The best way for Canadian youth to learn about democracy isn't by reading about it in a book, says Taylor Gunn, co-founder of the Toronto-based organization Student Vote.
Gunn believes it's through hands-on, educational experiences that young Canadians learn to be active members of society, and his organization works with teachers and regional groups across the country to give them such experiences.
Student Vote is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that holds mock elections for students in Grades 5 through 12 that coincide with actual municipal, provincial and federal election campaigns.
"This program is not just about kids voting on one day," says Gunn.
"At times, it's about a month-long process, with students engaging with each other, their families, with community members, with actual candidates, and then casting a ballot and following up on that ballot."
The goal of each Student Vote election is to encourage Canadian youth to become engaged, responsible citizens, so that when they reach the age of 18 and can legitimately vote, they will be able to make educated decisions about whether they want to vote and who they want to vote for.
Gunn created Student Vote with his partner, Lindsay Mazzucco, in 2003, because, he says, he saw it as something obvious that should be occurring in schools. Its first mock election coincided with the 2003 provincial election in Ontario.
3,000 schools took part in 2006 mock election
Across Ontario, 824 schools participated in the first Student Vote campaign. That number grew to 1,700 four years later during the 2007 Ontario election and referendum.
Since the group was started five years ago, more than 1.5 million students have participated in six Student Vote elections, including the two in Ontario, the 2004 Alberta and 2005 B.C. provincial elections and the 2004 and 2006 federal elections.
In the last federal election, 3,000 schools participated.
Gunn and Mazzucco hope to register 3,750 schools in Student Vote 2008 — the group's third federal election and seventh overall — which is set to coincide with the Oct. 14 general election. As of Sept. 25, 3,500 schools had signed up.
The time frame of the current federal election campaign was tight, the organizers said, and due to the time constraints, Elections Canada is Student Vote's sole financial partner for this cross-country campaign, which Gunn expects will cost about $500,000.
Depending on the election, Student Vote usually also receives in-kind support from a range of groups, including teachers federations and other education organizations, as well as media, including CBC and daily newspapers across the country.
Voting preceded by class projects, candidate debates
This fall also marks Student Vote's first foray into municipal politics. Student Vote Nova Scotia will hold the group's first parallel municipal election on Oct. 16 and 17, days before Nova Scotia's province-wide municipal elections on Oct. 18.
The project is a partnership with Democracy 250, a Halifax-based, government-funded group that is celebrating this year's 250th anniversary of parliamentary democracy in Canada.
The municipal project will be supported by the provincial Department of Education and Elections Nova Scotia.
"After this, we then will be able to offer elections for every jurisdiction in the country," Gunn says. "That's a big thing for Student Vote."
Whether it's local, provincial or federal, each Student Vote election follows the same guidelines.
After registering online or by phone, teachers at schools across the country receive free Student Vote materials, including posters, ballots, ballot boxes and election curricula to aid them in teaching their students about civic rights and the importance of voting.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the teachers use those materials to educate their students about the voting process.
Through homework assignments, class projects and guidance from teachers, students learn about the diverse issues that make up the election process: from who the candidates are and on what issues they are campaigning to the different parties and, ultimately, what it means to be an active Canadian citizen.
In some cases, the schools host candidate debates, allowing students to come face to face with candidates they might be voting for.
"Candidates are always impressed by the level of questions that they get — straight and to the point," says Mazzucco, 31.
"And the enthusiasm, too, coming from the kids," Gunn adds. "They're pretty honest, which is great, and really good for our democracy."
Student results announced in media
Each Student Vote project culminates with a day or more of voting. Students at each school take on roles as poll clerks and deputy returning officers and the participating students — often, the entire student body — vote for official election candidates.
The results are submitted to Student Vote, which tabulates the numbers by each electoral district and creates school-by-school, provincial and national result summaries.
The results are released to Student Vote's media partners following the closure of the official polls, allowing those results to be compared to the actual, registered election results. CBCNews.ca will be posting the results of the student vote on its site on election day.
Geneviève Vallerand, Student Vote 2008's francophone outreach co-ordinator, says she wishes a program like Student Vote had been around when she was growing up in Rosemère, a small Montreal suburb, in the 1990s.
If Student Vote had existed at that time, the 29-year-old says, she probably would have been more inclined to vote in more elections instead of only the two federal elections she has voted in so far.
"Frankly, I never really understood what citizenship meant, nor the importance of voting or exercising that right," says Vallerand, who says it wasn't until her early 20s, when she became involved in her university studies, that she saw the critical importance of voting.
Before joining Student Vote this year, Vallerand worked as a project co-ordinator in local and national non-profit and academic initiatives, including the Toronto City Summit Alliance.
In the weeks leading up to the federal election, she will liaise with Voters in Training, Student Vote's Quebec regional partner, to ensure francophone communities are represented in the project.
She will also create French-language material to help francophone communities throughout the country better engage their students in Student Vote.
"[Voting] isn't a passive thing," Vallerand says. "It's an active process; it's a changing process."
Instilling the habit of voting
Gunn and Mazzucco recognize that for Student Vote to continue to reach students, it needs to become a year-round initiative, with the organization reaching out to elementary and high school students not just at election time but throughout the school year.
They have begun to lay the groundwork for that goal, organizing programs outside election periods such as a students' assembly on electoral reform held in 2006. Last year, they partnered with CBC News and Facebook to create the Great Canadian Wish List, a Top 30 list of wishes citizens had leading up to the 140th anniversary of Canada Day on July 1, 2007.
Only time will tell whether such initiatives have a wider impact.
"We're not trying to create young politicians, politicos or political junkies," says Gunn, speaking at Student Vote's new headquarters at Queen St. and Bathurst St. in Toronto.
"We're trying to build a habit among people, and the best place to do that from our experience is in schools. At the same time, we're trying to build a habit within teachers to teach their kids democracy."