It’s no secret that Canadian voter turnout is lower than it should be. Voting rates in the May 2011 elections was a hair over 61% according to Elections Canada. While that was higher than the 58.8% turnout in 2008, it is abysmal compared to the 70% to 80% regularly reported from 1957 to 1992. The story goes deeper than that, as well. The Globe and Mail reported that only 49 percent of electors cast ballots in its 2011 provincial elections.
A healthy democratic process needs the participation of its citizens. Closed political systems develop as much from voter apathy and disengagement as from corrupt politicians. The more actively people participate, and the more engaged they are, the better the system does.
So why is it that fewer people are voting, at a time when politics are having ever more impact on people and their lives?
Returning to the Globe and Mail, we discover several reasons.
“Twenty-eight per cent said they just weren’t interested. Twenty-three per cent were too busy. The rest said they were out of town, ill or didn’t like any of the candidates.”
Twenty-eight per cent. That is an astonishing figure. Even if a poll by one paper isn’t representative of the bigger picture, it is still dismaying to see that so many people simply lack an interest in the process governing their country. In an age when social and environmental justice are becoming ever more vital concerns, there are simply those who do not care, or understand enough to make them care.
Those who were too busy are more understandable. It is hard to take the time to vote when you have to take care of family members, work in a critical job, or any number of other important obligations. It does raise an alarming point about the effort involved in voting however, that it can be something that so many people are too busy to make time for.
This point is expanded further in The Daily by Statistics Canada. A significant reason given among youth voters for not participating in the 2015 elections was difficulty with the voting process. They reported difficulty demonstrating their residence, and that they were frequently left off the voters list. Being of age and able to vote, but held back by the process itself, is unacceptable in a forward thinking democracy.
Then we have the following article from CBC News, explaining why voting among First Nations tribes in particular is so low.
In short, the specters of colonialism and institutional racism lead many First Nations voters to simply abstain from the political process. To quote the article directly, “It is quite commonly known that “Indians”, as they were called half a century ago, were not allowed to vote until July 1, 1960. Actually, they could vote, but they had to become “disenfranchised” first, which meant giving up their special Treaty status. And so it became the common practice that aboriginal people did not take part in “white man’s voting” in the 30 or so federal elections which were held prior to 1960.”
This disdain for a government that has severely mistreated its First Nations citizens, a government that still fails to investigate crimes committed against indigenous peoples with due urgency, becomes an institution in itself. Trends and beliefs are passed on to the next generation, and they grow firm with time. As a result, many First Nations voters prefer activist politics, in the form of demonstrations and the dissemination of literature.
There are signs the trend could reverse. Participation in the 2015 federal elections was notably high. Youth voters increased their participation in the process in 2015 was a heartening 67% compared to 55% for the 2011 elections, according to The Star’s analysis of Statistics Canada’s report. However, the Star makes the point that in the United States, youth turnout for the 2008 elections was up, but had dropped by the 2012 elections. A single election’s increase does not make a trend.
In short, participation in the voting process is one of the most important parts of a healthy democracy, yet Canada’s participation remains low. Learning the reasons why may help us reverse the last decades’ frightening trend.
President-elect Donald Trump has signaled that he will direct his administration to approve construction of the 4th leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline. This is sure to reignite the debate over the merits of the project, and if extracting oil from tar sands fields is environmentally sound.
The Keystone Pipeline transports tar sands oil from an 80,000 km stretch of forest in Alberta to Illinois for processing. The fourth leg of the pipeline will extend to Gulf of Mexico processing facilities. Tar sands oil, or bitumen, is a gooey version of oil mixed with sand, clay, and water. Experts estimate that the Alberta tar sands could hold as much as 2 trillion barrels of oil, which brings Canada to third place in world oil production, just behind Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Proponents of tar sands development claim it will reduce dependence on unreliable foreign producers.
However, extracting tar sands is a dirty business. Pumping bitumen from the ground can not be done in its natural state. The two methods of extraction both have extensive drawbacks. The first involves pumping water and natural gas into the sands to separate the bitumen. This process poses a threat of groundwater contamination. The second method strip mines the tar sands from the land and heats them to separate out the bitumen. This method actually produces more carbon emissions than conventional oil production, a questionable process in light of climate change.
Once the bitumen is extracted it is ready for transport for further processing. There are two methods of getting the oil to its destination: pipeline or train.
