Millennials Could Sway the B.C. Election—If They Bother to Vote

The under-35 set has more at stake in this election than any other group. But will they show up on voting day?

When Eveline Xia fired off a tweet—her first ever—back in spring 2015, it was out of sheer frustration with Vancouver’s soaring housing prices and the smarmy refrain from certain (older) members of the media, the real estate industry, and the political sphere asserting that if young people couldn’t afford to live in Vancouver, they should just leave. Xia hadn’t planned on her #donthave1million hashtag going viral, nor on it installing her as de facto leader of an apparent millennial uprising—at least for a time. 

Then 29, Xia became the face of the affordability crisis, regularly fielding media requests and speaking at rallies and events. But two years later, the crowds have dispersed, Xia has retreated from the spotlight and it’s unclear whether the online outrage she ignited will translate beyond Twitter in the provincial election. Now a constituency assistant for NDP MLA and former party leader Adrian Dix, Xia acknowledges past precedent gives plenty of reason to be skeptical that younger generations will turn up to vote on May 9. “It was a huge impact on the last election when they didn’t,” she says.

READ MOREForget Vancouver, B.C.’s Future Will Be Determined by the Suburbs

Indeed. After predicting a decisive NDP victory in 2013, pollsters blamed low turnout among those under 35 for the upset win by the BC Liberals. Young people had expressed overwhelming support for the Opposition in pre-election surveys, said the pollsters, but they epically failed to show up on election day. Just 48 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds voted, compared to a total voter turnout of 57 percent, and nearly 67 percent among those aged 55 to 64.

The dismal track record of younger voters vexes those working to convince politicians to appeal to populations on the south side of 50. Paul Kershaw, the Gen-X founder of the group Generation Squeeze, which advocates for the interests of younger Canadians, says millennials have plenty of reasons to demand the attention. Aside from higher housing costs, pay for full-time work in B.C. is $8,500 lower today than in the late 1970s, adjusted for inflation, while university tuition and child care costs have increased significantly. Young folks today are balancing record student debt, sputtering careers and small kids with higher costs and fewer resources than the baby boomers had at the same age and life stage. “The data show that for younger generations, B.C. is the province where our hard work pays off the least,” says Kershaw, 42. Yet his calculations show the Liberals’ pre-election budget allocated just $165 in new social spending for every person under 45, compared with $564 for those 65 and over. Even the NDP, perhaps feeling scorned by the 2013 defeat, failed to take advantage of the opportunity to make bold appeals to the young, says Kershaw, noting the party’s chief complaint about the budget was that it didn’t do enough for seniors. 

Despite these inequities, coaxing young people to come together as a voting bloc has proven an unwieldy task. While apathy plays a role, Kershaw says a bigger issue is that his target market lacks the time and money to volunteer or donate to political organizations. Even Generation Squeeze has had trouble attracting sustained support. “We are growing momentum over time,” he says, “but we are starting from a small place and our growth is just not fast enough.”

Solutions to the problems young people face are “politically radioactive.”

Further complicating matters, solutions to the problems young people face are “politically radioactive,” adds Stephen Price, a 36-year-old teacher from West Vancouver whose two-part treatise on the generational divide was published earlier this year by Maclean’s. “Every time we take $1 million away from the value of a house from a senior, because we want to bring housing prices down, that’s someone whose retirement plans just got totally upended,” he says. Few politicians are willing to wage that war in order to become a champion for the young, even though doing so may mobilize a sizable base of support. There are now more than one million British Columbians aged 18 to 34, nearly equal the number of those aged 55 to 74.

But then there’s the issue of trust. Justin Trudeau owes his solid majority in part to the record numbers of young people who voted in the last federal election, but his flip-flop on democratic reform and pipelines has left many of them feeling betrayed. “Every time a politician jades a young person, that’s one more jaded voter,” says Price, who sits on the executive council for his Liberal MP.

Xia also worries Trudeau may have poisoned the well, but she takes heart from the response to the U.S. election. Many people dismayed by Donald Trump’s win have awoken to the fact that their vote, or the absence of it, matters. “I think that’s shaken a whole lot of people out of complacency,” she says. Whether that’s enough to turn tweets into votes, however, remains to be seen.

Not into voting for the usual suspects?

A look around the province offers plenty of alternative parties that will gladly take your vote—just don’t call them “fringe.”

Vancouver Island PartyThe flag outside Robin Richardson’s trailer in Nanaimo depicts a pine cone, a beaver, a caduceus (a staff with two snakes on it) and the Union Jack. It’s rarely seen on Vancouver Island, much less elsewhere in B.C., but Richardson, a one-time MP for the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario, believes it should be the flag of a whole new province: an independent Vancouver Island. He founded the party about a year ago, aiming to galvanize support for a separatist Island agenda.

Your Political Party of B.C.Vancouver electrician James Filippelli grew up glued to the television on every election night, whether it was for the next American president, B.C. premier or Vancouver mayor. He decided to start his own party to add more options to the dominant provincial roster of either the BC Liberals or the NDP. His party promises to boost transparency by making all government documents and communications freely accessible without filing an access request.

—Petti Fong

Check back for more on the provincial election—part of our May 2017 issue!