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.

Occasionally, youth organizations called upon Électeurs en herbe for assistance. For example, Le Boulot vers, an organization working to socially and vocationally reintegrate young people, organized a candidates’ debate in the Montreal inner-city riding of Hochelaga. It called upon Électeurs en herbe to provide information about the right to vote and the functioning of democratic institutions in Canada. The debate, which focused on issues of local concern, such as social housing and employment, was followed by a mock vote organized by Électeurs en herbe.

Assessing the experience

Though overall participation levels did not meet expectations, feedback received from students and teachers who took part shows that the simulations did raise awareness among young people on the importance of their right to vote as well as teaching them how to gather the information needed to vote intelligently. But it is also clear that such simulation projects should be of a longer duration. They must, at a minimum, follow the length of the election campaign. Moreover, for the teachers and the schools to effectively contribute to awakening their students to democratic life such activities must be integrated into the general curriculum. Specifically, simulations need to be made part of a wider compulsory program of citizenship education.

These conclusions emerge also from wider experiences, especially those in the United States. It was noted that the inspiration for this project originated with Kids Voting USA, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter-education program founded in 1988 in Arizona. In schools in 40 states teachers help students to gather information about the candidates and issues in local, state and national elections and to involve parents in home discussions. On election day, students cast their ballots in special Kids Voting booths. Those up to grade 8 go to the polls with their parents, while high school students can vote unaccompanied. Research into the effect of the program shows that it enhances the attentiveness of the students to politics in the media and home, and it even appears to have a “trickle up” effect as parents vote more often and become better informed about politics through interaction with their own children.2

While Kidsvoting Canada focuses less on parents – as evident in the fact that the vote takes place in school and not at the official polling station on election day – the apparent effects of the program on young Americans correspond to the goals of Électeurs en herbe. Research shows that participating in Kids Voting USA sharpens students’ critical thinking; it also narrows the gender and socioeconomic gap in civic knowledge. The evidence suggests further that the program has a positive impact on their future participation in the electoral process. For example, in Kansas communities with a Kids Voting program, the voting rate for registered 18-year-olds was 14 percentage points higher than that of their non-participating peers.3 This latter effect was also in evidence in surveys across Canada, carried out by Student Vote 2004 in every province and territory, testing the impact of participation in the simulation of the June election. The pre-survey, completed prior to participation in the program, had 14,344 responses; the post-survey data garnered only 2,841 responses due to election timing. Nevertheless, the difference is great enough to suggest the program had an effect. In the pre-survey, 71 per cent of students said they would vote if they had the opportunity; after participating in the program, 88 per cent of students said they would vote in the future.4

Placing the project in a Quebec context

In Quebec, the concern about the feeble electoral participation and growing cynicism of young people is as great as elsewhere, evoking similar ideas about possible remedies. One of these is the use of projects based on electoral simulations. This is the approach we favour, knowing full-well that there is no instant miracle solution to the decline in political participation. Not only must such projects be integrated into the citizenship education provided through the school system, this must be done on a province-wide basis, with the content and the process adapted to the existing pedagogy and the students’ reality. In Canada, as we know, education is not under federal jurisdiction but is the responsibility of the provinces. In Quebec it could not be otherwise.

Citizenship education in Quebec is a very delicate operation, since any discussion or even mention of its place within Canada always risks inflaming passions. Anyone proposing such a project, which in effect aims to politicize young people, is inevitably warily received and closely scrutinized. On the one side, promotional and pedagogical material, festooned with maple leaves, which talks about “Canadian youth” and which calls upon students to “inspire the nation” will raise many eyebrows, including those teachers who give the grade 10 course entitled – it should be noted – “Quebec and Canadian History. ” Conversely, an organization even suspected of a sovereigntist bias would have enormous difficulty getting in the front door of schools.

In the case of Student Vote 2004, these sensibilities meant that it was not only an organizational but also a pedagogical imperative that the simulations in Quebec schools be conducted by an autonomous group rooted in Quebec civil society. Moreover, to ensure the neutrality and thus success of such a project, the organization needed to be integrated into the larger Quebec educational milieu. In the case of Électeurs en herbe, its partnership with the City of Montreal, the Montreal School Commission, the Desjardins credit unions and several youth and community organizations ensured its credibility. Moreover, the two sponsoring agencies, the Forum jeunesse de l’île de Montréal and the Centre de développement pour l’exercice de la citoyenneté had already developed a certain expertise in citizenship education.

Électeurs en herbe and civic education

Électeurs en herbe produced a teacher’s guide complete with activity sheets taking students step-by-step through five stages setting out the path through which a young person becomes a responsible voter and citizen. In the first stage, My Elections, the voters-in-training learn the essentials of Canadian and Quebec democratic institutions and their operations. At the end of the second stage, Becoming Informed, students should be able to identify and make critical use of the various sources of information at their disposal during the election campaign. Next, in My Opinion, students are invited to explain their choices on the basis of their concerns and the options presented during the elections. In the fourth stage, Getting Involved, students learn to express their opinions and understand the different types of partisan and nonpartisan activism possible during an election campaign. And finally at the end of the fifth stage, My Vote, the voters-in-training will be able to organize a free and democratic election and, thus, participate in a simulated vote.