Transporting bitumen by train is certainly a dangerous proposition. Train tracks run through populated areas, with derailment a potentially deadly consequence for residents. In 2013 a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Once it left the tracks cars exploded creating a “tsunami of fire” that leveled 40 buildings. Toxic fumes from the fire forced the evacuation of 2000 residents. A US group called ForestEthics estimates that 25 million people live in the blast zone of an oil train derailment, and similar figures are gauged for Canada.
Trains carrying tar sands actually pose a more serious threat than trains carrying straight crude. Bitumen doesn’t flow naturally, and to get it into a tank car it’s diluted with natural gas liquids, which are highly explosive. In 2015 a train carrying diluted bitumen, or dilbit, derailed in a remote area of Ontario, and the resulting fire burned for six days.
So pipelines like Keystone would seem the safer bet. However, pipelines carry their own set of liabilities. Explosions are a possibility, but leaks are a more prevalent and persistent problem. Tar sands oil, especially in the form of dilbit, presents a special dilemma.
In 2010 a pipeline run by the Canadian company Enbridge ruptured, spilling over a million gallons of dilbit into a creek feeding into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The natural gas liquids separated from the bitumen and returned to a gaseous state, drifting through nearby neighborhoods, and forcing permanent evacuation for some residents. Unlike oil, which floats on water, bitumen is heavy and sticky and it spread quickly over the riverbed. The petroleum industry has no proven way to clean up a bitumen spill, and the creek and the river remain contaminated today.
The company behind Keystone, TransCanada, promises that the pipeline will adhere to the highest safety standards possible. But, examining the Enbridge spill raises serious flags. Enbridge knew of the weakness in the pipeline almost 5 years before the spill and did nothing to remedy it. The team handing their warning systems was badly trained and so used to false alarms they ignored them and continued to pump dilbit through the pipeline for 17 hours. Enbridge is not an outlier; typing “pipeline accidents” into Wikipedia brings up thousands and thousands of incidents.
The Keystone pipeline will likely be built. But really, what’s badly needed is a serious look at what we are willing to trade in terms of safety and a clean environment for squeezing the last bit of oil out of the ground. There are cleaner sources of energy that offer a way forward without “extracting” such a price.
In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. presidential candidate Al Gore. Senior Canadian members of the panel, Doctors Andrew Weaver (University of Victoria), William Peltier (University of Toronto), and John Stone (Carleton University), called on Elizabeth Evans May, the first member of the Green Party elected to parliament, to “make the difference in more than 50 close ridings where the Conservatives are set to win.”
They cited VoteForEnvironment.ca, as well as seat models from various polling companies, to show examples of the Green Party projected vote, particularly in the 519 and 219 regions, which were considerably greater than the Conservative margin of victory.
Andrew Weaver referred to it as facing “a critical moment…it looks like the unprecedented desire to vote for the environment could result in a terrible three way split of environmental voters…”
He believed a liberal majority could make “great progress” in fighting climate change, a prime goal of Green Party voters. He noted concerns climate scientists had with the Conservative Party, particularly Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He said Elizabeth May’s appeal presented an “extraordinary opportunity” to make the difference. These three scientists, along with 121 other prominent climate scientists, urged “strategic voting” to defeat the Conservative government.
VoteForEnvironment.ca analyzes polls to project results in each riding, allowing for estimates of seats each party will have in Parliament. The purpose is to assist citizens to decode the effect of their votes as to whether or not they can stop a Conservative victory in their riding.
William Peltier gave Oakville as an example, noting “the Conservative in Oakville is set to win by about 1200 votes. In that riding, May and the Green Party will probably draw well over 7000 votes. If even a portion of these Greens act, it will make the difference.”
He added “there are dozens of ridings like Oakville. It looks today like Conservatives will squeak out a win over NDP and Liberal candidates in key ridings where the Greens under May are so strong that, if they used their votes to make change, it would happen.”
Peltier believed in districts such as this, the Green Party had no realistic chance to win, but could ensure Conservative Party victory by splitting anti-Conservative votes.
John Stone added “if May were to act to lead the growing Green force she has inspired, she could change the result of this election…changing the government by acting in a narrow band of ridings is more important to environmental voters than the $1.83 parties get per vote. May should make it clear that she believes the government needs to change and the election is in the hands of Green voters in key ridings.”
They urged Green Party voters to visit VoteForEnvironment.ca and download a spreadsheet of ridings where the Green vote can make the difference.
The three scientists did not address the long term effect on the Green Party of losing votes to other parties opposing the Conservative Party agenda.