Why did Ontario’s civic education program fail to reduce the democratic deficit?

In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in civic education, long the poor cousin of the school curriculum. The source of this interest has been concern about the decline in youth political participation – the democratic deficit. While the new interest has mostly been rhetorical, Ontario put the rhetoric into practice in 2000 and instituted a compulsory civics course for Grade 10 students.

Has Ontario’s course actually made a dent in the democratic deficit? Examining this question with the help of some unique turnout data from Elections Canada leads to a surprising conclusion.

Turnout decline in Canada

By the late 1990s Canadian observers of political participation were coming to the realization that the democratic deficit was unusually deep. More than most comparable countries, Canada underwent a precipitous decline in voter turnout starting in the late 1980s. Turnout of registered voters dropped dramatically from 75.3 per cent in 1988, a rate close to the average for the previous 30 years, to 64.1 per cent in 2000 and 60.9 per cent in the 2004 federal election (figure 1). Though it rose in the 2006 election to 64.7 per cent, in 2008 it continued its descent to a miserable 59.1 per cent.

As in other countries, the decline corresponded to a decline in other forms of political participation, especially party membership. The result is what Lisa Young and William Cross, who estimate the average age of Canadian party members at 59, describe as “the greying of political parties.” A 2000 survey found that only 2 per cent of Canadians in the youngest age group had ever belonged to a political party, as compared with 33 per cent among those over 57 years of age.1

Unlike in Britain, official voting results in Canada do not divulge whether particular voters actually turned up. Hence the voting turnout rate by age groups is based on opinion surveys, which tend to inflate numbers. Still, the trend is unmistakable. Canadian Election Study data suggested that the 14 percentage point drop in turnout between 1993 and 2000 was almost entirely due to the behaviour of those born since the seventies – those first eligible to vote in the 1990s or 2000s.2

Elections Canada’s response

Alarmed by the plummeting youth turnout rate, Canadian federal and provincial policymakers began to pay attention. Elections Canada, the independent body which administers federal elections, developed a number of programs to reach young people. The objective was to encourage them to get onto the National Register of Electors upon turning 18, and to vote. The main initiatives included simulations; contests; special events; crossword puzzles containing democratic words such as “Vote”, “Assembly” and “Elections”; and a trivia game on the Internet that involved players answering questions about Parliament and elections.

One contest asked students to create public service announcements telling their peers why democracy is important and why it is important to vote. In another contest, carried out in partnership with four student associations during the 2004 election, students produced posters to be displayed on campuses across Canada. And most recently, those who sent in the best videos participated in a televised debate among Canadians aged 18 to 25 about their qualifications and aptitude to be “The Next Great Prime Minister.”

In collaboration with other organizations, Elections Canada supported federal election simulations in the schools, contributed to youth voter education kits and funded a series of surveys on issues related to youth political participation, as well as musical events organized by “Rush the Vote.”

To test the effectiveness of such interventions and overcome the limitations of turnout data based on surveys of reported voting, Elections Canada instituted a new methodology for measuring turnout using a very large sample of electors identified by age.3 Based on the application of the method to the 2004 and 2006 election results, it estimated that turnout, which increased by 4.4 percentage points for the population as a whole in 2006, rose by 6.8 for young people aged 18 to 24 (table 1).4

Unfortunately, the dismal 2008 overall turnout numbers suggest that the positive effects of these various efforts to boost youth turnout were, at least partially, temporary. Though we do not yet have an age breakdown for 2008, it would be surprising indeed if young citizens did not contribute their share to the 5 per cent drop from 2006.

Testing the impact of civic education

In recent years, most provinces have changed their approach to civic education – with a few, such as British Columbia, adding optional civics courses – and placed more emphasis on volunteerism and community values. But only Ontario, which had one of the lowest levels of reported federal election youth turnout, instituted a compulsory civics course for all high school students.

Ontario took the initiative in 1999 when, as part of an updated high school curriculum, the government introduced a compulsory 55-hour course entitled “Profile for Civics,” given over six weeks in Grade 10. The course is broken down into three units: Democracy – Issues and Ideas (15 hours), The Canadian Context (25 hours) and Global Perspectives (15 hours). The curriculum guidelines stress the historical and institutional approach, with emphasis on knowledge of government procedures. The course is also designed to teach Canadian civic virtues, especially tolerance of diversity, and commitment to the democratic process.

