Photo: Natalia Balcerzak

The civic conundrum

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It will come as no surprise to most that many young people do not vote, but the reasons for our apathetic generation are complicated, and convoluted. Krista Hessey explores the muddled curriculum of high school civics education, and how it might be part of the problem

I remember the first day of civics class well. The year was 2010, and my teacher — who taught gym primarily — appealed to us on the first day to “bear with him” as he explained the basics of Canadian politics. He was a man of large stature in his late-20s who was already partially bald. On this day he was wearing a pink Abercrombie polo and khakis, a change from his usual uniform of Nikes, gym shorts and a hoodie. He had a tattoo of a cross spanning the length of his back, even though he was not an overly religious man. His voice was abrasive and his sentences usually fragmented. We would try and refrain from giggling when he would break chalk, which would send a flush of colour to his face. In gym class he would laugh along with us but not today in civics. At the tender age of 15, we could tell he was as mystified by the concept of government as we were. But, as so many of our peers had done before us, we dragged our feet into the classroom and the teacher did his best to explain democracy, while we texted under the table about what restaurant we were going to hit up for lunch.

In the final year of high school most students come of age to vote and unless politics are discussed outside the classroom, Ontario’s mandatory, half-credit civics course offered in Grade 10 is usually the only education young people formally receive to inform them on the Canadian political system and voting practices. Some high schools in Ontario also offer further courses in Canadian and world politics, though it is not mandatory for students to complete to graduate.

According to Elections Canada, studies have shown that “an individual’s likelihood of voting increases with higher levels of knowledge and interest in politics.” In addition to enhancing these variables, civic education can foster values and attitudes that encourage political participation while increasing the motivation to vote.

An individual’s likelihood of voting increases with higher levels of knowledge and interest in politics.

In a demographic study done in March 2014, Pew Research Center found that Generation Y, or sometimes referred to as Millennials, have fewer attachments to traditional political institutions and demonstrate the “highest level of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.”

By the third week of the nine-week course, the attendance started to dwindle and our teacher started to run out of ideas for creative lesson plans. At the beginning of class we would be assigned to read a few chapters of the textbook, followed by answering questions at the end of each chapter that would reappear on our desks the next week marked by flurry of check in red ink. After being dismissed for lunch, murmurs of discontent filled the hallway.

Past elections held at all levels of government in Canada have been emblematic of that. In the 2010 municipal election only 50.55 per cent of Torontonians came out to cast their ballot and while the voting turnout for the federal election in 2011 saw an overall increase of 2.3 per cent, only 38.8 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 casted a vote. The most common response from young people for not having voted was that they were “not interested in voting” cited at 30 per cent, which also includes a general feeling that their individual vote would not have made a difference in the election results, according to Statistics Canada.

In Toronto’s municipal election held in October, 60.4 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots, which was up 10 percentage points from 2010. Although The City of Toronto doesn’t publish voting turnout data by age demographic for municipal elections, the polling station at Ryerson University’s Pitman Hall residence saw only 335 ballots cast out of the approximately 850 students living between the three on-campus residences. Assuming the majority of students using that polling station are living in dorms, this would mean only 39 per cent of students casted a ballot, which mirrors the 2011 federal results.

Nathan Tidridge, a high school teacher of history and government at Waterdown District High School, located in Waterdown a community outlying Hamilton, said he is not at all surprised by low youth voting turnout. Tidridge first discovered the flaws in the civics curriculum in 2010. He then spent the next three years lobbying the Ontario Ministry of Education to correct serious errors in the curriculum surrounding the province’s approach to Civics.

The initiative started with a letter sent in 2010 to Minister of Education, advocating for changes to the 2005 Ontario Civics’ curriculum document. The letter focused on the fact that the 2005 curriculum’s only direction for teachers required them to address “the main structures and functions of municipal, provincial, and federal governments in Canada.” There was no mention of the constitutional monarchy, responsible government, the Constitution Act of 1982 and no mention of many crucial positions in government such as the governor general, lieutenant governor, prime minister, premier or Cabinet. There is even a definition of Parliament given in the document’s glossary that is incorrect, with no mandate to teach it in the actual curriculum.

