How schools in the North are learning about democracy

Teachers in schools in the North are trying to instil in students the value of casting a ballot in an election.
Grade 11 students at Kugaardjuq School in Kugaaruk, a small community in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region, will be among the school's Grade 4-12 students taking part in a student council election on Oct. 14. ((Courtesy of Jo-Ann MacDonald))

When it comes to fielding questions from his students on the value of civic engagement, Eduardo Veiga looks within himself for inspiration.

The Grade 7 social studies teacher at Iqaluit's only middle school, Aqsarniit Ilinniarvik, draws upon his experiences during Argentina's "Dirty War" to teach his students about the importance of democracy and the right to vote.

He shares his childhood stories of dictatorship, oppression and how his parents were imprisoned during the 1976-1983 regime — which human rights groups say led to the disappearance of 30,000 Argentines — in hopes of preventing his students from becoming apathetic voters.

Eduardo Veiga stands in front of Aqsarniit Ilinniarvik school in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Frobisher Bay is behind him. ((Courtesy of Eduardo Veiga))

"I tell them I grew up in a country that had a dictatorship, it was the army that told you what to do … who you had the right to vote for or in my case, no right to vote at all," says Veiga, 34, who came with his parents to Canada in 1985 as a political refugee.  

Veiga lived in Edmonton before moving to Toronto to pursue a teaching degree. He settled in Nunavut's capital eight years ago, satisfying his longtime fascination with the North.

"I always tell the students that in order for [that oppression] not to happen in any other country, people, citizens — including young people — have to take action, have to get involved, have to speak out."

With the federal election just days away and the Nunavut territorial election set for Oct. 27, Veiga hopes his students will encourage their parents and elders to head to the polls.

To achieve that, Veiga is one of a handful of teachers across the vast territory who are participating in Student Vote's countrywide mock elections for elementary and high school students.

Veiga and his colleague, John Fanjoy, held a student vote day on Oct. 9, when Aqsarniit's entire population of more than 300 students in Grades 6-8 voted. The results will be released Oct. 14.

"I think that when you talk to the students in a frank, honest manner, they want to know more and they actually begin to understand and take the voting process very seriously even though it's a vote that in the end doesn't really count," says Veiga. "It's the beginning of the democratic process."

With 85 per cent of Aqsarniit's population Inuit, Veiga ties in local examples with his discussions on national issues relating to the federal and territorial elections.

His students study issues such as housing, the environment, health care and Arctic sovereignty, along with the party platforms, and eventually the results of the two elections.

There is no time like to present to teach Nunavut's youth about politics, whatever level that might be, Veiga says.

According to the City of Iqaluit's website, almost 65 per cent of the capital city's population is 25 years of age or younger. In Nunavut as a whole, 61.2 per cent of the population is 29 or younger, according to the 2006 census.

In terms of voter turnout in the last federal election, Nunavut ranked the lowest among the provinces and territories, with 54.1 per cent of the eligible voter population actually voting, says Elections Canada.

The national turnout was 64.7 per cent.

'Very personal and local'

It's a different story when it comes to the past territorial elections. In the 2004 territorial vote, 93.7 per cent of eligible Nunavut residents cast a ballot. That was up five per cent from the last territorial election in 1999, according to Elections Nunavut.

To ensure territorial election numbers stay high, for the first time in Elections Nunavut's history, some of the agency's 19 deputy returning officers have been going into youth and adult learning centers across Nunavut in the weeks leading up to Oct. 27 to teach constituents about voting.

The officers will lead informal discussions on how to register, how to vote and what it means to be to eligible to vote, says Sandy Kusugak, chief electoral officer of Elections Nunavut.

"Territorially we vote in very large numbers … because it's very personal and local," says Kusugak. "The candidates that are running are likely to your neighbours, friends or relatives."

In Kugaaruk, a small community in Nunavut's Kitikmeot region that is only reachable by air or annual sealift, Kugaardjuq School's Jo-Ann MacDonald is following a similar philosophy to Veiga's.

While the English and social studies teacher isn't hosting a Student Vote at her school, she is holding a student council election for Grades 4-12 on Oct. 14.

The student election is the first time in the kindergarten to Grade 12 school's history. Kugaardjuq's students will nominate students to represent each grade at future council meetings. Results will be released that afternoon.

MacDonald purposely planned it for the same day as the federal election to engage students in voting and politics, even if it's at a small level.

Learning to cope with change

She hopes the student council election will encourage those students who are 18 and older to head to the actual polls come election time.

"I think it's important they know that they, too, have an influence," says MacDonald, who holds informal discussions on the parties' issues, the local media's coverage of the elections and explanations on how to register and vote.

One Grade 11 student is already convinced.

"I don't really have any reasons [on why I'm voting] but I like to be mature," said the 21-year-old, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and plans on voting in both federal and territorial elections.

She would run for Kugaardjuq's student council if it weren't for the fact her duties as the mother to a two-year-old outweigh her electoral aspirations.

MacDonald wants her students to know their voice matters.

"They need to know that they can control the changes," she says. "A lot of times in social studies we talk about history and how various cultural groups have been affected, but what's important in my mind — and what I relate to the students all the time — is that change occurs but it's how you cope and affect that change that is most important."