Civics, Ontario style: why did Ontario's civic education program fail to reduce the democratic deficit?

Author:Milner, Henry

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...

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