For half a century, televised leaders’ debates have generated some of the most memorable moments in Canadian politics. There was Brian Mulroney’s famous line, “You had an option, sir,” delivering a knockout punch to John Turner in 1984. In 2011, Jack Layton called out Michael Ignatieff for his parliamentary attendance record: “Most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”
It’s easy to just tune out election noise—and many Canadians are. A recent Abacus poll found that almost half of Canadian voters admit to paying no attention to the campaign. With so many serious issues for Canada’s future—from immigration, to climate change, to the economy—leaders’ debates are a chance to reengage turned-off voters, and get key groups like youth and new Canadians tuned in.
This year, I was invited to join the newly formed Debates Commission panel tasked with organizing the events. Former Governor General of Canada David Johnston, head of the Commission, told me he would judge the success of the debates on “how wide were they in audience engagement, and how accessible were they,” striving to make these debates reach the most diverse audience.
Getting young people engaged in civic life is part of maintaining a healthy democracy, ensuring the next generation is invested in the political process. To do that, we need to meet youth where they live.
In 2015, Twitter and Facebook provided platforms for viewing the leaders’ debates for the first time. Social media accessibility could have played a part in the massive increase in youth participation in that year’s election. An estimated 57 percent of eligible voters between 18 and 24 turned out in 2015, compared to 39 percent in 2011. This year, the debates will play on 21 digital platforms. The Debates Commission is also generating youth-oriented video content and putting lesson plans into classrooms in partnership with Civix, a non-profit dedicated to building youth citizenship.
Every year, Canada welcomes tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees. Part of welcoming these new Canadians is engaging them in our political process. In 2015, the debates were translated into Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi and Italian. This year will see the addition of Arabic. The Debates Commission is also working with groups across the country, like the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, to make sure new Canadians know how and where they can access the debates, as well as their polling stations.
The debates will also be translated in three Indigenous languages for the first time this year—Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwe. This is an important step in the spirit of reconciliation.
Of course, the debates will be made accessible to people with disabilities through ASL and LSQ sign language interpretation, described video and closed captioning. It will also be livecast in 24 Cineplex theatres across Canada.
Debate is the heart of democracy, and the focal point of our election. Whether it’s on your TV, radio or tablet, make sure you tune in on Oct 7 in English and Oct 10 in French (translated into English). Whether you’re a longtime voter, a young Canadian, or a new citizen voting for the first time, there’s a seat for you at the debates.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.