On Campus

Exercising my ‘bitching rights’

In a democratic society, not voting is still an exercise in civic responsibility

My mother always told me the only person we can change is ourself. Robert Fowler’s mother must not have taught him the same lesson. The former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations told a group of young adults about to graduate on Sunday that they don’t deserve to be critical of established government because, as a rule, they don’t vote.

This is the essence of ignorance, and the venue he chose to deliver his “great assessment of civilization” makes it all the more infuriating.

Fowler was at the fall convocation ceremony at the University of Ottawa to accept an honorary degree. But rather than using his time at the podium to inspire the soon-to-be graduates, he chose to chastise them based on his own over-simplified view of society. He claimed young people are “intellectually dishonest” and that “they don’t deserve bitching rights” because they don’t turn out to vote.

Political engagement is a two-way street. And not only does Fowler refuse to admit any responsibility his generation may play in the so-called apathy of youth, he goes as far to suggest that young people are not allowed an opinion if they don’t vote, as if voting is the only way one can engage civically.

As citizens of a free and democratic society, we have the right to put our own stamp on this country’s history, and just because we don’t vote in droves it doesn’t give political leaders a reason to ignore us, or worse, try to silence us.

Fowler went on to say: “You seem to be enthusiastically disqualifying yourselves from any right to demand good government in your own country, and effective Canadian engagement abroad.”

Not voting is still an exercise in civic responsibility and people shouldn’t be criticized for deciding against putting an X on a piece of a paper. By the same token, voting is not the only avenue we measure civic engagement and a country’s reputation on the world stage is not the result of a single group’s actions in that society.

A 2005 Statistics Canada survey on youth-political engagement found that youth are just as engaged in non-voting political activity as 30- to 64-year-olds, and they’re more engaged in non-voting political activity than Canadians over 65, who are the most likely to vote.

The question of supposed youth apathy is multi-faceted, with many factors beyond simple laziness. Sure, some young adults are lazy — as are some old adults — but many more participate in their communities and greater Canadian society through a number of untraditional avenues. There is discourse and interest happening, but just because it’s unrecognizable or different to those who’ve come before us, it doesn’t make it any less of a valid contribution to society. Society changes as its youth grow up and influence it in their own unique ways. This is the mark of progress.

So, Robert Fowler, next time you want to bitch about young people and how lazy we allegedly are, how about you try to engage in a discussion with a generation you clearly know nothing about — especially when you have an opportunity to address young people directly. It might do you, and Canada, some good.

Until you’re willing to have that discussion, though, perhaps your mother taught you another lesson: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.