The material for each stage includes suggested areas for discussion, readings and activities to integrate the acquired knowledge and deepen the students’ understanding. Each includes an idea for an in-school project, as well as questions for debate and discussion, along with a short introduction. The choice of activities is left to the discretion of teachers.

In contrast with the approach taken elsewhere in Canada by Student Vote 2004, we offer very little technical information on the process of an election itself, such as the election calendar, voter registration or the role of Elections Canada. Thus, at step 5 (My Vote) the emphasis is on students understanding the principle behind the organizing of free and democratic elections, rather than on how a particular process functions. They can then organize mock elections in their own way, setting up a neutral and impartial mechanism, keeping in mind the difficulties of avoiding fraud and guaranteeing the secrecy and universality of the vote.

Through the five steps of the process, the main objective is for the young people to develop their civic sense, to be able to critically evaluate the quality of the information being communicated and, thus, to structure their opinions. Cooperation is also at work in the program since achieving its objectives demands teamwork.

Citizenship education, however, cannot be complete unless it is activated through some form of civic participation. Acquired citizenship skills need to be transferable not only from one course to another but also beyond the school to the students’ daily lives. The young people, it is hoped, will link exercising their right to vote with the needs of their community. This entails informing themselves on various issues, participating in various debates and taking positions on the public issues that are raised.

In all of this, the role of teachers and educational professionals is crucial. It is they who play a leading role in the transmission of democratic values and, together with parents, ensure that these values are passed on. In terms of citizenship education, teaching young people how to learn, which is what education is about, becomes a matter of developing the ability to integrate democratic values and express them in one’s own environment – school, the family and the local, regional, national and international community. Our goal, it is evident, is very far from just wanting to see ballots accumulate in a box.

The role of civil society

Teachers and parents cannot be the only ones responsible for carrying out this mission. Political parties, government bodies and the media have a profound role to play in connecting the younger generation with our democratic institutions. For citizenship education to succeed, the school must be linked to the everyday lives of young people. And here is where groups and associations based in civil society come in.

Électeurs en herbe constitutes a recipe for such a partnership between civil society and the school environment. The relationship is a reciprocal one in which, ideally, the proposed citizenship-education project, developed around a given election, is adopted by school commissions, school administrations and educators who provide the needed understanding of the educational needs of young people and the administrative, financial and other constraints of the world of education. Such a partnership opens the school to the daily lives of young people and gives social and economic actors concrete responsibility in Quebec’s educational mission.

The results so far

In spite of the difficulty of organizing such a project around an election that took place on June 28 (after the end of the school year!), more than 10,000 young voters made themselves heard in some 50 secondary schools – public, private, French and English – across Quebec. While the timing meant that it was difficult for many teachers to carry out all the steps of the process, the consensus among participants is that the experience was a valuable one. One indication of its authenticity is the result of the mock vote – reproduced in the table below.

Électeurs          Actual

en herbe (%)   results(%)

Bloc Québécois               46.9            48.82

Liberal Party                    27.3            33.88

Conservative Party         11.3              8.77

New Democratic Party   11.0              4.64

Green Party                        1.9              3.17

Others                                  1.5              0.72

If we project the 38 ridings covered by the project onto the 75 existing ones, the breakdown of seats is as follows:

Électeurs          Actual

en herbe          results

Bloc Québécois                49                 54

Liberal Party                      20                 21

New Democratic Party      4                   0

Conservative Party             2                   0

Though there is no scientific basis for the sample, the fact that the results of the mock elections are comparable to the results of the real elections suggests that the young generation has more in common with other generations about the issues affecting their society than is commonly thought. But we should also keep in mind that a recurring theme among the student participants was that they took their role seriously and were not satisfied merely to just go and vote. In the context of a project like Électeurs en herbe, young people demonstrate their capacity to make informed choices on political issues under appropriate circumstances. Perhaps in abstaining from voting they are sending us an important message. The ball is in our court.

 

Notes

1 www.kidsvotingcanada.com.

2 Syd Golston, “Never too young: Kids Voting USA” Civnet Journal, June-July 1997, vol 1. no. 2 (www.civnet.org/journal/issue2/jresgol.htm)]

3 Diana B. Carlin and Ron Thornburgh found a strong correlation between student participation in Kids Voting and subsequent registration and voting as a first time 18-year-old voter.” A number of other researchers are cited by Kids Voting USA about the effects of the program. Michael McDevitt found that it “increases discussion about election issues in the classroom, encourages… adults to vote… students’ use of multiple channels of communication – both interpersonal and mass media – to find political information and integrate it into their existing knowledge.” Jack McLeod found that “Kids Voting managed to substantially reduce the gender gap in candidate/election knowledge by its very strong effects among girls and more modest impact on boys… enhanced discussion of the campaign with parents and peers at least as much for girls as for boys.” (www.kidsvotingusa.org/shared/ResearchSummary6-04.pdf)

4 Student Vote 2004: Post-Election Report. www.studentvote2004.ca/

 

Akos Verboczy is an organizer with le Forum Jeunesse de l’île de Montréal and a Montreal School Commissioner.

Christian Giguère is director of le Centre de développement pour l’exercice de la citoyenneté.