Which party speaks for urban youth this federal election? Over the past few weeks, media commentators have pointed to two important trends, wrote Simon Black, a graduate student researcher at The City Institute at York University, in the Toronto Star April 28:
Polling suggests young people favour the Greens, Liberals and New Democrats: parties that have demonstrated some commitment — however limited — to urban issues in this campaign. A politically engaged youth is thus important for the civic and social health of our urban regions. But as comedian Rick Mercer has quipped, “as far as any political parties are concerned,” young people “might as well be dead.”
As any political scientist will tell you, in a pluralist liberal democracy, those who make the most noise — by voting, organizing, lobbying — are more likely to have their issues addressed by government. Pluralism implies many groups of relatively equal power jockeying for position and influence in political life.
We live, however, in a country of great social and economic inequality where money and power, two things youth lack, go a long way to securing an audience with the governing classes. Young people have power in numbers, but organizing and exercising that power around common interests is never easy. Through advocacy groups and party politics, seniors have flexed their political muscle this election, pushing the parties to address their immediate concerns, from home care to public pensions; youth have yet to flex theirs.
Urban youth have their own issues: environmental sustainability and the livability of cities are major concerns. The young are more frequent users of public transit and would benefit from a federal role in building the green transportation infrastructure our country so desperately needs. Funding for the arts and athletics are also a priority of urban youth, who recognize their value in facilitating creative expression and promoting social cohesion in the highly diverse landscapes of Canadian cities.
Then there are the myriad social problems facing many of today’s urban youth, problems the political parties have failed to highlight this campaign. For instance, in Toronto 40 per cent of black students do not graduate from high school. Drug-addicted youth in Vancouver’s downtown east side struggle to secure housing and access to services. Racialized youth face discrimination and outright racism in urban labour markets and in their contact with police and the criminal justice system. The young are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our cities’ precariously employed; those workers struggling to make ends meet working temporary, part-time or multiple jobs with low wages and few benefits. And there are the extremely high rates of poverty and incarceration of young aboriginal people in cities such as Winnipeg and Regina.
As in any federal system, politicians will squabble over whose jurisdiction these issues fall under. It’s time to move beyond these squabbles and recognize that urban youth, and our cities in general, would benefit from a strong federal urban presence and the development of a federally-led urban strategy. Stephen Harper explicitly opposes such a notion; he’s committed to a model of governance in which the feds do not “interfere” in the business of the provinces and municipalities.
But a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach from the feds is not desirable either. Municipal governments are best placed to evaluate the needs of local populations, including youth. Cities have been important drivers in the design and innovation of Canadian social services and social programs. Any federal urban strategy with a youth component should recognize this and respect the diversity of Canadian cities. For instance, a program to address street gangs (with gang-exit and gang-intervention initiatives) in a city such as Regina in which aboriginal youth are disproportionately involved in gang life will necessarily take a different form than programs in Montreal or Toronto.
In any progressive era of Canadian politics, the federal government has exercised its federal spending power to alter Canada’s approach to issues that were essentially within provincial jurisdiction. In the fields of education, welfare and health care, the feds have influenced provincial and municipal policies and program standards.
Beyond providing necessary funding to cash-strapped cities, a federal urban youth strategy could establish principles that govern access to programs and services without becoming excessively involved in their design and delivery. Pairing universal programs with targeted investments based on the social citizenship, social rights and democratic participation and engagement of young people is vital to building such a strategy.
But an urban youth strategy is not likely to emerge unless it is fought for and demanded by young people themselves. In urban centres across our country, many youth are active in civic life, but often in ways that don’t conform to the politics-as-usual of parties and elections. Other youth speak the language of distress and despair, with gunshots or requests for spare change on our city streets. Whatever the manifestation of their voice, politicians ignore urban youth at our cities’ peril.
Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.