Investing in our democracy – a legacy for Canada 150

The year 2017 shouldn’t be so much about celebration as it should be about a turning point for our democracy. Whether influenced by Brexit, the Trump presidency, or the fact that 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom (Freedom House, 2017), it’s time for Canadians to take a serious look at the state of our democratic processes and who is engaging with them.

For more than two decades, academics have been writing about the trend of declining voter turnout in Canada. Federal election voter turnout rates fell from an average of 75% in the mid-1980s to 58.8% in 2008. Exceptionally, the last federal election in 2015 saw a spike in turnout, reaching 68%. This issue is not confined to federal politics: the same declining trend is present at provincial and municipal levels (LeDuc and Pammett, 2010).

The behaviour of the youngest segment of the voting population primarily explains the decline in voter turnout. Compared to earlier generations, Canadian youth are showing up in much smaller numbers. This trend is also present in other countries (Gidengil et al, 2003; Rubenson et al, 2004; Wass, 2007; Howe, 2010). Only 37% of youth turned out to vote in the 2008 federal election, with a slight increase to 38.8% in 2011. The 2015 election saw a spike, reaching 57%, the highest rate among youth voters in two decades.

Building on the momentum from increased public interest in the 2015 federal election, 2017’s Canada 150 events offer a unique opportunity to rally young Canadians around common values and support them in taking hold of power they have access to – the power that comes with citizenship.

In the 19th century work Democracy in America, the philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” Two centuries later, US President Barack Obama echoed this sentiment in his farewell address, stating, “the most important office in our democracy is that of the citizen.” Investing in our democracy means investing in the conditions that support an engaged citizenry. In our case, it means investing specifically in the conditions that support an engaged youth citizenry.

Focusing on the individual citizen echoes principles of human-centred design, encouraging the creation of systems that concentrate on the participation of the individual, and not the other way around. The non-profit organization IDEO (Innovation Design Engineering Organization) has described the approach as one that starts with the people or consumers you’re designing for and follows three steps: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration involves immersion in the lives of those you’re designing for to better understand their needs. The ideation phase finds opportunities and prototypes practical solutions, and, lastly, the implementation phase brings the solution to market. Human-centred design is an approach to social innovation, which the Social Innovation Generation (SiG) defines as a process or initiative that profoundly changes beliefs, basic routines, resources, and authority flows of any social system in the direction of greater resilience. Therefore, to use IDEO and SiG’s language, we need to put citizens back at the centre of our democracy in order support a process that changes the beliefs and basic routines of our social system in the direction of greater resilience.

Inspiration phase: millennials social values

In this case, let’s immerse ourselves in the lives of those for whom we’re designing.

What are the current values of Canadian millennials as they relate to being an active citizen? Apathy is Boring, a youth-led civic engagement organization, partnered with the Environics Research Institute to answer this question. The Canadian Millennials Social Values Study (2017) is the first study of its kind, providing a pan-Canadian and representative assessment of the millennial generation and its social values. The research consisted of an in-depth online survey with a representative sample of 3072 Canadians born between 1980 and 1995.

Here is some of what we learned:

  • Millennials make up more than a quarter of the Canadian population and are the most diverse generation in the country’s history, not only across ethnic, national, and religious lines, but also in terms of our values and life choices. Millennials share a range of perspectives when it comes to engagement with politics and community.
  • Low voter turnout trends are present across all levels of government, and while this has earned millennials a reputation for being disconnected from politics and current events, that isn’t always the case. Most millennials follow news and current events at least daily, if not more often, and significant proportions pay attention to politics at the local, national, and international levels. Social media is the most common platform for news consumption, but many rely on traditional media such as TV, print newspapers, and radio.
  • Though about half of millennials say they are “very” or “somewhat” interested in politics, the other half say that they are “not very” or “not at all” interested. Interest closely correlates to education levels.
  • Only one in four millennials said they had been actively engaged in a cause or issue over the past year (prior to the survey), with top interest areas being social justice, global warming, politics, and healthcare. One in three millennials reported having done some form of volunteer work in the year prior to the survey. Many said they hadn’t volunteered because they lacked the time, but some said they didn’t volunteer because they hadn’t been asked, or they didn’t know how to get involved.
  • Fewer than half of millennials had been involved in local community organizations or informal groups in the year prior to the survey. Group membership includes unions, recreational leagues, religious groups, arts and culture organizations, and political parties, among others. Further, about two thirds (66%) of millennials said they feel a certain distrust when dealing with people.

As this data shows, it is challenging to group all millennials under the “engaged generation” or “unengaged generation” headline. Instead, the Environics Institute has found distinct groups that help to identify cohorts of millennials based on social values. The Environics Research social values methodology incorporates a set of 80 social value trends or constructs, based on the research and in-depth multivariate analysis. It combines the individual social value trends in terms of how they relate to one another, and forms a structure that portrays higher-order worldviews. This analysis resulted in six social value segments of the Canadian millennial population.

