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What matters to millennials? Atlantic Canada's young voters are letting their issues be known

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Surveys say housing costs and the environment are the most important issues to millennials. But it’s in climate change activism where young people seem most involved and committed, and where they will likely make the most electoral noise in the coming years

MOTIVATING MILLENNIALS

For environmental activist Lilian Barraclough a lot is riding on this upcoming election, and doing something about climate change is at the top of her list. She’s part of a growing wave of young voters who are passionate, organized and fed up with waiting for someone else to act. COLIN CHISHOLM PHOTO

“This election is really a turning point.”
– Lilian Barraclough

‘We don’t have another four years to wait'

For many young voters, climate change is top of mind

The Amazon rainforest is burning, students are striking in the streets, Greta Thunberg has risen to international fame. 

2019 has been a very busy year for environmental issues and young people are leading the charge. 

Young people see these challenges beyond the lens of the next couple of years - they’re thinking about what waits for them in the decades ahead if actions aren’t taken now to mitigate the potential horrors of runaway climate change and ecological devastation. 

But will that sense of urgency translate into a wave of young voters in the upcoming federal election? 

Lilian Barraclough, 21, is a former organizer with the Halifax chapter of Our Time, which is a youth-run organization endorsing candidates in the upcoming federal election who advocate for a ‘Green New Deal.’

But she’s taken a step back from that group after deciding to dedicate her efforts to the Green Party, volunteering for Jo-Ann Roberts’ campaign in Halifax. 

Now in her fourth year at the University of King’s College, people keep asking her what her next steps are; but for her, that future is filled with doubt unless something is done now. 

“This election is really a turning point,” Barraclough said inside the Glitter Bean Cafe near campus. “This is where we need to be pushing for a Green New Deal and progressive policies.” 

“We don’t have another four years to wait,” she added. 

It’s Barraclough’s first time volunteering directly for a political party, and although she’s been involved with environmental activism for some time, a sense of urgency has led her to act.

“It’s really a question of whether or not there will be a future for us to plan for,” she said. “That’s a terrifying thought and that’s honestly a lot of the drive behind my organizing and volunteering.”

Barraclough has been involved in climate activism since middle school.

ELEVEN

Number of years remaining before climate change becomes irreversible, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It stemmed from studying weather patterns after noticing her winters at home in Ontario were getting shorter and warmer. 

“In Toronto, we normally have really cold winters, but one year it didn’t go below 10 degrees Celsius all winter and we didn’t have any snow,” she said. “I spent every day after school looking at historical weather patterns and trying to see if this was normal.” 

“When I realized that wasn’t normal, I knew I had to do something.” 

Barraclough said she’s definitely not alone among her generation, saying many are not only actively involved in environmental organizations, but are also dealing with eco-anxiety, a feeling of an uncertain future if climate change’s worst prophecies come true. 

“It’s our future that’s really at risk here.” 

But, she said a lot of concerned young voters are still making up their mind, and each party’s climate plan will play a major factor on who they vote for on Election Day.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Christine Saulnier, NDP candidate for Halifax in the Oct. 21 election, said young voters represent an important demographic for her campaign.

“Their energy, their activism and their passion make for great volunteers,” Saulnier said. “This is also one of the largest building blocks in this upcoming election.” 

Saulnier said she’s been inspired by young people gathering in large numbers, holding climate strikes and making their voices heard.

TWENTY-NINE

Percentage of millennials and GenXers (those born between 1965-80) who see climate change as the most important issue facing the world, far more than any other category. (Source: Deloitte Global Millennial survey, 2019)

“I could see the kind of analysis that’s going on among the youth is really impressive,” she said. “This is about collective action and that’s really exciting for us.”

Saulnier pointed to her party’s climate action plan as something she’s hoping will resonate with those young people when they go to the polls this October.

The plan includes focusing on green jobs, investing in mass transit, and working with indigenous leadership on mitigating climate change. 

All major political parties in the upcoming campaign will have an environmental pillar as part of their platform -- it’s just a question of which one will resonate.

Saulnier is hoping those voters will pick the NDP’s plan. She said the Liberal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline in B.C. contradicts their stance as a green-friendly party. 

“The youth are rightfully angry about the (federal) government declaring a climate emergency and then building a pipeline,” she said. “They have so much at stake -- we need to be connecting the dots for what this means for their future.”

Saulnier said the climate crisis has been top-of-mind for people she meets at the doorstep on the campaign trail, along with other issues like household affordability.

“The climate is always top three (issues) for sure.”

