A voice, a vote: Iqaluit youth helps push forward court challenge to lower Canada's voting age

Iqaluit's Katie Yu, 15, says the major issues facing the country — from climate change to mental health — affect all Canadians, not just those over the age of 18. Yu is part of a lawsuit challenging the minimum voting age in Canada.

Katie Yu, 15, is one of the litigants in a lawsuit that aims to let young people vote in federal elections

Katie Yu, 15, from Iqaluit, is one of the 13 litigants who have filed a court challenge of the minimum voting age in Canada. (Matisse Harvey/CBC News)

How old should you be before you can vote in a federal election in Canada? The question has been posed by politicians and youth advocacy groups across the country.

Now, 13 young Canadians are taking that question to the courts

Among them is Iqaluit's Katie Yu, 15, who says the major issues facing the country — from climate change to mental health — affect all Canadians, not just those over the legal voting age of 18, and younger citizens deserve to have their say. 

"Some of these issues have been passed down to us a little bit. So I think it's important for youth to vote so we can be proactive and stop these issues from going down to the next generations," Yu told CBC.

"I think in Nunavut especially, since we have a large youth population, it's important to have a say in these issues."

Voting age 'discriminatory'

The court challenge is being supported by Ontario-based lawyers from Justice for Children and Youth as well as the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights. The case is destined first for the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, where it could be heard sometime in the next 12 months, said Emily Chan, a lawyer with Justice for Children and Youth. The hope is that it will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Chan said the legal team is focusing on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which sets out the right of all Canadian citizens to vote. She also pointed to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which speaks to empowering young people to make decisions.

"One of the basic rights is that every Canadian citizen gets to vote, so we're saying that it's discriminatory to have set an age at 18," Chan said.

"There have been lots of changes, historically, on who gets the right to vote ... and this is one change we'd like to see as well."

'A more inclusive place'

For Yu, the lawsuit goes beyond simply the right to vote. It's also about valuing the opinions of younger Canadians.

"People tell us that we're not mature enough to vote, but that kind of discourages us from speaking up in the first place," she said. "I think it's about making society a more inclusive place by uplifting and including youth voices."

After all, many youth have a lot to say. Yu pointed to a recent student-led protest about suicide prevention in Iqaluit as one example of the ways youth are trying to make society a better place. In recent years, youth in Canada have also helped organize climate protests and initiated Ontario-wide school walkouts to protest education changes.

Youth in Iqaluit marched from Inuksuk High School to the Legislative Assembly downtown on Nov. 16, 2021, to deliver a message to government officials: suicide prevention needs to be addressed now. (David Gunn/CBC)

But youth are also enacting change in their communities in smaller ways, Yu said — as active members of clubs and community organizations, or in volunteer positions. As an air cadet, Yu says she has made an effort to take on leadership roles: she interned with WWF-Canada's Iqaluit office this summer, and has also been involved with UNICEF Canada's youth advocacy program. 

Many youth also already vote in mock elections at their schools, or belong to Canadian political parties.

"If youth are heard today, they will want to continue to use their voice because they will feel empowered as they have that space and the right to vote," Yu said.

The group of litigants isn't targeting a specific voting age, though a press release from Justice for Children and Youth provided examples of the voting age being lowered to 16 in countries such as Germany, Brazil and Scotland.

With files from Toby Otak