If the Elections Canada data cited in table 1 are broken down by province, we can test the impact of this course by comparing youth turnout in Ontario and in the rest of the country. Among the 18-to-24-year-olds eligible to vote in both 2004 and 2006, there were young Ontarians who had taken the course, and ones who had not, identifiable by their date of birth. Since no comparable change took place elsewhere in Canada in this period, the same age groups in the other provinces can serve as a control group, creating a natural experiment.

The results of that experiment for each election are presented in tables 2 and 3. Ontario students born on or after January 1, 1985, would normally have been exposed to the compulsory civics course in Grade 10. Those born before that date would have normally reached Grade 10 before the course was introduced. Hence, January 1, 1985, is used as a cutoff date to divide young voters in each of the two elections into two categories – for Canada as a whole, for Ontario and for the rest of the country. The upper cutoff age for the older category was chosen to have a roughly equal sample of the two groups. This means that the numbers are greater in 2006, since more students who had taken the course were now of voting age.

If there is a positive relationship between civic education and voting, it is not found in the tables. Indeed, the numbers point in the opposite direction. In 2004, the subgroup of Ontarians at an age to have taken the course turned out at roughly the same level (38.2 per cent) as the older ones who did not (38.8 per cent); while there was an improvement for the corresponding age groups in the rest of Canada, from 34.5 to 37.1 per cent.

Such a small difference may be dismissed as merely statistical, except that it grew significantly in 2006: young Ontarians of an age to have taken the course voted much less (41.8 per cent) than those who were not (46.8 per cent), while this time there was no difference between the corresponding age groups in the rest of Canada (40.2 and 40.0 per cent). Given the confidence limits for the data, it is still possible that the difference is only in the statistics and not among the population. If there is a relationship, however, it is a perverse one.

Looking for explanations

The failure of compulsory civic education to in any way boost turnout – a key goal of introducing the course – is puzzling as well as disappointing. To begin to try to solve the puzzle, we first need to look at the possible effects of the second thrust of the new curricular requirements. Along with the civic education course, the 1999 Ontario regulations required that students complete 40 hours of volunteer (sic) community ser-vice before graduation from high school.5 While such activity is encouraged in other provinces, I am not aware of its being compulsory outside Ontario, though this is common in American states.

At the same time that it introduced the civic education and community service requirements, the government shortened the high school curriculum from five to four years. As a result, the 2003 high school graduating class contained two cohorts, only one of which was required to complete a mandated community service requirement and take civic education. Researchers Ailsa Henderson, Steven D. Brown, Mark Pancer and Kimberly Ellis-Hale surveyed 1,768 first-year Ontario university students who had completed high school in 2003 to study the effects of the community service obligation.6 Their sample consisted of two groups of students who had very similar backgrounds, but differed in whether or not they had been required to perform the community service to obtain their high school diploma.

To their surprise, they found “no differences in current attitudes and reported civic engagement that might plausibly be attributed to participation in the mandatory service program.” They were surprised further that the civics course that the same co-hort was obliged to complete had an apparently negative effect on reported interest in politics and political media exposure. The authors’ only explanation was that the age groups are “on opposite sides of a critical political responsibility cusp (18 years) in our society” (there was an average age difference of a year and a half between the two sample groups), an explanation partially confirmed by the fact that when they controlled for age, the effect on political media exposure “fades to statistical non-significance.”

However, unless this age effect is more salient in Ontario than elsewhere in Canada, the puzzle remains unresolved. Henderson, Brown, Pancer and Ellis-Hale found greater political interest among subjects who described themselves as having engaged in service than among those who did not, a relationship quite opposite to that when the engagement resulted from being in the cohort required to perform service in high school. This result led them to suggest, based on the literature, that the explanation may lie in the mandatory nature of the volunteering.

Something that is mandatory but, to your knowledge, has always been so is very different from something imposed on you and not your peers. This is exactly what distinguished the two groups in the survey on the effects of the community service requirement – and also the two groups in relation to the civics course requirement. Ontario teenagers entering Grade 10 in 2000 found themselves unexpectedly saddled with two obligations that their older peers and siblings had managed to avoid, a civics course and 40 hours of volunteering.7

The school environment also appears to have been generally less than welcoming to the new requirements. The provincial government introduced the new curriculum (which was revised only a few years into its existence) with little fanfare and support. Overall, there was little concerted effort on the part of education administrations at the provincial, board and school levels to implement the new program successfully. Not only did the students feel unfairly burdened with this unwelcome imposition, but this sense of unwelcomeness was reinforced by the school environment.