PASSIONATE AND ORGANIZED

It’s no longer just a fringe movement or a few groups of people who are getting involved - it’s starting to reach a critical mass, according to Meghan McMorris, community energy co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. 

“We’re really lucky because we have a lot of volunteers and members who are constantly interacting with us on a variety of environmental and climate-related issues that they’re concerned with,” McMorris said. “Lately we’ve seen more organized groups of youth showing up and working with us.”

Three of those groups that have partnered in some way with the EAC include Our Time, iMatter and the Halifax Strikers.  

The Halifax Strikers is connected to the Fridays For Future organization, inspired by well-known youth activist Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede who has addressed the UN and is pushing governments to take action on climate change, attracting widespread media attention.

McMorris said Thunberg’s rise to international stardom for her activism has helped show young people that it is possible to make a difference and to make the world pay attention. 

“She is validating the feelings that so many young people are feeling -- the eco-anxieties around the climate crisis,” she said. “It’s the youth that are going to suffer the most through this because they have the most amount of their lives ahead of them.”

THIRTEEN

Average number of years it takes a young Canadian to save a 20 per cent down payment on a house in 2019. The number is lower in Atlantic Canada (9 years in Halifax, 6 years in St. John’s) (Source: Generation Squeeze, Straddling the Gap, 2019)

The EAC helped to facilitate the Our Time community town hall in Halifax, which was calling for a Green New Deal on June 17 along with other organizations such as The Council Of Canadians.

McMorris said she was struck by how passionate and organized the young people were during that process.

“Afterwards I had a young person come up to me and say, ‘I can’t believe the number of people who were here who were older or elderly who felt the exact same way that I do,’ ” she said. “About 10 minutes later an elderly person came up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe this event was organized by these youth. I can’t believe how passionate they are and motivated.’ ” 

People aged 18-38, Generation Z and millennials, make up the largest number of potential voters in this election, so they have the largest potential to swing an election, if they show up. 

But if they’re organized enough to host town halls, march on the streets and more, how hard could marking ‘X’ on a ballot be? 

“We’ve seen groups of people get involved before around environmental issues, but this time it’s different and that’s because of this huge groundswell from the youth,” McMorris said. 

Back at the Glitter Bean, Barraclough is contemplating what it’ll take for a wave of young people to show up at the polls. 

One of the stumbling blocks that could stymie the youth vote, she says, is just getting the basic information out there -- how to register to vote, where to vote, that students from other provinces can vote where they’re studying, and more.

“People assume that young people either know how to vote or if they don’t they’ll look it up themselves, but that’s not necessarily true,” she said. “We have so many things occupying our time: student debt, working full time, going to school full time, there’s just so many things we have to keep track of.” 

“Sometimes registering to vote just falls down the priority list even though it’s important.”

But don’t count young people out. 

“People shouldn’t underestimate us and we need to be listened to because it is our future that’s at stake,” she said. “We’re not being idealistic, we’re being very practical about what it takes to have a livable future.”

Stella Bowles, 15, has already done so much for the environment, including helping to clean up the Lahave River, which sits literally in her front yard. Although she can’t vote in this October’s election, she’s already making political waves. COLIN CHISHOLM PHOTO

“It’s our generation that’s going to be left with this huge disaster, so we might as well start acting now.” 
– Stella Bowles

The next generation

Sure the next election is just around the corner, but what about the next-next election? 

Stella Bowles, 15, lives in Upper LaHave just outside of Bridgewater. 

She’s part of a generation of activists who aren’t waiting around for someone else to tackle what they believe to be the biggest issue -- the environment. 

And although she’s not old enough to vote yet, she’s already making political waves.

It all started with a school science experiment. 

“When I was in Grade 6 we had to do a science project and I did mine on testing the LaHave River for fecal bacteria, which is not the typical 11-year-old science fair project, but it was a lot of fun and my results showed that it was not safe to swim in the river and I wanted to let the community know,” Bowles said. “I wanted to make sure people knew that if you were swimming in the river, you could get really sick from it.”

She begged her mother to set up a Facebook page, and she was hesitant at first, but capitulated and agreed to put a sign up near their wharf, which read ‘The river is contaminated with fecal bacteria.’ 

That got the attention of the community. 

A Facebook page was eventually set up as a way for Bowles, who shares Facebooking duties with her mom, to highlight her testing results and engage the community. 

The attention quickly exploded, members of the media were asking for interviews, meetings were organized. It was a lot more than 11-year-old Bowles was prepared for at the time -- but it’s since turned into a major project for her.

