Seen and not heard – how ageism and discrimination are perpetuating a youth exodus from democracy


When George Anderson knocked on doors to solicit votes in the mid-Vancouver Island lumber port of Nanaimo in 2011, he was told by multiple residents that the colour of his skin excluded him from their consideration.  Today, Anderson thinks he’s the first black Councillor in the city, but racism towards him is far outweighed by a different form of discrimination.  “I’m not willing to vote for someone this age,” Anderson remembers being told.  Voters gave him no justification for their opinion.  “Their only answer was you’re too young.’’  Despite the uphill battle, Anderson credits a strong support network for a 4th-place win, “which is…quite unheard of for a first-time candidate and especially a young candidate…if they get elected, they [usually] come in 2nd-to last or dead last place.”

Anderson’s election was an incredible achievement by any standards, but it only marked the beginning of his struggles.  His first contentious battle with the mayor began before his inaugural meeting, when a Regional District seat – traditionally reserved for the seven candidates with the most votes – was assigned to a senior councillor who placed last.  “And I went home and I found an article [in] which [the Mayor had] actually said…and I quote, ‘the people with the most amount of votes should be the ones who sit on the regional district because those are the people that the public has the most confidence in,’” Anderson recalls.  “And I sent it to him, and he said, you know what, the decision’s already been made, you won’t be sitting on it.”

Instead, the mayor told Anderson to sit on the “Library Committee, which is a one-person committee, you can self-evaluate yourself, it will be good learning.”  The patronizing suggestions continued.  “And you can sit on the partial tax committee, which hasn’t met in three years but you can sit on that committee.”  After threatening to contact the media, Anderson was finally awarded a Regional District seat.  He sent out a media brief anyways.  “Because had I not done that, people would not know what was happening, in regards to the ageism that was occurring, and people would feel that they could just walk over me.”

Anderson continues to receive ageist remarks from councillors and staff such as “I’m absolutely fine with forgiving youthful ignorance,” and “we have to be lectured to by a 22-year-old?”  It’s an unhealthy environment, and one that would not be tolerated for any other form of discrimination, says Anderson.  He sees it as “the exact same thing as saying ‘I’m not going to listen to you because you’re a woman,’ ‘I’m not going to listen to you because you’re black,’ ‘I’m not going to listen to you because you’re bisexual, gay or transgendered.’”  If the attacks continue, Anderson says he’ll be tempted to file a complaint with the BC Human Rights Code.

Ageism may also be deterring other aspiring young politicians from representing youth directly.  “I can tell you, there’s two individuals who were considering to run in the upcoming election who chose not to, because of…the things I’ve gone through,” Anderson reflects.

Ageism isn’t reserved for elected officials.  One of the main reasons Anderson reluctantly ran for Council was because he recognized a dire disconnect between youth and adult stakeholders fostered by a lack of respect and an attitude that apathy among youth was a foregone conclusion.  “I can tell you as a young individual it’s not very often that the city [would] come and ask me…’what do you think we should be focusing on?’”  As Anderson puts it, “in political life…young people, just their voices don’t really matter and [engagement is] something that they’re supposed to do as a nicety.”

Calgary hip hop artist David Bennett, aka Transit, 24, says he’s also felt the sting of ageism, in and out of his musical career.  “I’ll go to a Chamber of Commerce event and I’ll be there with the mayor and the CEO of the Calgary library and…and I have my opinion and I represent a certain demographic, and…I feel like people are looking at me like I’m lower.  Because of my backwards hat, and my age, and stuff like that.”  Transit believes young people adapt to the limited role that’s prescribed to them.  “No one expects you to care about social issues until you’re older.  And I think that’s just something where kids, they learn that by how people look at them, and they just decide not to care because it’s not up to them to care.  It’s not their world, you know?”

Others feel that youth need to prove their investment in society if they expect to be treated as equal stakeholders.  Youri Cormier is Executive Director of the youth-engagement organization Apathy is Boring, and he believes the first step in that process of self-validation is for youth to convince their fellow peers to participate in elections.  He points out that the youth population in Canada now rivals that of the baby boomers who dominate politics, but youth influence is stifled by a lack of participation.  “There would a heck of a lot less ageism in government – for those who perceive it that way – if all of a sudden you had a 90% participation rate amongst youth and only a 75% participation rate amongst people over the age of 55.  So as long as we’re under-participating, we’re the ones who are really [suffering],” he explains.

As for Anderson, he says that he’s learned to put a positive spin on the barrage of ageist rhetoric that plagues his work on council.  “I feel that if somebody has to point out my age I’ve won the debate, because that means they don’t have one political argument,” he says, “and that they have to go down to personal attacks.”


Other columns by Joseph Boutilier

Why People aren’t in the streets protesting the Fair Elections Act… and why they should be
New Critic title is fitting for MP Hyer’s fee and dividend ambitions
Canada Post: A Contrived Controversy

Follow Joseph Boutilier on twitter: @josephboutilier


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