One reflection of the low priority of the course for many school boards (notably the large Toronto and Ottawa boards) was their refusal to even allow the civics teachers to be interviewed for a research study. The results of the interviews in that study, undertaken by John Paul Lewis for a Carleton University PhD dissertation, are thus unrepresentative, but they nevertheless shed some light on the failure of the civics course to increase political participation.

The teachers generally complained that the course was too short, and expressed dissatisfaction with the curriculum and the listed textbooks. They consistently noted that the students came to the course unacquainted with current events and lacking any desire to participate politically. Naturally enough, the students found Canadian political institutions – the largest unit in the curriculum – boring. Another study, of a group of Ontario high school students that was self-selected and hence more likely to be positive about civic education, confirmed this impression.8 When these students were asked whether they enjoyed learning about politics in school, a clear majority responded negatively.

Moreover, even within the same schools, Lewis found clear inconsistency in the content of the courses, especially over the importance given to institutions. Such flexibility can be constructive, but only in the hands of trained and experienced teachers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this was seldom the case: school principals tended to treat civics as a timetable “dumping ground” and to assign the course to teachers who were inexperienced and even untrained in social studies or history. In sum, there is good reason not to be surprised by our results; it would be surprising, rather, if the course had boosted political participation.

Making civics work

We are reminded that context matters, whether in the content of a civics course or in participation in community service. A traditional civics course that places great emphasis on community volunteering and plays down partisan politics may work in the United States; it seems to be a poor fit in Canada. In Sweden, where I teach each fall, civics is compulsory for students aged roughly 15 to 17 and taught by specialists trained for that purpose at the universities. We are a long way from that, but there are some more general lessons we can draw.

If we are to make civics compulsory, and we should, it needs to be done in an appropriate setting. Teachers need to be selected and trained to deliver a course that is rich in political information, but attuned to the communications networks of the Internet generation. Seeking above all to foster attentiveness to public affairs and break down the wall between political life and “real life,” the course should make optimal use of simulation processes and techniques and online applications, bringing politics – and politicians – into the classroom. For example, a mock city council meeting could be organized, or a simulated press conference where students question a politician.

Federal and provincial authorities need to coordinate their efforts. The services provided by Elections Canada in coordination with civil society groups need to be developed to work on the front lines of the battle against the democratic deficit: the civics classroom.

I explore these questions in a forthcoming book.


1 See Lisa Young and William Cross, A Group Apart: Young Party Members in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2007).

2 See Elisabeth Gidengil, André Blais, Neil Nevitte and Richard Nadeau, Citizens (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004).

3 Elections Canada used a sample of electors previously registered who voted at the polls on election day plus almost 3 million actual electors, comprising those who registered at the polls and voted on election day drawn from actual recorded votes in 50 constituencies, those who voted at advance polls and those who voted by special ballot (SVR), i.e., away from their polls.

4 The anomaly in the 2006 figures in table 1, which shows a big change in turnout rate (a hefty 9.9 points) among voters under 25 who had been eligible to vote in the previous election in 2004 (rather than among first-time voters), is, I suspect, due to a 2006 methodological innovation that was brought in to make sure the votes of the young were taken into account and may have had the effect of overrepresenting university students in this age group and exaggerating the contribution of young people to the overall 4.4 per cent increase in 2006.

5 I know of no quantitative studies of how these 40 hours have actually been used, but anecdotal evidence suggests that most students followed the path of least resistance in meeting these requirements – not changing their behaviour much, but dressing it up in language that allowed them to claim to have met the requirements

6 Ailsa Henderson, Steven D. Brown, Mark Pancer and Kimberly Ellis-Hale, “Mandated Community Service in High School and Subsequent Civic Engagement: The Case of the ‘Double Cohort’ in Ontario, Canada,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 36, No. 7 (2007), pp. 849–60.

7 They were also saddled with the additional difficulties entailed in adjusting to the shortening of the high school curriculum and having their last year of high school include a “double cohort,” something experienced in no other province. Could this also have had a negative effect on their turnout once they were eligible to vote?

8 Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant and Cameron Anderson, “Adolescents’ Attitudes toward Political Participation: Assessing Recent Evidence from Ontario,” presented at the Civic Education and Political Participation workshop, Université de Montréal, June 2008.