BC Election 2013  

Youngster aims to spark voter interest


While many 12-year-olds may be watching YouTube, texting friends or reading celebrity gossip magazines, British Columbia pre-teen Jennifer Johnson spends her spare time running a political campaign.

In an era when media, politicians and scholars bemoan the lack of youth involvement in political affairs, Johnson's interest is an anomaly.

The fresh-faced brunette races from school to her local Liberal candidate's riding office in Vancouver-Kensington, the thrill of the upcoming May 14 provincial election driving her desire to door knock, cold call and attend political rallies.

She'll be premier or prime minister someday, Johnson predicted matter-of-factly, adding by the time she turns 25, she'll already have 10 years of campaigning experience under her belt.

An honorary member of the BC Young Liberals, she can't officially join until she's 14, Johnson has met politicians like Christy Clark, Colin Hansen, Lorne Mayencourt, Dennis Marsden and Jane Thornthwaite.

But there's still one top dog she's waiting to shake hands with.

"I would most love to meet Stephen Harper," Johnson said. "I mean, I just look up to him."

Johnson hasn't always been a political junkie, she said her affinity for governance stems from a Grade 5 school trip to the Legislature in Victoria.

"I really fell in love there and I just thought, 'Wow, I want to be a part of this,'" Johnson said, waving a Liberal candidate placard on high-traffic street corner in East Vancouver last week.

"Almost everything that involves (us) happens in that room and behind those doors. It was so crazy to me that ... I could be a part of making those laws and making life better for people," she adds.

Jumping into the political pool with the gumption of a seasoned cannon baller, Johnson made quite the splash among family and friends who initially called her crazy.

While most mothers spend their time at sports venues or dance recitals when their children are growing up, Johnson's mom said her life is a different story.

"Everybody thought it was crazy — they called her crazy, they called me crazy," Jackie Hollis said, standing outside an event in Burnaby, B.C., where Liberal Premier Christy Clark was rallying her supports.

"I turned into the political mom, not the soccer mom," Hollis said, adding she likely wouldn't attend election events if not for her daughter.

"If Jennifer played soccer or baseball or anything, I would go to that game. These rallies, these functions — these are her games. And when she makes a home run, I'm there to see it."

While they've always considered it their duty to vote, Hollis said she and her husband's political engagement doesn't run too deep. That's why, she said, her daughter's zeal has been so surprising.

It hasn't been easy to fit homework around the busy campaign schedule but Hollis said she's glad her daughter pursues her passion at a time when so many other young people have checked out of the political arena — or haven't entered it at all.

"She stuck it out for a year, sort of being laughed at and made fun of a little bit ... and now her sister's coming out, her sister's friends are starting to come out.

"I think parties need to really stop and look at their young people," Hollis adds. "I think they're missing a lot when they overlook them. You want the voters — but Jen is getting those voters for, not this election, but the next one."

While all parents brag about their children's achievements and potential, Hollis has no doubt Jennifer is destined for 24 Sussex Drive.

"I will be inviting you over for tea ... at the Prime Minister's house," the proud mother said laughing. "She will rock this country."

Johnson is a breath of fresh air for those who'd like to see more political participation from Canadians aged 18 to 35.

A relatively-young Liberal candidate himself, Gabby Kalaw jokes that Johnson is practically running his Vancouver-Kensington campaign — helping out with everything from office administration to door knocking.

"Every campaign has people who do a lot of the legwork early on and Jen has been one of those people," the 34 year old said, juggling a massive self-portrait in the midst of a candidate sign-waving event along a Vancouver street.

"She's 12 years old but she's gained an inordinate amount of experience that I've seen 20 year olds still don't know how to do," Kalaw adds.

"If there's anything in my office that she hasn't done, I'd be surprised."

But whether or not Johnson's infectious political spirit will stir others into widespread political action remains unclear, based on a 2011 research report from Elections Canada.

The issue of how to engage a generation is a multifaceted one despite many attempts to target youth through new techniques, said one of the report's authors, Peter Loewen.

"There's no easy solution," the University of Toronto assistant professor of political science said in a telephone interview.

The nation is changing — it's long been known that people can be less likely to vote if they're born outside of Canada or don't consider themselves religious and that's increasingly prevalent, Loewen said.

Compounding this, he said is that young people aren't growing up and assuming responsibility as soon as their parents did, and aren't yet in a position to pay property taxes, own a home, or have kids, all milestones that prompt voting or political action.

Higher levels of education and mobility of young people also contribute to low voter turnouts, as can a lack of general awareness of the campaign and candidates.

But Loewen said one of the biggest influencers of abysmal voting statistics among the so-called Generation Y has little to do with politics.

Young Canadians have a different set of values, Loewen said, adding they don't consider voting a duty.

"For better or for worse, people — especially young people — are less likely to think they have duties and obligations now than they did before," Loewen said.

An older generation went to the polls out of civic obligation, he said, even if they thought their votes didn't matter or they didn't like the parties.

Less than a third of 18 to 34 year olds eligible to vote in the last provincial election actually did so, Elections BC statistics state. Close to 900,000 were eligible, yet less than 275,000 turned up at the polls in 2009.

That's compared to between 55 to 72 per cent of those aged 45 to 75, the statistics state.

When it comes to government policy, the votes talk, Loewen said.

"There's a good reason why they pay more attention to older citizens. They matter more at election time."

But Johnson is doing her best to change that.

"I think that if people got more involved, then they would realize it's not a scary place," Johnson said.

"The government is yours and your parents and you own it. And you have every right to be involved and you should be ... it's really important to me that young people get out and vote."

With that, Johnson holds up her blue candidate poster and returns to work — practice for her own campaign.

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