is not an inevitability. Despite the many challenges they’ve faced, all three candidates are hopeful for their futures and what they can accomplish at the municipal level. As Evan points out, while young people do not feel engaged by politicians, they do care about issues like transit, housing affordability, and climate change.

Sometimes all it takes to build a movement is someone who speaks to those issues in a way young people can relate to. Given how disengagement from municipal politics extends well beyond young people, their energy and passion can be a model for people across Ontario in how to work towards better cities.

Gabriel Blanc (he/him) is a History and Environmental Studies student at Brown University.

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