The definition used to read: “An elected assembly responsible for passing legislation and granting the right to levy taxes. In Canada, the federal legislature consists of the sovereign’s representative, the Senate, and the House of Commons.”

The vagueness of the curriculum leaves much of the course open to individual teachers’ interpretation. “Civics is usually given to new, young teachers who often have little to no background in government and so they end up relying heavily on the course curriculum and text,” Tidridge said. What’s worse is the textbooks, Tidridge explained, are written by private companies are often riddled with errors promoting a vicious cycle of ignorance.

Civics is usually given to new, young teachers who often have little to no background in government and so they end up relying heavily on the course curriculum and text.

When his letter went unanswered, he sent another letter on November 28, 2011, to Ontario’s then Minister of Education again advocating for changes to the Canadian Civics curriculum. A copy of Canada’s Constitutional Monarchy, a book penned by Tidridge in 2011, was included within the letter. He sent subsequent letters each month from January to April in 2012. Tidridge did not get a response from the mail-outs until January 2013 when he received a response from Julia Munro MPP, who expressed support for his cause and assured him that the revised curriculum would take his critiques into consideration.

Then, in August 2013, a revised curriculum, which Tidridge deems a “vast improvement,” was released. The glossary was vastly expanded to include the multiple branches of government, Governor General, premier, prime minister, and the definition of Parliament was corrected. Though Tidridge, who has been teaching for 11 years, says would like to see more drastic changes that he thinks would improve youth voting turnout.

“Civics should be a full credit course at a senior level when students are closer to voting age which would better prepare them to vote,” said Tidridge.

Alice Klein, co-founder and editor of Now Magazine and founder of echoes his claim.

“We have an education system that does everything in its power to make democracy as dull as possible,” Klein said. “You have to learn what the system is, what the issues are, and who the candidates are in your area. It is confusing and requires attention, and the pay-off doesn’t seem to be that high.”

When my civics course came to an end, there was a sigh of relief from both the students and the teacher. Politics was not part of our daily lives yet. At 15 years old, we didn’t even have our own bankcards, let alone an interest in political issues. I spoke to many old high school friends about what they remembered or learned during their Grade 10 civics course and unanimously they replied, “nothing at all.” Followed by remarks along the lines of “ugh, I hated that class” or “it was so pointless.”

At Waterdown District High School, Tidridge employs an inquiry-based learning strategy.  After breaking down the curriculum into different units, students review different political ideologies, types of citizenship, and constitutional rights and then apply them to current issues. For one project, students had to pick a local charity and analyze how it interacts with the government. Many non-partisan charitable organizations such as CIVIX and Apathy is Boring, which relies on technology and art to educate youth about democracy, are working alongside educators to enhance civic education and the overall health of Canadian democracy. During the recent municipal election in Toronto, elementary and high school students voted in city-wide mock elections organized by Student Vote, a program operated by CIVIX. The exercise allowed students not yet of age to experience the polling process in a way that is fun and accessible.

Youth disengagement with politics and particularity with voting is the biggest threat to democracy that we are seeing.

As younger people with a lower propensity to vote are replacing their older cohorts with a higher propensity to vote, there may be a dramatic decline in average voter turnout over the next decade or two, according to Elections Canada. And while we do not need everyone to become a political junky, for a proper democratic process to occur some level of engagement and exposure must be achieved. The effectiveness of the changes in the new Ontario Civics curriculum and efforts made by external organizations will be measured in a few years when those students come of age.

“Youth disengagement with politics and particularity with voting is the biggest threat to democracy that we are seeing,” Klein said. “It is terrifying.”

Democracy is about inclusion, a natural blood-pumping call for action and representation, but youth ages 18-24 are still struggling to find the pulse of the already frail political culture of the city.


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