This is my response to Michael Valpy’s Atkinson Series – Me, You, Us – http://www.thestar.com/news/atkinsonseries.html. Valpy paints a very negative (and common) portrayal of the Gen-Y / Millennial generation – they don’t vote, they are separated from society because they are obsessed with social media/technology, they are politically apathetic etc. Valpy points out the widening generational rift taking place in Canada, where voters are by far over 55 and socially conservative, and the younger generation are opting out of politics and voting.
The facts are undeniable – unemployment is at an all time-high, the wealth gap is deepening, voting is at an all-time low with youth being the lowest voters by far in Canada. However, I am discouraged and in disagreement with his negative tone and his slant. His central argument in the series is that Canadian society is ‘losing its glue’, ‘social cohesion is fraying and we are losing our attachment to one another’. I need to disagree, and I need to say that quite frankly, I am sick and tired of this negative attitude, which I often hear and I do not buy it. I will not buy into it. Perhaps I can’t because I am passionately invested in raising my young boys to be amazing men and I want them to feel hopeful about their future and the world they will be inheriting. Perhaps I am walking through life with ‘rose coloured glasses’, but from my point of view, while community engagement and social cohesion has fundamentally changed, it isn’t necessarily decreasing. And I think there is evidence to argue that social cohesion may be on the rise and coming alive in new and innovative ways.
I am still grappling with this, but here are my preliminary thoughts:
-The internet and social media is an explosion of social cohesion and community engagement. We have never been so connected to others, able to dialogue with so many others who share common interests, and there are COUNTLESS examples of people coming together for a common cause through social media, especially grassroots causes that would otherwise never be heard of/discussed (example from today). This DID not happen before the internet! Everyone can be active and engaged and try to make a positive difference.
-There is a big difference between electoral disengagement and political/social disengagement. I agree with Valpy that the younger generation feels alien from the political system in Canada. Why? Personally, while I consider myself to be a very socially engaged individual who is trying to make a positive difference in the world, I have had very little interest or time for governmental politics. I have never been a card-carrying member of a political party and I don’t know anyone my age who has. I vote, because people fought hard in history for my right to vote and I don’t take that lightly. But I vote reluctantly. I know that the ‘first-past-the-post-system’ doesn’t work, because the ‘winner’ is not representative of the people. The system and the political representatives do not feel authentic. I know that there are other electoral systems that could be adopted that have are more democratic value (for example – the mixed-member proportional system in New Zealand – see here). I also know that there is tons of money, deception and game-playing going on behind the scenes, so I don’t trust any of the political parties.My point is, while I am somewhat disengaged from electoral politics, I am definitely not politically/socially disengaged. I just see my efforts better making a difference in other forums.
-I do agree with Valpy that the sense of our identity as Canadians is being eroded. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Ironically, I have a Canadian Studies degree (from Trent, and I chose this as my major because it was the only program doing real Community Based Research in collaboration with the Haliburton community), and I don’t have a clue what it means to ‘feel Canadian”. I have travelled twice across Canada, hitchhiked up to the Yukon, organic farmed in BC, whale-watched in Newfoundland, but I am still lost with this concept. I think the ‘nation’ concept is far gone for most of my generation and those younger. I say this, not being ‘anti-Canadian’, but just being honestly confused. Don’t get me wrong – I recognize that there are practical reasons for joining together as a country. And I am thrilled that because I am Canadian, I have access to health care and our Human Rights Act and gay marriage and countless other awesome privileges. However, I don’t understand the concept of ‘feeling Canadian’ which I imagine Valpy is referring to the Atwood/canoeing/igloo image. My concept of social cohesion is much more centred in my local community, or widened to my global community (primarily through social media).
To end my post, and to counter the image of the Spectator who Valpy writes about (isolated at home gaming for hours), here are a few examples of amazing Canadians under 40, who are actively building social cohesion and making a positive difference in the world:
-Hannah Taylor – She is 16 years old, and started the Ladybug Foundation to raise funds and awareness about the plight of homelessness – see here
-Ta’Kaiya Blaney – She is 12 years old, First Nations activist in B.C. who is protesting the Northern Gateway pipeline – see here
-Helene Campbell – She is 20 years old, has lung disease and has raised awareness about the importance of organ donation through using Twitter and attracting celebrities such as Justin Beiber and Ellen.
-Dave Meslin – he is a Toronto activist, who has made politics exciting in Toronto, through different engagement efforts like City Idol (where live audiences could vote off candidates running for City Council). He might be 40 now, but he’s been cool for awhile.
-Craig and Marc Keilburger – We can’t forget these brothers (who are close to 40 now) who started Me to We and Free the Children. We Day in 2013 attracted 130 000 high school students, who had to volunteer their way to get into the celebrations at the Air Canada Centre.
These community activists give me hope for the future. I am excited to see how community engagement and social cohesion presents itself over the next 10-20 years, and I want to be a part of it.