How millennials could power Elizabeth May’s Greens

Youth voter turnout spiked in 2015. Was that an anomaly, or the start of a meaningful trend? If millennials go to the polls en masse, that could be good news for the Greens
Laura Wilson (second from left) with fellow campus Greens prepare to join teh climate strike in Guelph, ON on September 27th, 2019. (Photograph by Christie Vuong)

Street names at the corner of Fountain and Freshfield streets in Guelph, Ont., summon bucolic imagery far from its industrial-strip reality. We’re at a former auto-garage-turned-campaign-headquarters for Steve Dyck, Guelph’s Green Party of Canada candidate. A crowd has gathered on a mid-September evening, day six of the federal campaign, for a rally headlined by Dyck and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. Capacity inside is 164, an organizer says; an intergenerational crowd that spans babies to seniors is readily three times that, forcing people onto the sidewalk. As the sea of emerald-green T-shirts and signage waits for the rally to begin, Boomer golden oldies play on a loop: Born to Be Wild, Eye of the Tiger and You’re the One That I Want.

May’s appearance tonight is Green Party electoral strategy in action: to deploy assets to ridings seen to have a shot of turning Green. That list includes Guelph, held by the Liberals since 1993. But the 2018 election of provincial Green candidate Mike Schreiner to the Ontario legislature suggests possible federal Green traction. Nearby Kitchener Centre is viewed as another possible breakthrough with Mike Morrice, that riding’s Green candidate, in tonight’s crowd. Pockets of provincial Green exist across the country: a three-member Green Party caucus has held the balance of power in B.C.’s NDP-led coalition government since 2017. New Brunswick elected three Green MLAs last year. In April of this year, the Green Party of P.E.I. formed the country’s first Green official opposition, facing a minority Conservative government. Months later, Green candidate Paul Manly won a federal by-election in B.C.’s Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding, doubling the number of Green MPs to two.

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Guelph is a university town, which dovetails with another Green electoral priority—youth engagement. “University campuses are first in terms of our focus,” says Ian Soutar, the 28-year-old Green Party election organizer overseeing the party’s youth engagement strategy. A quarter of Canada’s electoral districts contain at least one campus, he says. And on-campus polling stations will multiply this election—to 120, from 39 in 2015.

Given the rise in youth activism spurred by the climate crisis—involvement in Extinction Rebellion; 29-year-old U.S. Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s vocal support of the “Green New Deal”; the prominence of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who recently addressed the UN on climate change and and led the Montreal climate strike in September—youth gravitation to the Green Party of Canada might seem a no-brainer. Green parties’ victories in Ireland, Belgium and Germany earlier this year, making the Greens part of a powerful bloc in the newly fractured European parliament, were buttressed by youth support.

The Green Party of Canada’s ambitious platform, Mission: Possible, outlines urgent and drastic action of the sort demanded by millions of climate strikers globally. It calls for a doubling of Canada’s emissions target to 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, a ban on fracking, eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies and ushering in economic restructuring that includes homes and businesses powered by renewable energy. The platform also calls for all new vehicles and public transit to be electric, passenger ferries to be electric or hybrid, and much of our food to be locally sourced by 2030. Promises also include a guaranteed universal basic income, a national pharmacare plan, caps on credit-card interest and free tuition for all Canadian college and university students.

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But channelling activism into voter turnout isn’t simple, Soutar says. “Young people are statistically far more active than any other demographic in the political engagement system—signing petitions, going to rallies. Where they’re least engaged is in making political donations, which makes tons of sense, and when it comes to voting. But we’ve got a strong case going for us—Elizabeth resonates with a younger demographic,” he says, referring to the 65-year-old May, who was a climate activist at a younger age than Thunberg.

It’s conventional wisdom that voter turnout is highest amongst older voters; in the last federal election, 78.8 per cent of eligible voters between the ages of 65 and 74 cast a ballot, according to Elections Canada. But that election also saw a spike in younger voter turnout: The largest increase was seen among eligible voters aged 18 to 24—up 18.3 points to 57.1 per cent, compared to 38.8 per cent in 2011.

