Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleagues for probably one of the most enjoyable debates of the day, the most informative at the very least. Not to comment on the excitement of prebudgetary consultations but this debate is clearly engaging some members in the House in bringing before us a fundamental question about how we view our democracy, how we view the responsibility that we share as Canadians.
We often lament to voters who do not come to the ballot box and say that men and women died for this right. People for generations have fought here and abroad in foreign lands for the very right to engage in the political process. Some of the arguments saying that this bill is not good for Canada today are most profound in their simplicity and their lack of vision and courage for the country that we are trying to create for Canadians. I proudly and strongly stand in support of my colleague on Bill C-261.
Engaging young people and engaging Canadians in the debate about where we want to lead this country is fundamental to the very things that we do here each and every day. This bill has been introduced a number of times, twice before by my party, but they were in circumstances where the government of the day was able to run over it, ignore it, dispel it and push it to the background.
Now we have an opportunity. I was most encouraged by the member's choice in coming to all parties and engaging people from all corners of the House to try to find a practical and real way to engage young Canadians in the political process, because by all the numbers and by all the studies we know that they are not. There are very few political scientists, politicians and policy makers who are able to convince anyone in this country that this trend is not going to simply continue down the slippery slope.
We often lament to the Americans that only 50% of Americans vote in their federal elections, decide who the next president, congressmen and senators will be. We are quickly matching them on these numbers. I fear to think about what kind of place we will eventually end up with and what percentage of Canadians will actually decide who sits in the House to pass such important laws, bills such as the one that was proposed by the government this morning, the same sex marriage legislation. How many people will decide this? If we are not encouraging young people to join in on the debate in a real, practical and empowered way, then how and when if not now?
I was speaking to a page yesterday, not on this particular bill but on her experience in the House of Commons to this point six months in. She was very professional in not presenting a partisan view, but she did express her level of engagement and interest in what was going on here, how enthusiastic she was about some of the debates. She said that her friends would return home at night and have discussions about these things. Oh, would that we had this problem in this country with young people, that there were young people at home right now saying, “Did you hear what happened in the House of Commons today? A bill was introduced. What do you think about it? What would you do? What will you be voting on in the next federal election whenever it comes?” We should have this interest level.
The consideration by some of the members present that someone at the age of 16 or 17 cannot be given the sincere and profound responsibility of voting their local representative into the House, yet at age 14 can vote in a potential prime minister through a leadership convention is absolutely absurd. If this is the case, then quickly we must change the way that our parties function, their constitutions and bylaws, to ensure that nobody below the age of 18 has any significant responsibility and decision making in choosing something as important as the leaders of our parties. Clearly we have to change all of our bylaws. If members of the House are looking to strike this bill down, then I look forward to their making presentations at their own conventions to make sure that everything else falls in line.
I had the sincere pleasure of living in Costa Rica for a while and I witnessed one of its federal elections. What a contrast. There were parties in the street and people engaging for months beforehand. The most incredible thing was watching families going together to the ballot box. In Costa Rica there are two ballot boxes, one for below the voting age and one for above. The young people cast their ballots. There is the same list of candidates, the same parties, and the results are released on television at the same time. What this created, and I witnessed this in the houses of Costa Rican friends, was a debate within the families.
A lot of people are concerned that parents will direct the young people. The most engaging all candidates debate I participated in during the last federal election was at a high school. It was a fascinating experiment. In the afternoon the high school classes came in, students who were 15, 16 and 17 years old. Their teachers had prepared them on the issues. The students had thought about and considered the issues for weeks before the debate. In the evening we had a debate in the same auditorium which was open to the community.
Out of the nine or ten all candidates debates we had throughout the course of the election, the candidates all agreed that the debate with young people in that high school that afternoon was the most informed and passionate one. It was difficult for the candidates because the young people knew their issues. They knew what they were talking about. They brought hard questions for the candidates because they cared.
As my hon. colleague mentioned, when we present the issues to young people in Canada, they have opinions lo and behold. They have intelligence. They have enough compassion and commitment to make decisions about the future direction of our country.
The cynical side of many of us would say that this is a strategic decision for parties, to find advantage or disadvantage in allowing young people to vote. I call upon members to have the courage to seek out a vision for this country. They must have the courage to go forth to young people and present their vision of this country, the courage to say that we care passionately about what the young people care about, and that we will enact legislation in this House that positively affects their lives and their future.
This is as opposed to what we do right now in understanding where the percentages are. If we are going to upset one group, is it going to be seniors or young people? Well, let us run the numbers. That is what the cynic wants to say.
I want to present to the House that in this tour that is going across the country, people should ask their constituents. Members should ask the families in their ridings whether they believe that the young people in their lives, be they their children or people in their community, have the intelligence and the capacity when presented with the issues of the day, when presented with the options, the parties and the candidates, to cast a vote in the best interests of their future and the future of their community and their country.
The young people that are engaged, and we have heard testimony here in the House today, clearly have the capacity and the ability to come into this process. The cigarette companies and the cola companies have figured it out. What we must do is engage people at a young age and create the culture of voting. I saw a culture of voting in Costa Rica with turnouts of 80% plus in its federal election. I saw a culture of voting and a culture of democracy which we are sadly lacking.
The last election was meant to be a ferocious debate. It was to be a debate on principles and one which would intimately engage Canadians and the numbers would skyrocket in participation. Sadly, after voting day we saw yet again that Canadians were not being engaged.
After the high school debate that I witnessed in Kitimat, B.C. I went knocking on doors. Many times the people who came to the door were informed. They said that they knew me, that their daughter or their son talked about seeing me. They said that it was the first time that their son or daughter had come home from high school bubbling and talking about the issues that they had been presented with. The young people wanted to engage their families in the upcoming federal election, letting them know when the date was, making sure that they would actually vote. They said that they did not have the ability to cast a vote and that their parents must vote.
The number of people who told me this was astonishing. I made a commitment to visit the schools not for partisan reasons, but for reasons to engage young people, to present the issues, same sex marriage, legalization of pot, all the big issues that the House will be facing in the coming weeks. Lo and behold, the young people have opinions. Lo and behold, they want to do research and they want to find something out.
I wish that were my experience with the so-called adult mature community of this country, that when I engage them they immediately want to go out and study the issues, that they want to find out something about the issues and come back with their opinions.
Recently at York University there was a very tragic scene. Young people were engaging in their right to protest a decision that had been made. During that protest the police came in and rude is the most mild word to use but it bordered on illegal and I hope that charges are pressed. I would encourage the dean of York University to withdraw the charges against the students.
I want to remind the House that in this minority government, in this Parliament that is bringing forth the values and interests from across this region, from across the parties herein lies an opportunity for us to redefine democracy and to re-engage our young people in the passion that we all feel for this great country.