As It Happens

Why this senator thinks Canadians should start voting at 16

Sen. Marilou McPhedran says she knows a great way to strengthen democracy in Canada — let 16-year-olds vote in federal elections. And she plans on tabling a new bill as soon as parliament returns. 

Marilou McPhedran says she has a new bill ready to go to lower the voting age

Sen. Marilou McPhedran says students have told her that they think if they can drive and enrol in the armed forces, they should be able to vote. She is planning on tabling a new bill once regular parliament sittings resume. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Transcript

Sen. Marilou McPhedran says she knows a great way to strengthen democracy in Canada — let 16-year-olds vote in federal elections. And she plans on tabling a new bill as soon as parliament returns to regular sittings. 

The legal voting age in Canada was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1970. Since then there have been multiple attempts to lower it again. 

Both former Green Party leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh promised it if they were elected. And there's been efforts on the municipal level in provinces like British Columbia and Alberta. 

The most common argument against lowering the age is that teenagers aren't mature enough, and aren't cable of making political decisions. 

McPhedran says that's just not true, and she's launched a campaign to hear from teenagers. The Manitoba senator told As It Happens host Carol Off how her youth advisors, the Canadian Council of Young Feminists, helped change her mind. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

Why should 16-year-olds be able to vote in federal elections? 

The research shows us that Canadians that can vote, when it's clear that they've started voting early, they stay engaged and they continue to be voters.

And I personally, and I know this is shared by many, have some real concerns about the vitality of our democracy and think this is a very solid way of strengthening our democracy in Canada.

I've seen these survey studies that show that if they vote for the first time when they're young, they continue to vote. But if they don't vote when they're 18, why would they vote when they're 16? 

I think there are many reasons for that and … I'm really giving you reasons that come from the youth advisors that are working with me on this project and on this new bill.

And one of them is that 16-year-olds, for the most part, are still deeply engaged in the education system and they are reachable in a way that many 18-year-olds are not necessarily. 

The level of interest is very high. In Scotland when they ran the referendum, before they did lower their voting age to 16, they had a 75 per cent turnout among young people for that referendum.

McPhedran says 16-year-olds are still in school, which means they are more reachable than 18-year-olds. (NarongchaiHlaw/Shutterstock)

You mentioned ... the advantages of being 16. They're still in school so they're able to get some Civics Studies and to get civic engagement through that. But if the schools aren't doing that now, what difference does it make? Aren't you depending on the idea that the schools will actually engage young people to politically think and to think in terms of actually casting a vote?

You know, if you'd ask me that question five years ago I would have tilted your way. But here's the thing, that's not actually how most young people communicate. And in many cases that's not how they're learning.

I think it's a very good thing if we ramp up civic education. Many schools should be doing much more on that. And certainly the teachers that are involved in this campaign support that.

However young people teach and learn from each other and they do that largely through social media.

And that's one of the main reasons that this campaign is social media based and much of this campaign is actually crafted by the youth advisors that are working with me. 

You mentioned your youth advisory group and you have this thing called the Canadian Council for Young Feminists. What are they telling you as to why they want to be able to vote at the age of 16? 

Before you called I was actually reading a paper written by a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old on this exact question, part of a whole network of UNESCO's school students. And one of the points that they made in the paper was to say, "Look  we have a killing machine that we drive at the age of 16. We can enrol in the armed forces when we're 16. We can be sent off to fight at the age of 17." 

There are all kinds of indicators that as one of them said, "Age does not mean wisdom." That we have a whole range of kinds of people who are already voting. Some of them engaged, some of them thoughtful, some of them not at all.

Where there is a readiness and interest and, again, going back to the research, the high probability that they will remain engaged in our democracy, in voting and paying attention to what's happening for a much longer period of their lives.

One of the points that they made in the paper was to say, 'Look we have a killing machine that we drive at the age of 16. We can enrol in the armed forces when we're 16. We can be sent off to fight at the age of 17.'-Sen.MarilouMcPhedran-

The biggest argument that people give as to why young people that age shouldn't be voting is that their brains haven't developed enough. That they're not mature. They don't have the knowledge, the capacity to make good political choices. What do your young people say to those arguments? 

As one of them said, "Doesn't that sound an awful lot like what they used to say about women and how women couldn't vote?" 

That's just ridiculous stereotyping that really is not borne out by the evidence that's available.

It's not that long ago that we changed it, we went from 21 to 18, and exactly those same arguments were made then and it's been good. It's been a good inclusion for our democracy and for Canadian society. And I would argue exactly the same thing for the benefits of inclusion and engagement and mobilization for 16-year-olds in this country. 


Written by Sarah Jackson. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Edited for length and clarity.

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