This could be an anomaly or the start of a trend. And a trend that could have major consequences for the upcoming election, the first in which voters aged 18 to 38 have unprecedented clout as the largest voting block—37 per cent of all eligible voters. As Soutar puts it: “If all millennials got out to vote for a party, than that party would have a majority government.”

As it stands, that party is not the Greens, according to four major Canadian pollsters in late September. All found support for Greens in the 18-to-29 or 18-to-34 age categories lags behind that of the other major parties, with the Liberals leading or tied for first overall. Green support ranged from a high of 15 per cent as polled by Abacus Data (with Liberals at 33 per cent and the Conservative Party of Canada [CPC] at 28 per cent) to a low of seven per cent in polling by Angus Reid (with the Liberals and CPC tied at 31 per cent).

“The Greens generally do marginally better with youth than with older age groups,” says Philippe Fournier, creator of the Montreal-based election projection site 338Canada and a Maclean’s contributor. “I say marginally because the uncertainty of the youth vote is generally very high. It’s hard to reach young people.”

The Greens’ plan to reach those younger voters is multi-pronged. They’ll use online engagement, but only to organize in-person meetings as much as possible, Soutar says. “The idea that you can simply dump a lot of money into social media to snare the youth vote isn’t supported by data. If that’s all you’re doing, you’re not actively engaging. People engaging online are typically part of a circle—it’s not expanding the circle, it’s just creating a louder echo chamber.”

Soutar also cautions against relying too heavily on polling numbers concerning younger voters, noting that until recently, polling reflected those reached on land lines—which omitted data from many under 30 who only use a cellphone.

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Every party talks about youth engagement, says Avery Velez, co-chair of the Young Greens of Canada and youth representative to the federal council. But Velez questions whether other parties let youth representatives review the party platform and provide feedback before it’s finished, as the Greens do: “They listened to what we had to say and incorporated feedback on the LGBTQ2 section, the Indigenous section and snippets all of the way through,” Velez says. May concurs about power-sharing: “I think we’re the only party where the two Young Greens on federal council have as much power as I do on the council—one vote,” she tells Maclean’s.

Youth councils aren’t unique, but listening to them is, says Soutar, who makes the pointed jab that Justin Trudeau’s youth council wasn’t heard when they protested publicly over the government’s $4.5-billion purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The Greens are also working to ensure younger representation within its leadership, Soutar notes, pointing to the 43 Green Party candidates who are 29 or under—15 per cent of the slate. The party is also trying to pave the way for ever-younger voters, literally. In 2018, May tabled a private member’s bill that proposed to lower the voting age to 16, arguing that people that age are allowed to work, drive and pay taxes. (In late September, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh proposed a similar lowering of the voting age.) “We’ve got a tremendous number of kids not old enough to vote knocking on doors,” May tells Maclean’s. “They are so dedicated and work so hard.”

Soutar reports a surge in new Young Greens over the past year: “We’ve gone from having two or three new people per week to anywhere from two to 20 new Young Greens per day. It’s very motivating.” When he joined the youth council in 2016, it had some 500 members and five active campus clubs, Soutar says. They’ve since grown to over 2,500 identified Young Greens and 22 campus clubs, with more being developed. Campus organizers include Laura Wilson, a 20-year-old third-year international development student at the University of Guelph working to reactivate the campus Greens after the group went dormant following the 2015 election. When they’re ready, they’ll door-knock at residences and plan events like a campus pub night, Wilson tells Maclean’s. The large number of environmental groups on campus indicates the level of engagement with the issue, she says.

Getting people registered to vote is the priority, she says. More than 50 per cent of the students that Wilson talks to say they support the Greens, but also don’t vote. “Hopefully we’ll get people to vote Green, but our main goal is just to get students involved in politics.”

