How the surging campus vote is changing Canadian politics

The Journal talks youth voter turnout with political organizers

Elections Canada provided 109 post-secondary institutions with on-campus polling stations 

In 2015, the “Vote on Campus” initiative saw more than 70,000 ballots cast from students across Canada. In 2019, that number leaped to 111,300.

The surge is ballots cast on campus isn’t only a sign of increased youth engagement, its also representative of a major demographic shift that will have consequences for the landscape of Canadian politics for years to come.

The initiative, started as a pilot project by Elections Canada in 2015, sought to remedy the traditionally low turnout rate among youth voters. During the pilot, voting stations were set up at 39 post-secondary institutions around the country.

After 9 per cent of the targeted demographic cast their ballots at on-campus voting stations during the pilot, the success led to the initiative’s expansion for the 2019 federal election. This cycle, a total of 109 post-secondary institutions were granted on-campus polling stations. Queen’s was among them. 

John Rix, executive director at the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, told The Journal in an interview the surge in youth political engagement is due to more than just the installation of voting booths. He said multiple student-focused political organizations should also be credited for the upwards trend. 

“There have been many organizations starting to work with this demographic to increase voter turnout … we know the 2011 election was a record low ... targeted get out the vote campaigns are things that students can engage with,” Rix said. 

Mary Kathleen is a recent Queen’s grad. She’s currently working with the non-partisan organization, Future Majority—a group that seeks to “address the growing disconnect young Canadians feel from the country's current politics and politicians.”

She spoke to The Journal about the mounting discontent young people feel about their current political situation. 

“Young people are concerned and are fed up with feeling like they're not listened to ... historically, young people have felt ignored by politicians, and that they think things that are important to us haven’t been addressed.”

Kathleen also commented on what she called misconceptions about young people when it comes to political engagement.

“People think that young people don't care about politics and that we’re apathetic. This couldn't be more wrong. Millennials and Gen Zs are actually the most politically involved generation. We’re more likely to attend protests, attend town halls, or write letters to our MP’s” she said.

The increase in political engagement is coming at an opportune time. For the first time in Canadian history, Millennials and Gen Z voters—individuals born between 1980 and 2015—are the largest electoral block in the country.

Aaron Myran, the executive director of Future Majority, said young people need to recognize the substantial shift in voting power in order to reap its rewards.

“Millennials and Gen Z ... it’s the first time that we’re the largest voting block, and that means that we have a tremendous amount of power,” he told The Journal. “Politicians need our votes.”

Both Myran and Kathleen were also quick to note that one defining feature of the youth vote today is how young Canadians seem to share similar concerns and unite over them.

“The cool thing about our generation is that we’re unified on the issues that matter to us,” Myran told The Journal.

According to the two, unification on major issues is what makes the youth voting block distinct from others. Millenials and Gen Z share the same set of concerns, and accordingly seek to advocate for their attention.

“Affordability of education, employment transitions, and climate change are all frequently identified among Canadians students,” Rix told the Journal

Myran echoed this sentiment. “You care about climate change? You care about affordable housing? All young Canadians do.”

Although affordable housing matters to young people, climate change is still the primary concern of student voters. 

“Close to 90 per cent of young Canadians feel that climate change is the biggest issue facing our generation and want to see action on it,” Myran said.

“Young people are feeling the effects of climate change first hand ... that's really giving us the impetus to do something about it, Whether its voting [or] organizing ... when people feel problems firsthand, and they are educated about it, they get out and do something about it ... previous generations have done the same thing.”

On Sept. 27, more than 500 students, faculty, and Kingston residents, took to the streets for Queen’s climate strike, demonstrating the kind of engagement Myran and Kathleen argue is becoming more prevalent. The strike also echoed dozens more across the country, with other universities, from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, to Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, engaging in similar protests.

“Young Canadians are more civically engaged and educated than previous generations ... our generation is about voting because if we want a livable climate, we need to make sure we vote and hold our politicians accountable,” Myran said of student climate action.

Ultimately, the changing electoral demographics in Canada are becoming a reality that cannot be ignored, Myran and Kathleen argue.

Myran highlighted the need for politicians to take the concerns of youth seriously.

“No party can win without prioritizing what we care about, and as soon as we have politicians talking about our issues and concerns in a meaningful way, millions more young Canadians will enter the political arena and change the landscape forever,” he said.

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