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Younger Canadians more left wing, could shift political landscape: study

Joe Friesen / Globe and Mail

Canadians under 35 are more left wing than the rest of Canada and could transform the political landscape if only they voted, according to a new study.

The study, set to be released Friday, found evidence of an emerging generational divide in Canadian politics. Younger Canadians are consistently more favourable to the idea of government intervention in the economy, ensuring a decent standard of living for all, increasing health-care spending and protecting the environment, the study says. And the difference between those over and under 35 on many policy questions was often in the range of 10 percentage points.

“The lesson political parties can take from this is that Canadians are broadly progressive politically on most issues. There is some generational divide in key areas,” said David McGrane, the author of the report and a professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan. The study, based on data from the Canadian Provincial Election Project and published by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, asks whether a progressive platform could capture Canada’s youth vote.

When asked about government spending priorities, people under 35 are significantly more likely to advocate higher spending on education, the environment and health care, the study found, although their views were roughly similar to the rest of the population on questions of crime, welfare and corporate taxes.

Prof. McGrane said one of the most interesting results is that the gap between older and younger people is relatively consistent across regions and education levels.

As one might expect, young people with a university education, those who live in big cities, and those in Ontario and British Columbia tend to be further to the left than those with lower levels of education and those in small cities and rural Canada, the study found, but over all, their differences are outweighed by what they hold in common.

“Young Canadians from nearly all of the socio-demographic groups and provinces examined were more likely than older Canadians to desire an activist government; want more social spending; be socially liberal; and favour higher taxes in exchange for better public services,” Prof. McGrane says in the study’s conclusion.

On the question of the environment and jobs, younger Canadians were less likely to accept that jobs should take precedence over protecting the environment. That could become a key political issue as pipeline construction and resource extraction remain an important question for the electorate.

History shows, however, that young people are significantly less likely to actually get to a polling station and vote. An Elections Canada study of the federal vote in 2011 found that participation rates rose steadily up to the age of 75.

The lowest rate of voter turnout was among 18-to-24-year-olds, only 39 per cent of whom cast a ballot, and next lowest was among 25-to-34-year-olds, who turned out at a rate of 45 per cent, according to Elections Canada. Meanwhile, the voting rate was 75 per cent for those 65-74.

“In all the voter turnout studies I’ve seen, the main reason people don’t vote is they say, ‘I don’t care,’” Prof. McGrane said.

“You have to give young people a reason to care and if you’re talking about their values, that could give them a reason to vote. Obviously [U.S. President Barack] Obama is the model here. In 2008, he gave young people a reason to vote and that was a big part of the coalition he built.”

The millennial generation, those born after 1980, represent roughly a quarter of the Canadian population. If they were to mobilize, Prof. McGrane said, it could change political debate and reshape the electoral map.

“Political parties should really be paying attention to what young people think,” Prof. McGrane said.

The study is based on a data set collected with more than 8,000 randomly selected respondents, an unusually large number that’s distributed across all 10 provinces, and was collected in the weeks after each province’s provincial election between 2011 and 2014.