Protecting Canada’s Youth from Right-Wing Populism

By: Nadiya Alexandra

With the defeat of the People’s Party of Canada, it may seem like Canada has kicked the threat of right-wing populism. To think so would be a mistake. We need to focus on protecting our democratic values more than ever, but how? The answer is civic education. We need to turn to our youth to ensure they understand the dangers of democratic backsliding and how to meaningfully participate in a democracy.

Many opinions converge to say that populism has already taken root in Canada; what happened in the U.S. could happen here; and there could be a Donald Trump in Canada. It is a scary thought, but Canada should take the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (EU) as cautionary tales, and act soon. 

Why should we focus on youth? For starters, the majority of North American youth know little about the consequences of authoritarianism. For example, Canadian history is mandatory in schools, but not world history. Joel Westheimer, a prominent civic education scholar outlines the problems associated with this lack of knowledge. 

In the U.S., about 25% of youth between the ages of 16 and 24 think that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way of governing. Perhaps more concerning is that 70% of millennials believe it is not essential to live in a country governed by democratic law. It would be interesting to see how Canadian millenials answered these questions. Would we have better results? 

In Ontario, the high-school civics course is a half-credit that is lumped together with careers and can also be taken online. The majority of students say this course is a waste of time, and doesn’t teach how to get involved politically. 

The problems don’t end there. Even if civics is mandatory in Ontario high schools, how we teach civics is possibly entirely wrong. According to Joel Westheimer, there are three main approaches to teaching civic education for democratic participation. The most common approach is teaching students to be personally responsible. While this moulds students to be “good people,” it does not teach them about how to participate or think critically. The second approach focuses on participatory actions like getting involved in student council and the community. The third, and least common, but most important approach is justice-oriented. 

Westheimer’s social-justice oriented citizens need to analyze and understand the interplay of social, economic and political forces. These students ask questions, challenge the status quo, and aim at solving the root of social problems. This is how we should be teaching civics. 

If Canada’s brush with populism is not enough to convince you, we need not look far for examples where populism has a strong hold. Our neighbours to the south have been grappling with far-right populism for years now. The EU is facing rising populism, which shows itself through Brexit, racial intolerance, a so-called “migration crisis” and rising euro-scepticism. If we teach our students how to question and analyze social problems, perhaps we could stop the same things from happening in Canada. 

Scholars in the EU have started making the link between civic education and populism. An 89 Initiative report argues that civic education can restore civic faith among Europe’s youth. This report uses case studies of populism in the United Kingdom (Brexit) and Italy to prove the link between populism and civic education. We should learn from the U.S. and the EU before it is too late for us. 

In the wake of Doug Ford’s education budget cuts, popular dissatisfaction with Canada’s electoral system and the global trend of democratic backsliding, we need to turn our attention to Canada’s youth. We need to ensure high standards of education, which should include how to spot fake news and how to think critically about politics. We need to teach students how to get involved beyond elections. We need to promote democratic participation through civic education. Let’s keep right-wing populism at bay.

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