In 2015, few young Canadians were more dedicated to the cause of getting Justin Trudeau elected than Justin Kaiser.
A Liberal since he was 17, Mr Kaiser had volunteered in two previous elections and at 24 had risen to become the national head of the Young Liberals, the party’s youth wing. It was his job to identify young voters on campuses and “persuade them to vote for Justin Trudeau”.
“We had a message of real change and doing things different, and we were extremely successful with it,” he said, noting that Liberal candidates were elected in “almost every single riding with a university and the neighbouring ridings next to those universities”.
Much has changed. Today, as a campaign manager for a Green party candidate in Vancouver, British Columbia, Mr Kaiser is working to oppose the re-election of Mr Trudeau’s government on October 21.
“Too many things happened [during Mr Trudeau’s first term] that were not in the best interest of the country,” he said, pointing to the Trudeau government’s purchase and approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. “You can’t be a climate leader and buy a pipeline.”
In an election where millennials account for the largest demographic bloc of voters, Mr Kaiser is an example of a phenomenon that could spell trouble for Mr Trudeau on polling day: the young people who came out in droves to support him in 2015 are showing signs they will not return in the same numbers this time.
The 2015 election was “a complete anomaly”, said John Wright, a pollster with DART Insight and Communications.
Historically, less than 40 per cent of people in the 18-34 age group cast ballots in federal elections. But in 2015, the voting share jumped to 57 per cent, with Mr Trudeau picking up most of the increase.
The prime minister’s message of hope and change, which echoed that of then-president Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, “galvanised” young voters in the final week of the campaign, said Mr Wright. The Liberals embraced social media and Mr Trudeau’s rhetoric around tolerance, transparency, climate action and female equality — not to mention his promise to legalise cannabis — contrasted with Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s repeated talk about tax cuts.
While the Harper Conservatives ultimately received nearly as many votes as they had in the 2011 election, the higher turnout of young voters, along with the collapse of the left-leaning New Democratic party in that election put Mr Trudeau over the top.
The landscape looks far different in the final week of this campaign. A new DART & Maru/Blue poll puts the NDP at 39 per cent among voters aged 18-34, up from 22 per cent a month ago. Over the same timeframe Liberal support among younger voters fell from 39 per cent to 27 per cent. (Conservatives more or less held steady at 24 per cent among the demographic while the Greens are up 3 percentage points to 8 per cent).
“Jagmeet Singh is riding rocket fuel,” said Mr Wright, of the NDP leader.
Mr Singh, a Sikh and Canada’s first non-white federal party leader, has received praise, including from Mr Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, for his calm handling of several racist incidents. Earlier this month, a man in Montreal told Mr Singh to “cut your turban off” to “look like a Canadian”. With his hand on the man’s shoulder Mr Singh replied: “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of Canada.”
Polls show Mr Singh also came out of last week’s English-language debate the perceived winner. It was a contrast to before the campaign, when in interviews Mr Singh seemed unprepared on key issues. He has also been criticised within his own party for overseeing a collapse in fundraising that has left his campaign hampered.
“The youth vote has been triggered to move with Mr Singh by his authenticity,” said Mr Wright.
The support from young voters would not lead to an NDP government — the party has too few supporters among older Canadians and is hurting in Quebec — but it could tip the balance against Mr Trudeau’s re-election, said Mr Wright.
Mr Trudeau has tried to recreate the magic of 2015 with younger voters. He has taken his campaign to university campuses across the country and promised breaks on student-loan repayment.
Too many things happened that were not in the best interest of the country. You can’t be a climate leader and buy a pipeline
To repair his damaged environmental bona fides he joined a massive “climate strike” march in Montreal in late September, though critics on the left and right noted that Mr Trudeau was in effect protesting against his own record as prime minister. When Mr Trudeau met Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg before the march, she told him he was “not doing enough” on climate change.
But the Liberals have also sought to hold on to younger voters by warning that a vote for anyone but Mr Trudeau could split the progressive vote and pave the way for a Conservative victory, which Mr Trudeau said would take Canada “backwards”.
That campaign message was dealt a serious blow when photos and a video of Mr Trudeau in blackface and a mock turban emerged last month. Mr Singh, who accepted a private apology from Mr Trudeau, countered vote-splitting fears this week by proposing a Liberal-NDP coalition with a shared cabinet to prevent a Conservative government, assuming the Liberals do not win a majority next week.
While millennials now outnumber baby boomers in Canada, political observers warn too much should not be made of their electoral power. For one thing, they do not vote as a bloc, said Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
She also has not heard a lot from the parties about issues specific to millennials like affordable child care that might lead to a repeat of higher turnout. “People can be forgiven for being uninspired by what’s on offer,” she said.
As for Mr Singh’s rising popularity, Ms Thomas does not know whether it will translate into votes, but “if we’re going to talk about the leader who has captured younger folks’ imagination, this time around it’s not Trudeau”.
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