Student pursues political awareness, fights apathy

Musa Mansuar didn’t bother with adolescent cartoons. In his youth, he was watching Tim Russet or CNN correspondents and getting a leg up on the world of politics.

“I liked politics when I was very young,” he said. “I started watching ‘Meet the Press’ and those sort of shows when other kids were watching Dragon Ball-Z. I would see the big words and I didn’t know what they meant but I knew politics was something that affects everyone, every aspect of life.”

Now a political science major at the University of Guelph and provincial director of the Guelph Young Liberal Association, Mansuar, 19, grew up in an environment rich in political discourse and had the foresight to understand its importance. In contrast, turnout for ages 18 – 25 in the last federal election was 38 per cent, according to Elections Canada; it was nearly the lowest turnout on record.

So, where does this apathetic view come from?

Lesa Smith, a teacher at Oakwood Collegiate in Toronto, says the civics curriculum in schools often fails to engage students.

“The course is really condensed. It’s just six weeks,” she said. “And (it’s) not just (about) how you vote, but Charter of Rights and Freedoms, all three levels of government and what those governments do. It’s not meant to be the be-all and end-all, but for some kids it is.”

Mansuar believes this kind of course is essential for his generation.

“We have to re-organize our political curriculum in this country,” he said. “Civics is a joke. We need to reform the way we engage young people.”

This disconnect from political curriculum has real-world repercussions. When they don’t care, Mansuar said, some young people refrain from voting because they don’t understand how the political landscape affects their lives.

Vincent MacDonald is 25 years old and grew up in Spryfield, N.S. He said he never really understood what voting and engaging in politics could bring him. Consequently he has never voted.

“How do I vote for someone who has no idea how I feel, what it’s like to struggle,” he said. “I want someone I can connect with. I didn’t see that in Spryfield. Maybe Ontario will be different.”

Mansuar understands this type of apathy, but he likes to gen involved. In his free time, he helps Liberal candidates canvas during elections. He makes phone calls and knocks on doors. In the recent provincial election, he campaigned for Liz Sandals, now the Ontario education minister.

He also created the “Pickering Votes” campaign to help people make informed decisions during the recent municipal election. Mansuar has heard first-hand the difficulties young people have with the political process.

“One of the biggest issues with voter apathy is that we don’t know what’s going on, that we don’t understand how (politics) is going to make a difference,” he said.

Mansuar grew up in a home environment where politics was important. His dad came to Canada from India during the years of the Pierre Trudeau administration. His father’s love of the elder Trudeau was inspired by the politician’s interest immigrants and their culture.

“Trudeau was a really big thing in the immigrant community,” he said. “He was someone immigrants could look up to. So I grew up in that.”

Smith, the Oakwood Collegiate teacher, would argue that parents’ involvement in their children’s lives helps them understand the subject matter.

“I would say if parents are more involved in any subject, the student is likely to do better,” she said.

But for young people who grew up without that dinner-table political exposure, their foray into the political landscape isn’t a priority.

“No, I haven’t voted,” MacDonald said. “I was raised in a house with very little. My main focus as I got older wasn’t to try and better my community or my future, (because) I didn’t see one.”

Mansuar has a unique perspective for motivating disconnected youth.

“The way to curb voter apathy is to look at people as selfish individuals,” he said. “For me, I think it was realizing that (politics) affects everything, and it changes everything and I want to be a part of that. To have a voice. Young people need to understand that as well.”

Though he sometimes tries to push it with his friends, the subject matter isn’t always welcome for them. He just wants them to engage and become aware of their personal politics.

“Political ideology is always changing. You’re never totally a liberal or totally a conservative,” he said.