Coming one month after the Ontario provincial election, today’s guest post was written by Sam Burton, a Toronto-based strategist, writer, and researcher. She is currently the Director of Insights at the Mozilla Foundation.
You can learn more about Sam and her work at samanthaburton.com.
One May afternoon, at the height of Ontario’s 2018 provincial election campaign, I passed a pre-game huddle of campaign volunteers talking earnestly over clipboards on a quiet street in Toronto.
According to Samara’s 2017 report card on the state of Canada’s democracy, these individuals are a rarity, as only 15% of Canadians volunteered for a political candidate or campaign last year. What makes these volunteers different from most Canadians?
In search of insights, I spoke with ten volunteers from three major Ontario political parties who were actively working on campaigns during the last provincial election.*
Ninety percent of the stories I heard had a common thread: knowing a candidate personally. Across parties, volunteers found the door to formal political engagement because they personally knew and believed in a candidate.
“If I didn’t like the candidate, I might put a sign out. But I probably wouldn’t volunteer.”
– Ontario NDP volunteer
A young man started door-knocking when a friend’s uncle ran as a PC Party candidate. A woman’s friend decided to run as a Liberal candidate, so she signed up to help make calls. A man’s roommate was volunteering for a local NDP campaign and convinced him to attend a meeting, where he met the candidate and later joined as a fundraiser.
Family connection was also a theme. One volunteer who had just turned 19 described her family as “hardcore PC.” She started volunteering for the party in Grade 10, and was excited to vote for the first time. A volunteer with a Liberal campaign shared a similar story, laughing as she said that growing up she “thought all families canvassed on weekends.”
Several volunteers were openly critical of their own parties. The driving force of personal connection was especially strong among this group. Even as they lamented the flaws of Canada’s political system, they worked to create change by helping a candidate they believed in.
“Eventually it becomes like a family.”
– Ontario PC volunteer
Volunteers joined because of a person, and stayed because of the group.
All the volunteers I interviewed spoke of the social nature of the work—of team camaraderie heightened by the short, intense nature of a campaign—as a main reason they remained involved.
Most volunteers who had worked on multiple campaigns said that people were the key reason they kept coming back. It seemed that once they felt part of the group, it was a natural progression to volunteer for other candidates and step into different roles.
“The social element is a big part of why people volunteer.”
– Ontario Liberal volunteer
While volunteering for a candidate or a political party isn’t the only way to get involved in Canada’s democracy, it’s one of the most direct pathways between citizens and the people who make critical decisions about our country’s future.
But the majority of Canadians are currently opting out of this opportunity.
I’m one of those people. I’ve never volunteered for a campaign. I’ve also never personally known someone running for office.
Speaking to these volunteers made me realize that the road to greater political engagement goes both ways:
It is vital that candidates and parties do more to build meaningful relationships with the people in their communities—and not just during a campaign. There is a particular need for them to reach beyond their friends and existing supporters.
It is also necessary that as citizens, we seek out our elected representatives, and get to know them. Perhaps more importantly, we need to actively encourage and support more people we know and trust in our communities to run for office, as part of taking a stronger role in shaping Canada’s future.
* Of the ten volunteers interviewed, four were volunteers with the Ontario PC Party, three were with the Ontario NDP, and three were with the Ontario Liberals. There were an equal number of men and women, and 40% were visible minorities.