The source of all of that bacteria? About 600 straight pipes along the LaHave dumping raw sewage directly into the river. 

Or as Bowles bluntly describes it: “It’s poop.” 

“I really just wanted the river to be clean,” she said. “I really didn’t care how they fixed it; I just wanted it to be fixed.” 

Her advocacy led to direct government action. In 2016 the municipality, provincial and federal governments committed over $15 million to fix the sewage problem on the LaHave. 

The project will divert 100 straight pipes per year until 2023 when all of the raw sewage will stop flowing. 

Bowles said people have already noted a reduction in the odour emanating from the LaHave.

There were some bumps along the road -- some folks called her data into question and suggested her efforts should be ignored -- but as the kids say, she showed her receipts, backing up her data with duplicate lab testing. 

“It was really nice seeing everybody come together around this, saying ‘OK, this kid if right, we have to do something,’ ” she said. “It’s incredible to see what one person can accomplish. But it’s not just my success, it’s really the whole community’s success.”

She hasn’t slowed down, speaking across Nova Scotia and showing other young people how to test their own waterways for contamination. 

“We only have one Earth and it’s kind of going downhill right now and a lot of people aren’t standing up, and I really want people to know that even if you’re 12 or 50 or 80, you can make a difference.”

“It’s our generation that’s going to be left with this huge disaster, so we might as well start acting now.” 

She can’t vote in the federal election this October, but that’s not stopping her from rubbing shoulders with some of the most powerful people in Canadian politics. 

“I’ve spent a day with Elizabeth May at Parliament and she actually called me right when my project was getting started,” she said. “We were having a pretty long conversation and they were like ‘OK, Elizabeth, we need to go,’ and she said ‘I need another minute.’ And that felt really great that she took time to talk to me.” 

She also introduced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a gathering at St. F.X. and had a meeting with him afterwards.

“It’s nice knowing they’re listening to me,” she said. 

She said she wishes she could vote in the upcoming election but will have to wait until next time. 

Who would she vote for? She’s keeping that pretty close to the vest.

Top issues:

Christopher Martin

THE THREE KEY ISSUES

Millennials are not shy about letting corporations and governments know what they think

1. Lowering the voting age

Christopher Martin, a Newfoundlander and associate professor with the University of British Columbia, says encouraging youth to vote can be helped by engaging them earlier. Martin says one option is to lower the voting age altogether, from 18 to 16. 

“The main argument against lowering the voting age, as I understand it, is they youth don’t know enough or are too immature. Or they can be manipulated. But if that’s your reason, then it follows that you’re committed to denying the vote to lots of adults for the same reason. And if that’s the case, you’re no longer in a democracy,” he said.

In 2018, then-federal chief electoral officer Stephane Perrault, voiced his opinion that lowering the voting age is an idea “worth exploring.” The idea is also being explored in British Columbia, following a call by B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver.

Martin says he can see two key reasons why lowering the voting age could encourage a sense of civic duty earlier in life. 

“One, political parties would have an incentive to capture their votes and this may mean policies on the table that speak to young people’s real interests, such as climate change, as well as the quality of public education,” said Martin.

“Second, if people vote young - and schools worked hard to ensure students understood the rights of responsibilities of a right to vote, it may instill voting as a habit long-term. At least more likely than they are, now. Habits are much easier to instill at a young age.”

1. A serious lack of meaningful work

A survey earlier this year conducted by pollster LegerWeb suggested millennials would be willing to trade a $10,000 raise for more meaningful work.

The online survey, done for cloud computing company ServiceNow, asked 1,500 Canadian office workers about their jobs.

Another survey from Angus Reid found that 35 per cent of Canadian workers don’t feel their employer helps them develop their professional skills.

2. Disillusionment and distrust

Millennials don’t trust corporations, governments or the media, according to the Deloitte Global Millennial survey, which gathered the views of 13,000 millennials from 42 countries, as well as 3,000 Gen Xers from 10 countries, earlier this year.

The survey found that millennials are pessimistic about the economy and social progress, they’re not satisfied with their lives, their jobs or how their data is being used, and distrust corporate motives.

Millennials do value experience, however, and spend their money in ways they believe align with their ethics. They are quick to quit spending if they perceive a company is misbehaving.

Dr. Amanda Bittner

Talking to the experts

Dr. Amanda Bittner, a political scientist with Memorial University specializing in voting and elections, says getting young people interested in politics at an early stage in life is key to maintaining political engagement throughout life. 

