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The Need For a Youth Voice

Updated: Apr 16

It was Chinua Achebe who said,

“until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter”. There is a simple liberal logic to this, if we want to be represented properly, we shall have to become the voice that tells the story.

In an age where major studios are attempting to make up for the decades of mis/un/underrepresentation of subaltern subjects, we are flooded with multiple cultural products that ostensibly seek to close the gap but often are about reaching ‘untapped markets’. There are arguments to be made on how representation is being done today and a plethora of cultural thinkers offer articles and blog posts on the subject. I begin here, not because I wish to recap those arguments, but because cultural representation is front of mind for many of us. We have seen the memes mocking Disney, and the Twitter threads going back and forth about whether a cinematic adaptation of some nostalgic fantasy universe should really have Black elves or not. Cultural representation is our entrance, but not our destination.

I wish instead to take up this idea with a different demographic in mind:

if we are to overcome the narrative of youth civic and political apathy, then a vanguard voice is required.

A focus on the struggle against the global climate crisis makes this patently obvious. One can hardly wade into the ecology of groups advocating, organizing, and pushing for urgent responses without bumping up against notable youth leaders like Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg, or Vanessa Nakate. That climate justice is a youth issue is now an incontrovertible fact. Forbes, the world’s noted profiler of thought-leaders we should pay attention to, provides a lengthy list of young activists all of whom have left an indelible imprint on the conversation. The organized school strikes for climate change are considered to be one of the largest mass actions in the world for the climate. Outside of protests, youth have also turned to the courts. An article by Corporate Knights details the proliferation of lawsuits by young people on climate change across the globe. However, this noted passion and change-making seem to all but dissipate when it comes to the more granular political issues. The much-prophesied generation of politically involved youth has yet to emerge. Crucially, many stakeholders do not believe that there is a proven formula for engaging youths or getting them to become the main characters of their own political stories in Canada – except for the rare maverick.

This might lead one to imagine that there are no existent Canadian civic organizations led by and championed by youth. One would be quite wrong. From Apathy is Boring, to the Toronto Youth Cabinet, to the Canadian Federation of Students, to the Prime Minister’s Youth Council - to name a few - there is a range of platforms and advocacy spaces for youth. These are organizations that have been doing work for decades, scoring political successes, and pushing the youth agenda forward one point at a time. The problem seems to be that their reach, image, and identities are only known to those who are already within their circles. We do not yet have a youth voice with unabashed notoriety and household recognition or a grassroots movement that has dominated the conversation. We are deeply in need of one.

The most obvious metric for measuring youth civic and political engagement, voter trends, points to a general lack of political enthusiasm. Elections Canada, notes that in 2021 the gap between older (65 -74 years) and younger demographics (18-24 years) was twenty-eight percentage points with older voters voting more. According to reporting by The Global, Elections Ontario does not publish data on voter turnout by age, and this seems to be carried through with the municipal vote as well. Due to the general Canadian disdain for collecting comprehensive demographic data – emphasized by the fact tha tnot until recently did we begin to have prominent conversations on collecting race-based data – it is hard to say with any detailed authority what youth participation looks like, but it is unlikely to be incredibly different.

As Canada continues to make policy choices that will define future generations, it is crucial that the voice at the table is not just a placeholder but fully endowed with the political capital and will of an engaged and mobilized generation.

Written By: Moboluwajidide Joseph, Co-Founder - Engage

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