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That can be a challenge, says Caryn Bergmann, the 31-year-old former communications chair on the Young Greens of Canada Council,  now a field organizer for Dyck’s campaign. “Boomers grew up with voting, and see it as their God-given right, but 20- to 40-year-olds are disenfranchised,” she says. “They think their vote doesn’t matter. It’s not ingrained in us—the importance and the significance of it. We take civics in grade 10 for half a semester. But if you engage early, you’re more likely to vote for the rest of your life.”

Wilson agrees. The fact the election falls during mid-term exams could be a deterrent to students voting, she says. A bigger concern is cynicism about the political process itself: “A lot of students are tired of politics going around in circles, people yelling at each other and campaigning on empty promises.” It’s the paradox seen in the disenchantment with power and the political process mobilizing climate activism, evident in Greta Thunberg’s speech condemning world leaders at the UN Climate Summit that immediately went viral.

One broken Liberal promise, electoral reform, not only stoked cynicism but had profound practical consequences for smaller parties like the Greens, youth organizers point out. In 2015, then Liberal leader Justin Trudeau vowed that the 2015 federal campaign would be the last held under the “first-past-the-post” system that allows a party to win more than 50 per cent of seats in Parliament without winning 50 per cent of votes cast. Proportional representation, or PR, systems paved the way for Green governments in Europe and could potentially break the long-standing hegemony of Liberal-Conservative power. (Under a proportional representation system, for instance, the 3.4 per cent Green popular support in the 2015 election would have translated into 12 seats, not just the one held by May.)

Talk about PR tends to put people into a trance-like state, Soutar admits. But it would change the electoral landscape and move voters away from strategic voting, in which people don’t vote for their preferred choice but are forced to vote for the lesser of two evils: “The downfall of first-past-the-post is that you’re usually voting against something rather than voting for something,” he says.

Youth have led climate protests in Montreal—but will they vote? (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Convincing potential young Green voters that their vote matters is a challenge, Bergmann says. “It’s hard to come up with a comeback to why they should vote except to say you’ve got to help the party and vote for what you believe in. You also have to explain that the governments we elect now, and the changes they make now, are going to affect us for the rest of our lives. But they’re all run by old guys.” She uses the analogy of a jar filled with one marble at a time—at the end of day, you’d have 500 marbles. “That’s one vote amplified. But it’s hard for people to see that.” Still, she’s optimistic, she says.

Wilson also remains hopeful, noting that Schreiner’s election has shown that Greens are a viable option in Guelph and that a Green vote doesn’t have to be a throwaway vote or split the vote: “We can show we can hold that balance of power and be a voice of reason in government, and hold whoever’s in charge responsible.”

It’s an argument May nimbly weaves into her half-hour speech before the cheering crowd in Guelph. She expresses joy when given a gift of a pair of socks from a local store opened by Syrian refugees, choosing not to make a crack about the Prime Minister’s penchant for the accessory. These socks are printed with “May the forest be with you,” a play on the Star Wars quote. May runs with it: “If the forest is with me, I will boldly go where no Green has gone before!” she proclaims.

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She then switches gears to deliver a serious message of urgency, criticizing the Liberals for emission-reduction targets that remain unchanged from those held by the Harper government. The choice between Liberals and Conservatives is “the evil of two lessers,” May says.

As she winds down her speech, May talks up the power of minority governments and the parties that keep them accountable: “The best Parliament I think we ever had in terms of accomplishment was the minority government under Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson,” she says, referring back to the early 1960s. Working with the NDP, who held the balance of power, that Liberal government introduced legislation that defined Canada, May says, listing various historic reforms including the implementation of single-payer health care, the Canada Pension Plan and student loans with no interest. As the Green Party leader carefully ticks off those historical boxes, ending with a policy for students bettered in the Greens’ promise of free tuition, the multi-generational crowd roars its approval.

This article appears in print in the November 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “How millennials could power the Greens.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.