A Quebec approach to civic education
by Akos Verboczy and Christian Giguère
Voter turnout declined yet again in the June 2004 federal election, the fourth such decline in as many elections. The latest decline came despite this being the closest election in years. Young people, it is clear, continue to abstain in record numbers. When only one in four eligible voters in the 18-25 bracket turned out to vote in 2000, much ink flowed, and various explanations and remedies were evoked. One result was the emergence of projects focusing on civic education for young people. One such initiative is described here. Clearly much remains to be done.
In the spring of 2004, in preparation for the coming federal election, a project known as Student Vote 2004 signed up more than 2,300 schools across Canada to stage mock elections coinciding with the time of the national election. Each school received posters, riding maps, an operations manual and, later, election kits, including ballots, ballot boxes and voting screens. Unfortunately due to the late summer election (June 28) some schools were unable to complete the process. Nevertheless, in 1,168 schools located in 267 ridings, over 265,000 students cast ballots.
Inspired by Kids Voting USA, a 15-year-old American organization, Kidsvoting Canada first organized such a project around the October 2003 Ontario election. Over 43 per cent of Ontario high school students cast ballots and the results were reported on the CBC.1 With a successful Ontario result under its belt, Kidsvoting Canada won the support of Elections Canada as well as key Canadian newspapers for Student Vote 2004. In Quebec, the project was carried out by an affiliated association, Électeurs en herbe (Voters in Training), which had conducted a similar project around the 2001 Montreal municipal election. In this article we reflect upon our experiences as initiators of Électeurs en herbe.
Origins of the project
Building on the experience gained in the Montreal pilot project and on its association with Kidsvoting Canada, Électeurs en herbe developed an election simulation project for Quebec secondary schools. The project invites students to follow an election campaign and then to exercise their “right to vote” on election day in their school or class. In the process, young people familiarize themselves with electoral and other political institutions as well as the role citizens can play in a democracy by exercising their right to vote. It gives them the opportunity to structure their opinions, develop their critical sense and participate in public debate. Through their participation, students are able to develop an understanding of election issues, gain familiarity with the programs, candidates and leaders of the political parties. On election night, in many cases they can see the results of their vote reported in the media.
The program is designed to be incorporated into grade 10 or 11 programs in history and moral education, in both French and English. In spring 2004 participating students read several newspapers, took part in discussions and debates and sometimes even carried out polls. Most frequently, the teacher presented different aspects of the elections and suggested newspaper articles to be read as a basis for class discussion prior to the holding of the vote. But some schools organized debates among the local party candidates. For example, at Collège Notre-Dame, a private high school in Montreal, grade 10 students discussed the elections in their history class and then organized a debate among candidates. During the debate students grilled the candidates on globalization, the environment, the status of the French language and the distinct character of Quebec society. Électeurs en herbe, along with one of the guidance counsellors, helped them prepare the debate, organize the vote and arrange media coverage.