THEN/HiER blog: Voting, History Education, and Social Justice

Evotingarlier this week, I went in to the Tzeachten Community Center to cast my ballot in the advance polls for the BC election. The irony of voting at a First Nations administrative office for an election in a province that has a history of exceptionally unjust treatment of Indigenous peoples has had me thinking a lot about elections, social justice, and Canadian history.

I remember on one occasion, years ago, unknowingly offending some good friends by casually asking them who they were thinking about voting for in the first election in which we’d all be eligible to cast ballots. Another friend in the conversation announced that he would vote for a certain candidate because his family always voted for that particular party. Though I had only meant to create dialogue between my friends on the upcoming election, their divergent reactions (perceiving my perhaps misdirected enthusiasm as a violation of their rights to privacy on the one hand, and expressing apparent disinterest in forming individual political views on the other) considerably muted my enthusiasm for participating in the electoral process. If this was something we didn’t talk about, and didn’t develop our own beliefs about, why were we doing it again?

I imagine that our students today, at the high school and university level, have a similar range of attitudes and needs regarding voting. Voter turnout isn’t that high in Canada, and it’s lowest among people 18-24 (38.8% at the last federal election, according to Elections Canada). And yet, it’s one of the few ways many of us can contribute to shaping federal, provincial, and municipal policies. So, is there something we can be doing in our classrooms to change this?

Talking about the history of the vote in Canada might be a good start. Helping students understand that there was a time when many of them would have been ineligible to vote because of their gender, race, or class could possibly heighten the relevance of electoral participation for them. Here are some good primers on women’s suffrage, racial exclusions, and Aboriginal enfranchisement, just for starters. For more, read about the history of the vote in Canada.

Encourage students to become aware of elections issues, both provincially and in the lead up to the fall 2015 federal election. There are ways of doing this that are distinctly non-partisan. For instance, asking students to bring in newspaper articles about the election, or to engage with their parents about it could be a good start. For under-age students in high school, you could set up your own ballot stations on election day and see who the class would have elected.

Another question to pose would be about the reasons why people might not vote at all. Are there historical causes for apathy that your students can detect? And what about people whose politics don’t align with the parties in their riding? What are their options? Ask students to consider other electoral systems; would representation by population, for instance, heighten voter turnout?

By approaching elections as a historical problem that they can all help contribute to puzzling out, perhaps we can engage more students both in the classroom and on election day.

How do you broach democratic citizenship participation in your history lessons?

Originally published on “Teaching the Past,” a blog produced by The History Education Network/Histoire et Education en Reseau. You can read it on their site here.

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