Engaged Idealists (17%) are among the most socially connected and upbeat. They are already embarked on a meaningful career path and keen to contribute to society. They share much in common with a much smaller group, Critical Counterculturists (4%), who take a more questioning stance on the status quo, status, and authority.

Diverse Strivers (20%) and New Traditionalists (11%) are more ethnically-mixed groups, the former among the most focused on career success but also active in their communities, while the latter are the oldest and most established, and for whom traditional values and religion are important guideposts.

In sharp contrast, Lone Wolves (16%) (about one in six) are the group making the least progress in establishing themselves and playing an active role in society. Compared with other millennials, Lone Wolves are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, have little or no post-secondary education, lack clear lifetime goals and confidence in future success, and are the least engaged in their communities.

Finally, Bros & Brittanys (32%) make up the largest segment of this generation (one in three), and as such tend to define the average in terms of their life experiences, aspirations, and priorities. Financial stability is an important life goal and most are employed, but they also put a premium on having a good time and getting along rather than changing the world.

This breakdown of millennials by social values begs the question of which factors have an impact in making active citizenship a priority, while also identifying the diverse motivations guiding millennials today. For example, a Diverse Striver and a New Traditionalist may both be contributing to their communities in similar ways, though building a professional network might motivate the Diverse Striver, while the New Traditionalist would be encouraged by their spiritual community members. These categories of social values therefore allow us to better design interventions and programs that speak to each millennial cohort regarding democratic values.

Ideation phase: 150 Years Young

Following the inspiration phase, the ideation phase shares stories, identifies opportunities, and prototypes possible solutions. The ideation phase builds from the framework of the inspiration phase, which presumes that we can strengthen our democracy by creating the conditions that support the individual in becoming an active citizen.

Apathy is Boring’s 150 Years Young initiative, a storytelling campaign that brings youth civic and political engagement success stories to light, contributes to this next phase.

The 150 Years Young campaign is a year-long project dedicated to hearing directly from millennials about what it means to be an engaged citizen. Twelve youth ambassadors in five cities across the country have conducted interviews and gathered more than 100 stories that depict the variety of ways millennials are shaping their communities. More than 40 community partners at national, provincial, and regional levels are involved, including The Canadian Red Cross, Engineers Without Border, Canadian Roots Exchange, The Canadian Arab Institute, and Boys and Girls Clubs. The non-profit sector plays a valuable role in recognizing the diversity of the millennial cohort and provides a unique perspective regarding specific segments of the population.

Here’s a flavour of the stories that the campaign will share through the summer of 2017.

Justin Holness, from Winnipeg and now based in Ottawa, has family roots in the Nakota First Nations from Saskatchewan. He was the first Indigenous artist to rap in the Canadian Senate and he uses his music to encourage listeners to be solutions-oriented with regards to Indigenous issues in Canada.

Jillian LeBlanc, originally from Prince Rupert and now also based in Ottawa, is involved with Equal Voice’s Daughters of the Vote initiative. She supports young people, especially women, in having high-level policy discussions with the hope that politicians will take them seriously.

Jason Garçia, based in Edmonton, is the vice president of student life at MacEwan University. He is working on the campus’ sexual assault and accessibility policies, and is organizing the first MacEwan Pride Week.

Toronto’s Anayah Phares grew up in foster care and founded CHEERS, an acronym for Creating Hope and Ensuring Excellent Roads to Success, a mentorship program that supports youth transitioning from government care to independence. Her goal is to support youth in shifting their identities from “system youth” to “citizen.”

Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a Montreal-born, Haitian-Canadian, is a student committed to providing support in the field of mental health. She sits on the City of Montreal ambassador committee for Jeunesse 375, is an administrator of the blog Je suis féministe, and volunteers with Amnesty International.

Sharing these inspiring stories is meant to provoke conversations and ultimately identify themes and patterns to contribute to the conditions that support further engagement.

Loosely following models of human-centred design for social innovation, Apathy is Boring will continue to share any findings that emerge as we explore what it means to put the focus back on the “functions performed by private citizens” and support the conditions which make that possible. In bringing together the latest research findings, the knowledge of partner organizations, as well as the lived experiences of Canadian youth, we may be able to contribute to changing some basic beliefs and routines of our democratic system in the direction of greater resilience.

Happy Canada 150. Let’s make this anniversary mean something.



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Howe, Paul. 2010.  Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Vancouver: UBC Press.

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LeDuc, L., and J. H. Pammett. 2010.  “Voter Turnout” in Heather MacIvor, Election, 251-267. Toronto: Emond Montgomery.

Rubenson, D., A. Blais, P. Fournier, E. Gidengil and N. Nevitte. 2004. “Accounting for the Age Gap in Turnout”, Acta Politica  39: 407-21.

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Wass, Hanna. 2007.  “The Effects of Age, Generation and Period on Turnout in Finland: 1975-2003”, Electoral Studies  26: 648-59.

Caro Loutfi is the executive director of Apathy is Boring.