Thursday, July 18, 2019

Don’t know, don’t care: Camosun students aren’t as engaged politically as they were in years past. Why?

January 23, 2019 by Fred Cameron, features writer

Students inherit the responsibilities of the generation before us, and as a post-secondary institution Camosun College is responsible for fostering new ideas while students develop the skills, knowledge, and confidence necessary to bring them to fruition.

Considering the recent student council elections on campus and municipal elections across the capital region, as well as the proportional representation referendum, I thought the timing was right to take a closer look at student political involvement here at Camosun College.

I found that students are less involved with politics on campus today compared to years past; when it comes to political student clubs, the environment on campus today is very different from what it used to be. 

And by different, I mean non-existent. The question is: why?

Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) executive director Michel Turcotte has noticed that there are fewer students involved with political clubs on campus; he has concerns about millennial disillusionment.

“There is a broader problem or phenomenon that seems to be impacting the younger generation’s ability to interact politically and even socially in society,” says Turcotte. “In my lifespan I’ve noticed a difference. I’m a little long in the tooth compared to most people, but you can’t help but compare my generation to the youth of today. The only thing that they are voicing concern about is perhaps the environment, and issues related to it. Those are important issues, but only a small portion of them seem to be concerned about that.”

As a result of the lack of social and political engagement on campus, Turcotte says that there currently isn’t a single active political student club at Camosun.

“It disheartens me that there is not that level of social or political clubs,” says Turcotte. “They don’t have to be political clubs. We could have an Amnesty International club, for example. We don’t even have the large-scale environmental clubs like the Sierra Club. Having those voices improves the campuses. Students seem to be dejected and not engaged with those sorts of issues.”

This story originally appeared in our January 23, 2019 issue.

Camosun Political Science instructor Dan Reeve says that he thinks there are a number of factors that come into play as to why there are so few political student clubs.

“In Arts and Science, it’s typically a two-year program,” says Reeve. “Students will stay here for one or two years, and typically when I poll my students about two-thirds to three-quarters of them are working, so time, of course, is very precious. Factor in that the price of rent is the third most expensive in the country; that puts all the more economic pressure on students to work while they are going to school. Those two factors, plus the temporary nature of enrolment… they don’t have the perspective of a four-year stay. In addition to working and going to school, most aren’t seeing this as a place to build partisan community.”

Camosun Political Science instructor Alison James was surprised to learn that there are no partisan clubs on campus, but says that may be because her view is skewed by her background and surroundings.

“I know that a bunch of my students are politically active, both in party politics and the student society,” says James. “I wonder if it is partly because people don’t tend to be at Camosun as long as they are at UVic or some other institutions. You have a full turnover every few years, and less chance to build that community.”

Turcotte says that Camosun has never had a lot of student clubs, but historically they were much more prominent than they are today. (The CCSS website does have some political clubs listed on their website, such as the Cam State Conservative Club and the Green Party Club, but none are currently active.)

“In the past they were mainly political clubs, with a few activity clubs or something of that nature,” he says. “But now none of the clubs we have are political. There are some clubs associated with departments, like Criminology or Psychology, but absolutely no clubs, for a number of years, of political or societal interest.”

Turcotte says there have been sporadic spikes of increased political activity at Camosun, but there has really been about a 15-year period where that has fallen off.

“20 years ago we had them all, and for years before that,” he says. “There were international socialists, and New Democrats, Conservatives, and a lot of Liberals. They were quite well represented.”

The political presence was so strong on campus that Turcotte says one of the major worries was that the student society might be taken over by one of the political clubs.

“Before I was hired, the Liberals had tried and partially succeeded in taking over a number of the [CCSS] positions,” says Turcotte. “It’s not always a planned initiative, but rather it was opportunism. There was a time when the major political parties were trying to mark out political territory on campuses, or to quiet voices.”

But that is all a distant memory.

Reeve says that the decline in partisan involvement likely stems from tarnished reputations attached to parties.

“Fewer people are aligned with political parties,” he says. “I think that negatively affects partisanship in terms of joining a party. I think some people also assume that if they get active in a party that they have to be big donors. My experience is that parties will be glad to take whatever you can give them in terms of time, energy, and ideas.”

James says that the level of involvement she sees with her students may be because of what she teaches.

