Who speaks for urban youth?

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I explore the issues facing urban youth this election.

Which party speaks for urban youth this federal election? Over the past few weeks, media commentators have pointed to two important trends: First, Canada is an urban nation, with 15 million eligible voters living in urban regions across the country. Second, voter turnout among young people is depressingly low: there are 3 million eligible voters under the age of 25, yet less than a third are likely to cast a ballot come Election Day.

Polling suggests young people favour the Greens, Liberals and New Democrats: parties which have demonstrated some commitment—however limited—to urban issues in this campaign. A politically engaged youth is thus important for the civic and social health of our urban regions. But as comedian Rick Mercer has quipped, “as far as any political parties are concerned,” young people “might as well be dead.”

As any political scientist will tell you, in a pluralist liberal democracy, those who make the most noise—by voting, organizing, lobbying—are more likely to have their issues addressed by government. Pluralism implies many groups of relatively equal power jockeying for position and influence in political life. We live however in a country of great social and economic inequality where money and power, two things youth lack, go a long way to securing an audience with the governing classes. Young people have power in numbers, but organizing and exercising that power around common interests is never easy. Through advocacy groups and party politics, seniors have flexed their political muscle this election, pushing the parties to address their immediate concerns, from home care to public pensions; youth have yet to flex theirs.

Urban youth have their own issues: Environmental sustainability and the liveability of cities are major concerns. The young are more frequent users of public transit and would benefit from a federal role in building the green transportation infrastructure our country so desperately needs.  Funding for the arts and athletics are also a priority of urban youth, who recognize their value in facilitating creative expression and promoting social cohesion in the highly diverse landscapes of Canadian cities.

Then there are the myriad social problems facing many of today’s urban youth; problems the political parties have failed to highlight this campaign. For instance, in Toronto 40% of Black students do not graduate from high school. Drug addicted youth in Vancouver’s downtown east side struggle to secure housing and access to services. Racialized youth face discrimination and outright racism in urban labour markets and in their contact with police and the criminal justice system. The young are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our cities’ precariously employed; those workers struggling to make ends meet working temporary, part-time, or multiple jobs with low-wages and few benefits. And there are the extremely high rates of poverty and incarceration of young aboriginal people in cities such as Winnipeg and Regina.

As in any federal system, politicos will squabble over whose jurisdiction these issues fall under. It’s time to move beyond these squabbles and recognize that urban youth, and our cities in general, would benefit from a strong federal urban presence and the development of a federally-led urban strategy. Stephen Harper explicitly opposes such a notion; he’s committed to a model of governance in which the feds do not ‘interfere’ in the business of the provinces and municipalities.

But a top-down, one-size-fits all approach from the feds is not desirable either: Municipal governments are best placed to evaluate the needs of local populations, including youth. Cities have been important drivers in the design and innovation of Canadian social services and social programs. Any federal urban strategy with a youth component should recognise this and respect the diversity of Canadian cities. For instance, a program to address street gangs (with gang-exit and gang-intervention initiatives) in a city such as Regina in which aboriginal youth are disproportionately involved in gang life, will necessarily take a different form than programs in Montreal or Toronto. 

In any progressive era of Canadian politics, the federal government has exercised its federal spending power to alter Canada’s approach to issues that were essentially within provincial jurisdiction. In the fields of education, welfare, and health care, the feds have influenced provincial and municipal policies and program standards. Beyond providing necessary funding to cash-strapped cities, a federal urban youth strategy could establish a set of principles which govern access to programs and services without becoming excessively involved in their design and delivery. Pairing universal programs with targeted investments based on the social citizenship, social rights, and democratic participation and engagement of young people is vital to building such a strategy.

But an urban youth strategy is not likely to emerge unless it is fought for and demanded by young people themselves. In urban centers across our country, many youth are active in the civic life of our cities, but often in ways that don’t conform to the politics-as-usual of parties and elections. Other youth speak the language of distress and despair, with gunshots or requests for spare change on our city streets. Whatever the manifestation of their voice, politicians ignore urban youth at our cities peril.

Published in The Toronto Star online edition, April 29 2011, @ www.thestar.com

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