Even before the federal election writ dropped, the hand-wringing about our surprisingly low voter turnout was already in full swing. It’s as if getting people to engage in Canadian democracy is a sort of unknowable voodoo, a collective finger-crossing and hoping for the best. The 2011 election saw the third worst turnout in Canadian history with only 61.1 per cent of eligible voters making it to the polls. There was an upswing in 2015 and yet eight million eligible voters still didn’t cast a ballot, many of them the most marginalized in our society — including new immigrants and people living on low incomes.
Of course, in a time of rampant disinformation, foreign meddling in elections and a social media climate that alienates and divides, it’s hardly surprising that Canadians tell pollsters their trust in the political system is dwindling and they feel increasingly distanced from the process. A third of people haven’t even discussed politics in the last year.
But the key to getting more Canadians invested in our political process is not magic. We have to fight to make politics relevant, understandable, and offer inclusive, nonjudgmental opportunities to take part. And community organizations and nonprofits working with the most disenfranchised have a key role to play in creating space for those conversations.
The millions of our most vulnerable citizens across the country — people who are dealing with food insecurity, lack of housing and childcare, precarious employment, and inadequate incomes — have more at stake in the upcoming election than anyone. Living close to the edge, they’re the most likely to fall off. Their lives are profoundly affected by policies that strengthen (or weaken) public services, increase (or decrease) access to pharmacare and take real action (or not) on climate change so there are sustainable jobs and a future for their children.
That’s why civic engagement is at the core of our mission at Community Food Centres Canada. And we’ve seen its impact firsthand. Witness the success of the democratic engagement project at Nova Scotia’s Dartmouth North Community Food Centre during their most recent municipal election. This is a community where half of children live in low-income households and 33 per cent of all citizens live in poverty. Turnout was as low as three per cent in the previous municipal vote. But with the help of a community-based campaign called Speak Up! Show Up!, in partnership with a Vote PopUp (now a program of Ryerson University’s Democratic Engagement Exchange), voter turnout tripled.
With the nonpartisan support of peer advocates who are trained to connect people to services and resources that address the issues that matter to them, hundreds of community members got involved in practice votes, making campaign signs, voting parties, even a parade. By opening up the voting process and eliminating barriers — such as language, not having proper ID or a computer for online registration, as well as lack of access due to poor health — the campaigners helped flick a switch in this community. During the following provincial election, Speak Up! Show Up! kept up the momentum, hosting public conversations on key neighbourhood issues, showing a film about government structure, and offering an all-candidates’ meeting held in the Community Food Centre (CFC).
Today, political hopefuls — who may have once sidestepped requests to speak in Dartmouth North — wouldn’t miss the opportunity to address these community members. Their votes matter.
This was no one-off. This campaign worked in large part because it was created by and embedded within an established community organization. People who use the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre know and trust the peer advocates, staff and other participants. Indeed, for civic engagement efforts to truly be transformative, they must go far beyond the ballot box. They must prioritize fostering a community where people have a voice, a leadership role and a dignified space to connect with one another.
This fall, over the election period, CFCs will continue to nurture long-standing peer-based engagement programs and also partner with Vote Popup in close to 20 communities across the country. And instead of partisan hectoring or shaming people about the importance of voting, we’ll ask: “What matters to you?”
Because when community members have a chance to engage with the voting process, to cut through the jargon and talk to one another, examining the kinds of policies and promises that are really going to act in their interest, the issues that matter to them — like affordable housing, adequate income and dignified access to good, healthy food — rise to the surface. If we’re going to build a sustainable, equitable, future-looking country, low-income people, new immigrants and young people need to be part of the solution — not just in the upcoming election but every day.