TORONTO — With a little over one week left in the 2021 federal election campaign, experts are raising concerns that party leaders have not done enough to address the issues impacting post-secondary students, potentially hampering voter turnout among young Canadians.
Katherine Scott, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told CTVNews.ca on Thursday that “the whole topic of young people” has been mostly absent from the campaign trail.
“Their experience through the pandemic, obviously access to education, the current crisis around affordability and trying to get established in the labour market — all of those issues have not garnered any attention,” Scott said in a telephone interview.
Out of the major party leaders, only NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh mentioned student issues during a campaign stop in August. In addition, the topic wasn’t brought up once during the leaders’ debates.
Scott said there has been “minimal treatment” on student issues in the parties’ platforms, with some not including any promises around post-secondary education and student debt.
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The Liberal platform has pledged to eliminate federal interest on student loans and continue the doubling of Canada Student Grants to low-income students – something that was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Green party is promising to abolish post-secondary tuition and forgive existing federal student debt, while the NDP says it will cancel up to $20,000 in federal student debt per student and permanently eliminate student debt interest.
Before becoming Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole promised in 2019 to give new graduates up to $100,000 in tax breaks over their first three years out of school, with engineers, coders and those in the skilled trades seeing a tax exemption of $200,000 over five years.
However, the party’s current platform does not mention this, nor student debt. CTVNews.ca has reached out to the Conservatives multiple times during the campaign for an update on what they are promising post-secondary students, but has not yet received a response.
Scott said the lack of attention on issues predominantly affecting youth voters is likely due to a shorter election campaign, as parties more often focus on “high vote constituencies” and those who are more likely to vote.
While voter turnout among young people has increased over the last few federal elections, it is still lower than it is among other demographics, according to data from Elections Canada.
ACCESS TO VOTING
Grace Barakat, a PhD student at York University writing her dissertation on student debt policy and affordability in Canada, says voter turnout will likely be lower among young Canadians this year after Elections Canada said in August that it was scrapping its Vote on Campus program due to COVID-19.
Barakat said Thursday that students have enough to worry about with managing their studies, and don’t need the added stress of figuring out where and how to cast their ballot.
“The cancellation of the Vote on Campus program may compromise the ability of students to cast their vote away from home. It is imperative that voting is made accessible and convenient for students, especially those who are living away from their home ridings,” Barakat said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
Barakat said “voting should be easy,” but instead the elimination of the Vote on Campus program creates “another barrier that prevents youth from voting.”
Elections Canada introduced the program on 39 campuses during the 2015 federal election — a time when political engagement and turnout among young adults had been mostly declining since the 1970s, according to the Library of Parliament.
According to Elections Canada data, the 2015 election saw an 18.3-percentage-point increase in turnout among 18 to 24 year olds after the implementation of the program. The program was then expanded in the 2019 federal election, with 119 voting locations at 98 post-secondary institutions.
Linyuan Guo-Brennan, an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Prince Edward Island, called the cancellation of the program an “unfortunate situation.” She cited the short campaign as the reason for why Elections Canada could not organize safe voting on campus amid the pandemic.
“It is a huge barrier for young people’s participation in democracy and to exercise their voting rights,” she said in an email Thursday.
Guo-Brennan said that university students and recent graduates can play an “important part in post-pandemic recovery,” if the leaders address the issues that matter to them.
She added that the lack of attention on these issues, such as concerns around post-secondary debt, education policy, and student affordability, will “certainly negatively affect” young peoples’ motivation to vote in this election.
As a student herself, Barakat says she wants to hear more from parties before election day on how students will play a role in helping the economy recover from the pandemic, specifically marginalized youth who have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19.
“Recovering from the pandemic will require a strong and accessible post-secondary education system. With many students and families struggling with the economic impacts of COVID-19, we must ensure that post-secondary education is affordable and accessible to all,” Barakat said.
“This is not the time for marginalized students to accrue debt in order to have an education,” she added.
While the parties have been talking about their different employment plans, Scott said they have not highlighted where young people fit into those plans.
Job sections including hospitality and tourism, which Scott notes are major employers of young people, have not recovered quickly from the pandemic. In an effort to get more ballots cast from young people, Scott said parties need to better address these economic shifts students are currently facing.
“I think the parties need to be addressing these critical issues that are facing young people in order to draw their attention and get them to vote,” she said.