“Whether you could go to another subject area and find the same level of involvement, I don’t know,” says James. “A second-year Poli Sci class is quite a selective group, in a way. They have to have taken a first-year Poli Sci class, so they’re going to be interested in politics. I know the students in that class are very up on the issues. We’ve had lots of really interesting conversations in class, particularly about the referendum.”

Reeve says that from experience working with parties, he knows that they love it when students join them; however, he thinks Camosun may be overlooked because it doesn’t have quite the same size and scope as UVic, which has a much more established party system.

“I encourage my students, if they are interested in a political party, to get involved at a constituency level,” says Reeve. “Parties are always more than happy to see young people involved. Most parties, at the riding level, are volunteer based, and they are always hungry for young people to join—any political stripe.”

Turcotte says that it’s important for politicians to at least have the appearance that they can engage with youth; otherwise they have a harder time as candidates.

“If they can only engage people over the age of 50 that would seriously limit their electoral chances,” says Turcotte, “particularly in a party like the NDP, but even with the Liberals, as we’ve seen with the appeal of Justin Trudeau, where he was seen by the younger demographic as a breath of fresh air after Stephen Harper. Being able to attract youth is an important quality for a political leader. The NDP is kind of trying to characterize first past the post as the old system.”

Third-year University Transfer student Sacha Christensen is taking political science classes, is active in provincial politics, and is the CCSS Lansdowne executive. Christensen sits on an electoral district association (EDA) and serves on a provincial party committee.

“Honestly, I had to seek it out,” says Christensen. “I didn’t have anybody come to me and say, ‘You should get involved in this.’ I got an invite to an EDA AGM, more or less by accident, and decided I wanted to be a part of it.”

Christensen says that he is particularly disappointed in the absence of political clubs at Camosun, but it’s also something that he understands.

“I think there would certainly be more students involved in politics if there was more of a presence on campuses,” says Christensen. “This is a bit tangential, but one thing that I’ve noticed is that, specifically in political circles at Camosun, students seem to join the political clubs at UVic. [UVic] have a mandate that allows [Camosun students] to join, and the students are there for a longer period. The base of students can be there for four years and can be politically active for their time there, but it also means that Camosun students can attach on to that.”

Reeve says that at various times he’s tried to encourage students to get connected with UVic.

“There is always a lot of enthusiasm in September, but by November people are concerned about their projects and assignments,” he says. “I think the hard part is that it’s hard to start from scratch. Whatever your political stripe, if you want to set up a club here, that could seem intimidating. I think an affiliation with the UVic clubs would be great because you aren’t starting from zero. You have people who have been around for a couple of years who can offer a little bit of guidance.”

The lack of infrastructure on campus can be limiting, but there are other ways for students to get involved politically. CCSS student wellness and access director Eleanor Vannan has had people from both major provincial parties reach out to her, but she has been careful to remain impartial.

“Right now, I think that’s probably the most beneficial thing for what I’m in, which is the student movement,” says Vannan. “My primary motivation in politics is as a student and as a parent. For me, that means you work with whoever is going to work with you. If there is a party that is willing to give students what they need, then you put the work in. I am very issues-driven.”

James says that she’s learned a lot about the CCSS from her students who are involved with it.

“I was invited to an event the other day around disability on campus,” she says. “It was very interesting to hear about how the college is doing, and what problems students are facing.”

As a CCSS board member, Vannan says it’s hard for her to see the campus as politically empty just because it lacks party-specific clubs.

“I think the political drive at Camosun is usually about internal politics, and lobbying the institution, and making sure that the institution is providing the things that students need [and] that policies have student representation,” says Vannan. “For me, it’s a good fit because of my desire to remain non-partisan. It’s about how we can use political tactics, lobbying, and policy to get those outcomes that are immediate and impact us here right now.”

In a general sense Turcotte says CCSS involvement ebbs and flows; he says that it’s currently at a down point in that cycle.

“There was more competition in the past,” says Turcotte. “Often in our spring election we haven’t been having a lot of competition. You might have three people running for one position, but sometimes there are positions with either one person running or nobody running. It’s sad when you have uncontested positions when you are going through the election process. I had never seen that until this past decade. In my first decade on the job, it never happened.”

Vannan won her CCSS ballot uncontested, which she says made her a bit sad.

“Don’t get me wrong—I’m really happy to be in my position, but when I say to people I got 98 percent of the vote, because it’s a yes/no vote, people are like, ‘That’s fantastic.’ But I say, ‘Yes, but no one ran against me.’ I want to know I have a mandate from students,” she says. “I want to tell them what I want to do, what I think I need to advocate for, and I want to have proof that they are really supportive of this.”

