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ELECTION 2015: Bringing democracy to Chilliwack classrooms

Students in Michael Florizone’s Grade 9 social studies class answer whether or not their parents plan to vote in the election.  - Greg Laychak
Students in Michael Florizone’s Grade 9 social studies class answer whether or not their parents plan to vote in the election.
— image credit: Greg Laychak

Mt. Slesse middle school teacher Michael Florizone teaches both social studies and drama to kids in grades 7, 8 and 9.

In social studies, Florizone is now trying to engage the young people in the federal election, teaching them about democracy. Why it is so important. Why they should care.

In drama, he teaches them to express themselves and to act, and part of that is about empathy.

But there’s a connection.

“We are so lucky to live in a democracy and many students don’t realize what we have,” he said. “Especially with the Syrian refugee crisis; we see people coming to our country who have had no connection to democracy, no choice.

“In my drama class I’m also trying to get my students to put themselves in others’ shoes, to see what that feels like, to personalize it. Basically building empathy.”

Florizone’s Grade 9 social studies students are getting a crash course in democracy, voting and the entire political process. And 540 students at Mt. Slesse are among hundreds across the district taking part in Student Vote 2015 (studentvote.ca), a parallel or mock election process run to coincide with elections at all levels of government.

It isn’t easy to spark serious debate or interest among 14-year-olds in the differences in taxation and economic policy between the Conservative, NDP or Liberal policy handbooks.

But the more personal and human issues get students’ attention: marijuana, euthanasia, refugees.

While chatting with the students this week, Florizone talked about an online quiz they all took called ISideWith.com (canada.isidewith.com), which is meant to show how users’ beliefs align with the federal party platforms. He said he wasn’t confident in the results because so many students came out with the same political party.

One student told the Times the website might have caused some trouble at home.

“I had my parents and friends do it and it almost broke up their friendship,” one student said. She said they talked for about four hours about the subject, with her parents’ friends leaving angry.

Politics can be sensitive stuff, the kids are learning.

Another online tool Florizone tried this week with the students is Vote Compass (votecompass.ca) and he was hoping it showed a more balanced look.

When asked about voting, most students were sure their parents voted although at least two in his class were adamant that their parents do not, and will not, vote.

In a different class at Mt. Slesse where students were asked to make presentations defending the positions of one political party or another, students Brooklyn Jensen and Jayna Wiebe couldn’t get behind one party; they liked some policies from each of them. So they created their own party: The Global Party.

Jensen and Wiebe joined Florizone’s class to talk to the Times about politics and engagement on Monday.

And while it was agreed jobs and the economy are critical issues, during a closer chat with six students in the class, the issues that emerged were about more newsworthy and philosophical issues.

“I got into a really big debate with my brother who is 16 about the Syrian refugee crisis,” Abigail Colibaba said. “He is at that stage where he thinks he knows everything. So he’s got this idea that Syria has completely invented the crisis so that they could even out their economy so they don’t have so many people.”

On marijuana legalization, Colibaba is firm: “I don’t like it.”

One topic that continued to emerge was euthanasia. Mariah Hofstede said she and her family had a discussion about what extreme circumstances would allow for assisted suicide.

“We were trying to figure out if that was OK or not,” she said. “My family and I had a big discussion about that.”

Jensen and Wiebe said the platform of the party they created was clear that assisted suicide would only be allowed if a patient was in extreme pain, going to die soon and only “highly trained doctors” were there help.

As for Colibaba, she pointed to the still somewhat mysterious and tragic case earlier this year of 19-year-old Emily Janzen who suffered from severe migraines and, along with her mother, was allegedly murdered by her father. A Facebook post attributed to her father said he did it to relieve the young woman from pain.

Colibaba said she had Janzen as a music teacher.

“Sometimes it can get turned around and pushed to extremes,” she said of the euthanasia issue.

Florizone said it’s important to teach kids about democracy because we do have it so good in Canada, and unless there is a major struggle or issue, it’s hard for young people to get interested.

Enthusiasm doesn’t exactly exude from the roomful of 14-year-olds as politics is discussed.

“This is your chance, right?” he tells the class. “Maybe it’s not that exciting. But if everyone says ‘why bother?’ then there is a huge percentage of people that aren’t voting that don’t have an influence on your future. You don’t realize, this does matter so much.”

Florizone is far from the only Chilliwack teacher looking to engage students in the electoral process by inviting candidates to the class and talking politics.

Longtime Central elementary teacher Christopher Lister has been a vocal supporter of voting initiatives and has held a number of mock elections over the years at Central through Student Vote.

Now at Strathcona elementary, he’s at it again using the Student Vote model.

What is always hard to predict is how students will “vote” once they’ve heard from candidates. In 2011, students at Central elected the Green candidate by a landslide in a mock general election that saw current Conservative Fraser-Canyon MP Mark Strahl garner only three votes.

In Mr. Florizone’s class of 14-year-olds this week, the question was asked whether the voting age should be dropped from 18 to 16. There was little enthusiasm for the idea, with one student suggesting probably just vote for the “joke candidate.”

Past mock elections showed a diversity in students votes. In the 2011 Federal Election, 2,443 votes were cast at 21 schools in the Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon riding through the Student Vote program. And while the actual election winner, Conservative Mark Strahl, was chosen by the students with 34.6 per cent of the vote, it was by a slim margin over second place party the Greens with 29.8 per cent.

As for individual schools, out of 155 students at Mount Cheam Christian School, 134 voted Conservative. While at Chilliwack senior secondary, out of 217 students, 137 picked the Greens.

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