Here’s a transcript of an interview with Amanda Bittner:

Q: Homeownership is the top predictor of who will cast their vote, but what other factors are there?

Bittner: There’s a few things that are common to all. Partisanship matters: those who are more partisan are more likely to vote. Also, where youth or age or lifecycle comes into play is usually about timing. If you think about the life of a person who is 18-35, that’s a time of a lot of flux. It’s a lot of flux because these people have moved out of their house, often, are either in school or starting a new job, new families, looking into buying homes, things like that. That time in our lives is very unstable. That instability makes it hard to find time and interest and the habit of voting.

Q: How can politicians frame their campaigns to better engage young people?

B: I think it’s a party conversation, it’s a candidates’ conversation. I think it comes with the chances of other parties or other candidates. If it’s the same old, same old – and we can think of that in the N.L. context. Think about, for example, the 2015 provincial election, everybody knew what the outcome was going to be. So why bother getting involved at all? If you know what’s going to happen, who cares? Having the excitement, having the perception that your vote is going to make a difference makes a big difference. I think there’s key moments where we can get re-invigorated with actual results that show the vote does really matter.

The kinds of issues I’m seeing my students talk about, for example, it’s issues surrounding human and gender rights, rights for people who are poor or thinking about homelessness, thinking about climate change, thinking about stuff that’s going to be problems for years to come. The more that young people get engaged and push those issues with parties, parties will pick up those issues. It’s a snowball effect. Parties pick the issues they think they’re going to win on.

Q: What policies should we be thinking of to encourage youth engagement from an even earlier age than 18?

B: If you couple a high school civics course, where students learn about how politics works . . .  with lowering the voting age to 16 so those students can actually apply what they’re learning in an environment where they can ask questions, where it’s safe to explore ideas, where you have resources who aren’t your parents – because you don’t always agree with them – but there’s tonnes of examples of people who hide how they feel and hide how they actually vote because their parents are dyed in the wool, or whatever. Honestly, to couple a civics class in high school with a lowering of the voting age would change the inertia of the early habit of voting. You would begin your first election while you’re still in high school with that exposure to information and knowledge, with other people learning and getting excited about it. It normalizes that as an experience. If they want to raise turnout, those two things in combination would be a game changer without a doubt.

According to political scientists, the number one predictor for whether or not a person is likely to cast their ballot is whether or not a person owns a home. 

Home ownership means a person now has to worry about property taxes and has a tangible stake in their surroundings, which tends to mean they are more engaged in the politics of the world around them. 

So, is it easier today than it was five years ago for a young person to buy a home in Atlantic Canada?

Victoria Belbin, CEO of the Canadian Home Builders Association Newfoundland and Labrador, says the simple answer is no. 

Here’s a transcript of an interview with Belbin: 

Question: Is it easier for young people to own a home today than it was five years ago?

Belbin: My simple answer is no. It’s more difficult. There’s multiple reasons why, but the hottest topic today preventing or a barrier to homeownership right now are the regulations that the federal government put in place a few years back. That was the stress test on mortgages.

Q: What exactly changed that made it more difficult?

B: The new stress test will actually push you to have to qualify for a higher mortgage than the actual price tag on the house. Because of that, your thresholds, your ability to borrow for that house is changing. Therefore, your income and your ability to pay that monthly payment is going to change. As soon as those mortgage rules were put in place, we knocked out a certain segment of society from homeownership.

Q: What does that mean for Atlantic Canada?

B: In Atlantic Canada when this happened, we knew this was going to hit us hard. Our economy is different from Toronto and Vancouver, where the original intent for the new policy came into effect. Right from the beginning, we said this is going to affect our ability for the middle class to gain access to home ownership in the Atlantic Provinces. In the beginning, people were not too aware of what the differences were, but obviously throughout the last three years it’s become very evident that these regions, the Atlantic region and other regions, have been hit pretty hard because of this.

Q: What about the new first-time homebuyers policy introduced in the 2018 federal budget?

B: We just got more details, but we’re still working through it. We still have a lot of questions.

Newfoundlander Ross Hickey is a research fellow at University of Melbourne, in Australia.

Feeling the squeeze

For the young, home ownership feels like a dream

So, how can young people become more engaged in politics and more likely to vote? Helping them buy their first home might resonate.

According to Ross Hickey, a Newfoundlander and senior research fellow of public policy with the University of Melbourne, home ownership is key.

“The number one predictor of voter participation is home ownership. Other things matter of course, the candidates, the platforms, the economy. But what appears to transcend these important features is home ownership, both in Canada and the US,” said Hickey.

