Fresh ideas for politics of tomorrow
Students look for a better electoral system in Ontario

Published November 20th 2006 in The Toronto Star

How do you build a better democracy?

It's not the kind of question to make a typical teenager's heart pound. But Seghen Woldai, 17, says it's also not the kind of discussion you can leave to a bunch of nerds.

"The four electoral systems — trust me — they're not boring," said the athletic Grade 12 student from Toronto's Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School.

She was one of 103 Ontario teenagers sequestered last week at a conference in Muskoka as part of the Students' Assembly on Electoral Reform.

Despite the event's earnest name and late nights, the conference evoked no yawns of boredom. The agenda included music, vigorous discussion and guest speakers, including sitting politicians.

But the centrepiece of the forum was a debate on electoral processes. The choices included:

The plurality system most familiar to Canadians.

Proportional representation, which translates a share of votes into seats.

Majority systems, which often mean a series of ballots, such as those used by Canadian political parties to pick their leaders.

Or, mixed systems that try to bridge the shortcomings of the others.

Even before the week was up, students were favouring a more proportional system in which each vote counts for more, said organizer Peter MacLeod.

"There's some concern that there are a lot of wasted votes. And students are just really interested in trying to find ways to make sure more voices get heard," he said.

Designed by the Student Vote team that put mock elections in 3,000 Canadian schools prior to the federal election in January, the students' assembly mimics the process being carried out by the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.

That group of 103 citizens will recommend whether the province should keep its current electoral system or adopt a new one. Its recommendation is expected to be the subject of a referendum during next year's provincial election.

In February, the students' assembly will present its report to the citizens' assembly.

Meantime, teens like Seghen find a personal passion in the political process. She admits she applied to the students' assembly because she thought the experience would look good on her applications to law school.

"I thought if I had it on my resumé, how cool would that be?" she said, adding that her mother told her she could be the future prime minister.

"I said, `Hey, slow down mom,'" she said.

But Seghen said her political education had taken a fast-forward during the conference at Deerhurst Resort.

Now she can't wait to be a guest speaker when the students' assembly morphs into a series of classroom assemblies in about 150 Ontario schools signed up to participate over the next month.

"It really bothers me that so many people don't vote. I hate that the (Green Party) got 4 per cent (of the popular vote) but don't get any seats," she said.

Before they headed north, students toured Queen's Park, attended Question Period and met with Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marie Bountrogianni.

It was the history and hurly-burly of Question Period that caught Seghen's imagination.

"It's funny you can't say the word `liar' in that room," she said of the Ontario Legislature.

Organizers expected the conference to be a hit but "we have been blown out of the water by these students," said MacLeod, who adds that the materials used by the Students' Assembly are every bit as sophisticated as those being used by the real citizens' assembly.

"It's their appetite for this stuff," he said. "Our conference is about getting students in the driver's seat of our democratic system."

Xing Chiu of North Toronto Collegiate Institute admits she didn't exactly say, "Oh cool, reform," when her economics teacher handed her a flyer about the students' assembly. But the 16-year-old said the week changed her mind.

"I think it's important for all voices to be heard, not just the big ones," said the Grade 11 student, who said she's leaning to a more proportional representation electoral model.

"I really like the way we get to form our own opinions and your geography gets so much better," she said, referring to new friendships across 103 Ontario ridings.

She was impressed by a visit from Desmond Cole, a 24-year-old Toronto council candidate, who lost to Adam Vaughan in Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, in last Monday's city election. Xing said it was cool that he came from her home ward and, "He's closer to our age and we could relate."