‘Our voices are desperately in need’

OTTAWA (CUP) – At 27, Niki Ashton is the youngest female member of Parliament sitting in Canada’s House of Commons. The post-secondary education and youth critic for the NDP first ran for federal politics in 2006, but won a seat in October 2008 when she garnered 47 per cent of the vote to beat Liberal incumbent Tina Keeper.

What motivated her to run in the first place, at the young age of 24?

“Outrage,” she laughed. “And really, the concept of justice.”

Ashton explained she was initially hoping for a career in international relations and development, but realized her concern over issues Canadians were facing at home.

“I come from a part of Canada – well, much like a lot of Canada – whose story is never in the mainstream. I come from a mining community surrounded by First Nations (communities). Some of them have the highest rates of poverty in Canada, third-world living conditions.”

Ashton represents the northern Manitoba riding of Churchill, which covers almost two thirds of the province’s area. Just over 75,000 people live in the riding, which, she explained, includes a large youth population.

Taking into account her constituents, her caucus critic portfolio, and her own age, Ashton considers herself to be one of the few voices actively shedding light on youth issues in Parliament.

“In the House of Commons, I find that the experience of young people in general is never heard,” she explained. “The voices of young people aren’t represented the way they should be.”

Youth have, however, been involved in several demonstrations against the federal government that have taken place on Parliament Hill in the last few months, including the October 2009 flash mob protest during question period, and a sit-in at the environment committee two months later. When asked if these were effective ways to get messages across to politicians, Ashton offered a diplomatic answer.

“As young people, we have the benefit of seeing the world a bit differently, whether it’s looking at our future, looking at the impact of climate change, looking at the impact of war . . . We look at unemployment, education, all of these things differently. As a result of seeing it differently, I think the logical connection is that we also act differently,” she said.

“I think it is incumbent on us to speak loudly on what we feel strongly about. I think, though, we need to express that not just through different forms, but also through participating in the mainstream electoral system.”

Voter turnout rates have been historically low among young Canadians. According to a March 2008 report released by Elections Canada, only 43.8 per cent of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 made it out to the polls. Some claim that while many Canadians may suffer from it – as voter turnout among Canadians have been on a steady decline over the last few years – youth are the biggest victims of voter apathy.

“I always challenge the idea that young people are apathetic, because all you need to do is go on your Facebook home page and realize that young people feel very strongly about a lot of issues. Maybe not all the status updates are that,” she jokingly added.

However, she said, “we do know what’s important to us – but there’s a disconnect that takes place (between when) we’ve said what’s important to us, and representation.”

While the young MP said that modifying the electoral system to allow for proportional representation is one potential solution, she conceded that more needs to be done to engage youth in the decisions that are made on Parliament Hill in order to provoke them to head to the polls.

“A lot of young people say, ‘What’s the point?’ and I see that frustration when I sit in the House and issue after issue, never hear what its impact is on young people, never hear the story of the next generation.”

This, she said, leads to the creation of policy that doesn’t reflect the needs of young people.

“I think we need to recognize that the decisions are going to keep getting made. They’re just going to be made by somebody else who’s not you, so you need to take part – but we need to take part in a way that says we want to be heard,” Ashton continued.

Reflecting on her own foray into federal politics, Ashton suggested that the best way to witness change is to run for office and help create it yourself.

“Politics needs people from every direction,” she explained. “Women that have stayed home raising families, people that have worked in industrial jobs, people that have worked in the service sector, new immigrants, Aboriginal people – we need everybody.”

For anyone considering running in politics, Ashton advised to jump right in.

“I’d say do it. Sure, it’s a big decision, it’s an important decision; but all too many times women, very much so young women, and oftentimes young people, say, ‘I don’t know enough, I don’t feel confident,’ (and) get messages that they don’t know enough.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Get involved, don’t let others stop you; and certainly don’t let your age or the fact that you’re a woman – or whatever other excuse might be used against you – do that, because our voices are desperately in need.”