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Speech in Support of Bill S-209, An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act

Hon. Mary Jane McCallum: Honourable senators, I wish to speak in support of Bill S-209, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age), which would lower the voting age from 18 to 16.

I would like to thank Senator McPhedran for not only sponsoring this bill but also for challenging me to think beyond my comfort zone, my biases and my belief that I knew what was best for our youth.

As Senator McPhedran said in her speech, one of the potential benefits of this bill is the revitalization of our democracy. Speaking from the perspective of a Cree woman, this bill is about revitalizing First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status youth, and supporting them in their self-determination. Our youth have been told numerous times that they are the leaders of tomorrow and that they are our future. If that is so, then let us look at the resources required to make it easier for them to do the job that is waiting for them.

When I was first introduced to the idea of lowering the voting age to 16, I could not wrap my head around the idea of voting when I was 16. When I spoke to other First Nations, Métis and Inuit adults, they voiced the same concerns that I had. The concern was that it may add another burden when many youth at 16 are in the midst of turbulent lives, hormonal changes and dealing with intergenerational trauma, high suicide rates, domestic violence and inadequate access to proper education.

As it is, many people today, including politicians and policy-makers, discard youth’s concerns because they are not a part of the voting population, and that is a very poor excuse.

Colleagues, when I went back to my reserve in the 1990s to provide treatment and care as a dentist, I was already aware of the impacts of the social determinants of health. In order to learn more, I volunteered on school committees: education, social assistance and housing.. As chair of a school committee, I could see the negative cycle that occurred. Children didn’t understand what was being taught in the classroom or didn’t challenge their minds, so their inquisitiveness decreased, as did their attendance.

As the dentist for the reserve for seven years, I went into the classroom three times a year to talk to the students about life in our community and in Canada. I spoke to them about the purpose of tradition and asked what their goals were. In return, they told me how they envisioned achieving those goals and also identified what would make them better students.

Youth are capable of developing the skills and assets required to make reasonable decisions, provided they have the necessary supports in place.

As a committee member, I had the opportunity to speak to and interact with the people in the community, both Métis and First Nations, and to reacquaint myself with the day-to-day expectations of employees, students, parents and elders. I saw firsthand the results of government intervention into the private lives of First Nations people on the reserves. Many of the attitudes, behaviour patterns and qualities of character that have long been assumed to be inherent qualities of First Nations were, in fact, the result of ordinary processes of socialization.

Organized government programs for First Nations continue to play a major role in determining the nature of this socialization. Dependency then is a social role that First Nations must learn how to play, and have played for many generations. This must stop and we as senators have been given a great opportunity, through this bill, to support youth in one aspect of their self-determination; the right to be taught the skills to become and remain politically active.

In the preface of the book The Making of Blind Men: A Study of Adult Socialization by Robert A. Scott, it states on page 8:

This study is a powerful case analysis of a major human disability, of a set of welfare institutions designed to meet this disability. It also presents basic social science information that can be brought to bear on understanding the disability and the institutions’ procedures. The key to Dr. Scott’s study is given at the outset:

The disability of blindness is a learned social role. The various attitudes and patterns of behaviour that characterize people who are blind are not inherent in their condition but, rather, are acquired through ordinary processes of social learning.

The process of socialization extends to many sectors of society, including the Senate Chamber. That’s why it’s important to question why any and all processes exist, and understand what agenda it serves.

Honourable senators, at the invitation of Senator McPhedran, I participated in a teleconference last week with Grade 9 students from across the country, including Iqaluit. One of the students commented on the lack of political education that youth have today. Until fairly recently in our history, many adults were also not allowed to be active in the political process, including the right to vote — First Nations, Métis, Inuit, Chinese, Japanese. Why? Because the political process is one of power and the Dominion of Canada could not afford dissension. What changed that allowed these adults into the ranks of the enfranchised? And the country survived.

There are many explanations that have been given for the treatment of First Nations by governments to justify the socialization, but these are not only inadequate — they are false. One is that First Nations possess personalities and psychologies that are different from those of other Canadians, that we are somehow lacking. It is as if we are always fighting an inner conflict of savagery. We are thought to be helpless in our abilities, especially our leaders; questioned at every turn. It is believed that we can accomplish very little by ourselves, do very little for ourselves, and that our mental state precludes any real intellectual development and performance. Helplessness, dependency, violence — these are the things that Canada’s youth has to expect of First Nation. There is a danger to a single story — a story that is carried on without question.

At 16 and just out of residential school, I had absolutely no knowledge of the political system that ran this country — simply because it had not been taught to us, not because I was incapable of understanding it. Why were we not taught, so we could participate more fully in the economic, social and cultural life of Canada? Was that not an important part of education, to remove the savage out of the youth?

Honourable senators, after being challenged to think about the lowering of the voting age, I thought about my mother and father, and how their generation was already working hard at the age of 12, fishing, trapping, chopping wood, living off the land in -40 weather, and doing it successfully. Their generation was expected to work and to contribute to the running of the household, and they were taught tradition, life skills to be passed on, life skills to keep us alive. In their generation, many married young and had the responsibility of raising a family. This was not unique to First Nations, Métis and Inuit but was the norm for many peoples across the world. How then did this world change to start excluding youth from decision-making processes?

Many youth are already involved in the conversation around environmental degradation, destruction and climate change. They are very well aware that without the earth, the air and the water, human beings will not survive. They are ahead in sober second thought more than many adults. They are not at a stage where they have been corrupted by greed of land and natural resources. They want a good life with the ability to breathe, to drink potable water and to live on uncontaminated land.

During one of the visits to a high school in Winnipeg, the Grade 9 students were taking courses in philanthropy, social justice and climate change. The conversation and questions they posed showed that they are being given the skills to think critically. Through our conversation, they showed they are not only capable, but are invested in their country and the world.

In the community of Lac Brochet, a remote Dene reserve in northern Manitoba, many young people joined the Junior Canadian Rangers at the age of 12. It has become family tradition. Twin sisters Taylor and Skylar Veuillot started going to meetings when they were 11 and joined at the age of 12, following in the footsteps of their four older siblings. Six years and many great experiences later, the twins are being recognized in 2020 by the Department of National Defence, and received bursaries to help with their university studies. They continue to mentor students and have plans to go home to teach once they complete their studies.

In closing, colleagues, I want to share words of students in three Grade 5 classrooms at General Byng Middle School in Winnipeg school division number one. They invited me to speak to them about residential school. There were three classrooms. They were given little tiles. It’s called Project of Heart. On each tile they painted a symbol and they told what they had learned about residential school. So when I went into one of the classrooms, a group got together, made an inukshuk from the tiles and picked a young boy to be the spokesperson. He said to me:

We chose the Inukshuk because it is a sign that shows the way. We chose colours to go with the values. The arms are red because it signifies courage and caring. The legs are blue because blue represents peace, because you cannot lead without peace.

I was so amazed at how wise these young people were. The last boy to speak in the last classroom had run to his bus. He came running back in the classroom. He said, “I can’t leave, I have to tell my story.” He said:

My tile is about yin and yang. Life is about balance and we have both negative and positive experiences. We learn to accept this reality and we learn from both because even the negative experiences have much to teach us.

These students are now in Grade 11 and I would say they are well equipped to being on their way to being socially responsible citizens.

Honourable senators, I would like to encourage you to support this bill being sent to committee so you can see for yourselves, firsthand, the forgotten potential of our youth. Thank you.

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