What politics on campus is really good for right now, says Vannan, is specific events like the municipal election or the referendum.

“We are good at rushing out and coming up with a strategy and implementing it,” says Vannan. “We are great at getting people to come out and do that work, but it’s the times in between that are a challenge. It’s keeping people politically literate when there is nothing going on in terms of elections. There is always something. There is always legislation being passed, something affecting students on campus, but when it isn’t during an election campaign, it’s really easy to feel like you don’t have a say and it’s just going to go on no matter what you do.”

Reeve says that it would be great to see students who have the time to get politically active at a partisan level, but adds that there are lots of ways to be politically active that aren’t tied to a party.

“Overall, I think partisan activity over the last 20 years may have changed, but I don’t think that necessarily means that students are more apathetic,” he says. “We see a lot of students get involved at the local governance level, where there isn’t typically party involvement, and in particular [involved in] the last municipal election.”

19-year-old Ned Taylor defied the odds and broke the mould when he was elected alderman in Saanich last fall.

“Myself getting elected sort of shows the uniqueness of municipal politics,” says Taylor. “I don’t think we see that sort of thing happening in provincial or federal politics, so it’s sort of a unique area.”

Taylor says he started volunteering in Grade 10 or 11 for the federal election campaign in 2015 and decided to continue after the election.

“Then I talked to my MP, Elizabeth May, when she came to do an in-class presentation, and she invited me to work in her office in Ottawa,” says Taylor. “It was an internship—it wasn’t paid—but it was a great opportunity, so I took her up on that. It just sort of went from there.Then I tried to apply for a job in politics after the provincial election last year and didn’t get accepted. So I thought, ‘That’s okay, I’ll see if the public wants to hire me.’ After a couple of tries they did, so it worked out.”

Whatever level their political involvement has been, everyone I interviewed agrees that the experience of being actively involved in politics has helped shape their lives in everything they do. When he went to university, Turcotte enjoyed the political experience as a member of a political party that participated in the youth wing and took part on the frontlines during elections, and it was an experience that served him well later in life.

“You get that mentorship and that experience,” says Turcotte. “Those are skills that serve you beyond political purposes—those are skills that serve you in life. You gain the ability to project ideas, and project how you feel in order to influence the world around you. People need to know how to make a difference. It’s not something that is taught in school. It is a practically learned activity. I used to be afraid to speak in public, but now if I feel the need to express my opinions I have the ability to do that.”

That kind of student leadership does look really good on a resume, says Vannan, although she adds that it goes beyond making students more appealing to employers.

“It actually makes you a better hire,” says Vannan. “When someone hires you and you’ve worked on the CCSS board, you’ve learned interpersonal skills, you’ve learned how to mediate conflict with different personalities, you’ve really practiced professionalism. Those aren’t things you magically figure out in the student society; those are things you’re taught. If I were to rank my courses, I would rank my experience on the CCSS as high as any course, in terms of what I’ve learned from it.”

One of the great things he experienced while working through youth politics, joining a political party, and being part of its youth wing, Reeve says, is the contacts that he made.

“I have some great friends all these years later who I met in my youth through party involvement,” says Reeve. “And then I got to meet some amazing people, who kind of mentored me and guided me. That experience was irreplaceable. Just getting the chance to meet these people was a real eye-opener for what politics really was. Seeing the hard work, seeing the hours, and seeing the rigour kind of opened my eyes. If people want to get involved it gives them a view of the road, or they can see that there are many ways to affect change without necessarily being a public face. When I grew up I was politically active and tied to a political party—that was my start. There is a natural framework built in, because all of the major parties are already well established, so there is an infrastructure for you to join and be active with.”

Taylor encourages students here at the college to get those political clubs started up.

“There are no political groups at Camosun,” says Taylor. “There is an opportunity for students to create one. This is an exciting time for young people in politics. Finally politicians have started to realize just how much young people can impact both elections and policy. We saw a focus on younger voters for the proportional representation referendum. We saw younger people getting elected, not only in Saanich, but in other municipalities in the region and across the province in this general municipal election. Clearly the tide is turning. Politics isn’t just for the working middle aged or the retired. It’s for young people just as much. I hope Camosun students can grasp those opportunities.”

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