“But home ownership appears to matter because once people own a home they have a greater stake in local politics, and therefore take a greater interest in politics in general.”

$223,000

Average number of years it takes a young Canadian to save a 20 per cent down payment on a house in 2019. The number is lower in Atlantic Canada (9 years in Halifax, 6 years in St. John’s) (Source: Generation Squeeze, Straddling the Gap, 2019)

While home ownership is a good predictor of voter intention, it’s not realistic to expect the average 18-year-old to be able to afford one.

Indeed, according to a study released in June by Generation Squeeze, a non-partisan organization advocating for young adults, young people aged 25-34 likely have years ahead of them before they have enough to even consider buying their own home. 

The study, called Straddling The Gap, illustrates how young people across the country are facing an uphill battle when it comes to buying a house. 

$93,400

The amount that typical full-time earnings would need to increase to to achieve affordability.

It’s a problem that has been in the headlines in Toronto and Vancouver, where small properties can push seven figures, but even in cities like Halifax, young people are feeling the squeeze. 

The study suggests that there is no one ‘silver bullet’ for policymakers to address this issue, instead, they’re calling for “silver buckshot” to help young people deal with rising costs and flat (or shrinking) wages.

Nationwide, average home prices would need to fall $223,000 to achieve affordability by 2030, according to the study. That’s about half the current value.

On average it takes a young person (25-24 years) 13 years to afford their own home.

35

Percentage that prices could rise on Prince Edward Island by 2030 and still be affordable, bucking the Canadian trend. (Source: Generation Squeeze, Straddling the Gap, 2019)

Luckily in Atlantic Canada, affordability of home ownership hasn’t decoupled from average earnings, at least not yet. 

Halifax, however, has started to reach that threshold, where it takes the average 25 to 34-year-old person nine years to save 20 per cent for a down payment, with home expenses not exceeding 30 per cent of income. 

According to the study, average home prices in Halifax would need to fall by $68,000 for young people to save up to buy a home in five years. That’s not as severe as Toronto or Vancouver, where it could take decades, but still a troubling trend. 

Alternatively, full-time wages would need to increase to $93,400 a year, growing by $13,000 on average, which is nearly double current levels. 

Potential Solutions

Why does it seem that this generation of young people is being hit relatively hard? Because they are.

Four decades ago, it took the average young person about five years to save enough to afford a 20 per cent down payment on their home, according to the study. Now, it’s closer to 13 

But there are solutions out there and Generation Squeeze is recommending a few options as part of this study. 

Generation Squeeze, taking its cue from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), is working towards widespread housing affordability by 2030. 

Governments at all levels will need to work together to address this issue. Some options Generation Squeeze recommends include: 

Reduce other housing-sized costs for young Canadians 

It’s not just the cost of home ownership that’s skyrocketing for young people -- research shows that lowering the costs of child care, student debt, tuition and transit costs would also help lighten the load. 

Level the playing field between renters and owners 

Future housing planning and design will need to incorporate a larger segment of the population renting for longer periods of their lives, if not indefinitely. In other words, more apartments. Rents also have to remain aligned with local earnings. 

Capture wealth windfalls 

Increase taxes on capital gains and high-cost homes to even out the tax burden. 

According to the study, annual revenue from municipal property taxation is down $4.4 billion (measured as a share of gross domestic product) when compared to1976, despite a $2.6 trillion increase in net wealth accumulated in principal residences over the same time. Non-taxation of capital gains from principal residences will also cost federal coffers about $6 billion in 2019. That’s a lot of money that could help young people and others who can’t afford a home. 

Reimagine our economic strategy to stimulate earnings

Thirteen per cent of Canada’s GDP in 2019 came from real estate, rental and leasing -- it’s the largest driver of the Canadian economy. This same sector only generates two per cent of employment. This imbalance needs to be evaluated. 

De-risk the real estate market for a decline in home prices

A second phase of the National Housing Strategy needs to contemplate new ways to de-risk the real estate market to bring down home costs in ways that support all Canadians. 

Protect regions where affordability has not already been lost 

In regions where affordability hasn’t skyrocketed, like Atlantic Canada, governments need to ensure these regions don’t experience the same decoupling between local earnings and home prices.

NEXT FRIDAY

We connect the dots and explore the ongoing strategies and solutions aimed at motivating the youth vote in 2019 and beyond.


Share your own experiences at deepdives@saltwire.com
Read the whole series here - Next Gen Voters


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