Meaning of Political Participation for Indigenous Youth - research paper

The Meaning of Political Participation for Indigenous Youth
Charting the Course for Youth Democratic and Political Participation

Taiaiake Alfred, Brock Pitawanakwat and Jackie Price
Indigenous Governance Programs
University of Victoria

June 2007

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This research paper is one of the six papers prepared for CPRN’s Democratic Renewal Series, Charting the Course for Youth Democratic and Political Participation. All research papers and CPRN’s synthesis report for this project are available on the CPRN Web site at

Executive Summary

This paper addresses two central questions on the meaning of political participation among Indigenous youth in Canada:

  • What does political engagement mean to Indigenous youth today?
  • What are the implications of their attitudes and beliefs regarding political participation for Canadian electoral processes and institutions?

Recognizing the context created by existing research on these subjects, and following the focus and method of Jim Silver’s work on Aboriginal voting in Winnipeg, we conducted personal interviews and focus group sessions with a broad sampling of Indigenous youth from a variety of urban and community contexts. These interviews sought out youths’ perceptions of political identity, citizenship and political activism, while also exploring their relationship with the state and its electoral processes. The main questions posed to the youth were these:

  • What is “politics”?
  • What does citizenship mean?
  • Which political activities are important and which do you participate in?

Further questions related to participation in state processes such as band councils, school councils, school boards, rural or urban municipalities, and provincial, territorial and/or federal elections.

Our research has found no consistency across regions and nations that would justify the positing of a unified “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal” category, model of participation or even perspective.

The views expressed to us reflected particular cultural environments and individual experiences, and they varied substantially based on forms and levels of education possessed by the youth.

The research indicated that although some Indigenous youth do participate in electoral processes, other Indigenous youth favour political participation in non-conventional and indirect ways. The youth argued for the need to make space in the discourse and in democratic arenas for their voices. It is apparent that they are seeking means, methods and instruments to generate real effects in their communities to bring back the “action” in politics.

Interestingly, there was also internal incoherence in many of the youths' statements, and overall perspectives, regarding arguments for participating in Canadian electoral processes. These arguments differ from an Indigenous nationhood perspective, which views Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state as mutually exclusive and where a nation-to-nation relationship must be facilitated. Those lacking Indigenous education and exposure to traditional cultures are more likely to follow the normal patterns for Canadian youth in their perspectives on political participation. However, some youth argued for the revitalization of a nation-to-nation relationship and argued strongly for a perspective rooted in Indigenous cultures, communities and experience. These youth expressed interest in strategies to integrate Indigenous traditions into structures of governance and viewed interacting with government as counterproductive to the work they supported in their community.

Our research indicates that the decision to engage in or abstain from the electoral process is based on personal and community experience. The decision to abstain is guided by the sense that the electoral arena is an inappropriate or unresponsive means to advance the priorities of Indigenous youth. We argue that there are no strategic options within the framework of the existing electoral process that can significantly affect this reality. We conclude that the power dynamic experienced by Indigenous youth at the community level and the legal-political relationship between Canada and Indigenous nations must be addressed to achieve and ensure the democratic participation and representation of Indigenous youth.


CPRN press release ...

Comprehensive study of young people’s attitudes to politics delivers sobering message for politicians and educators

October 18, 2007 – As the federal parties jockey around the Throne Speech, one of the most comprehensive studies of young people’s attitudes to politics delivers a sobering message for both politicians and educators.

Lost in Translation: (Mis)Understanding Youth Engagement was released today by Canadian Policy Research Networks. It analyzes and expands upon six individual studies commissioned by CPRN since it held a groundbreaking “National Youth Dialogue and Summit” in 2005.

The central finding is that ‘Generation Y’ – those born after 1979 – is far from apathetical and apolitical. However, while very much tuned into small “p” political life, young Canadians are increasingly disenchanted with our formal political institutions and politics as currently practiced.

“The challenge for all Canadians, and especially for the political parties, is to find a way to better reach out and involve young people in the formal political process before their disengagement threatens the very underpinnings of our democratic system of government,” said Sharon Manson Singer, CPRN President.

Young people think and talk about their civic and political engagement much differently from the rest of us. Unfortunately, much of this is missed by traditional research methods and academic discourse about what constitutes political participation. As a result, their engagement has been misunderstood and misrepresented. It seems to get lost in translation between the old and the new – between their perspectives and a traditional perspective of what engagement is and is not.

“Today’s young people are the best-educated generation ever,” noted Mary Pat MacKinnon, CPRN’s Director of Civic Engagement. “Yet, they have less formal political knowledge than did their parents and grandparents. While highly suspicious of political spin and insincerity, many fail to grasp how government and political institutions work. Nor do they get the connections between their everyday realities, politics and policy.”

CPRN is urging a series of proactive steps to turn this around and engage young people in the civic and political life of their country. For example, political parties must re-evaluate and re-tool their policies and structures to make them relevant to, and inclusive of, young people; and, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) should take the lead in developing a pan-Canadian civic literacy strategy. In addition, disparate federal programs and policies for young people should be coordinated within a stand alone federal Ministry or Secretariat responsible for youth. The report also recommends that elementary and secondary school civics education be revamped and expanded with the involvement of teachers, youth, families and political institutions.

“Canada needs the talents and passion of all of its generations,” Manson Singer stated. “Investing in youth is a prerequisite to maintaining a strong democracy, and we can ill afford to delay implementing the recommendations that Lost in Translation puts forward.”