By Ester Latifi
Many people view politics as abstract and far-removed from their day-to-day experience. It can be difficult to relate to politicians who speak in terms you don’t always understand or debate issues you may not take specific interest in. Furthermore, it is easy to take on the position that since your opinion doesn’t go a long way on its own, why bother trying to argue for or against something that doesn’t personally impact you? Not getting involved can mean that you can avoid heated discussions with friends and family. I don’t like conflict, so I have stayed out of political conversations in the past to avoid confrontation. The past couple of years, however, I have become increasingly aware of how much politics do affect us. The provincial election last year was a huge motivator for me to become involved.
Whatever your political leaning is, it goes without saying that the provincial election this past year was one that stirred up quite a bit of controversy. The new government became especially relevant in October 2019, when Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP released their budget shortly after the federal elections took place. Post-secondary students are feeling the burn from the cuts made, and people I know who had previously taken no interest in politics rapidly became invested. People are angry. I have never seen social media blow up the way it did in October; nearly all of my peers are angry with the implications of Jason Kenney’s cuts. I am not here to argue against the UCP or their decisions as every citizen is entitled to vote for whomever they want, but I do want to talk about involvement. I mentioned earlier that politics can, at times, seem abstract and irrelevant. So, where do we go from here? How can we translate our opinions into actions that contribute towards change and, as a result, make our voices heard?
On Tuesday, January 21, my friend and I had the pleasure of meeting with MLA Janis Irwin (Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood) at Little Brick cafe. For awhile now, I have admired Janis’s involvement as well as the level of commitment she demonstrates in fighting for change. My friend and I had been talking about how we wanted to become more involved with politics, so our meeting with Janis was meant to be a discourse on how exactly we could go about that. I had never met with an MLA before and, up until a few years ago, didn’t know much about what their role in the government was and how exactly it impacted people like you and me.
I used to think that politicians were too busy dealing with “official” business to be involved with people in their respective communities. For those of you who don’t know, MLA stands for “Member of Legislative Assembly.” Each MLA is voted in by members of their riding to sit in the Legislative Assembly as a representative. We’d asked Janis to meet us at Little Brick, and she was more than happy to accommodate. We told her about ourselves and gave some background information regarding where the two of us are from and what we are doing. The conversation naturally lead to the whole reason for the meeting: why do we want to get involved, and what did we have in mind?
We discussed several ideas, the main one being to attempt to organize an event on campus (keep your eyes peeled!) wherein students are able to come in and meet Janis as the NDP MLA for this riding. A lot of misconceptions about politics are borne from the fact that people simply do not know where to begin learning, so a step like this would be a great way to start. My misconception about politicians being unapproachable was instantly dissolved the more we chatted with Janis. One thing that particularly stuck out to me was that, even though there is quite some friction between the different political parties, not once did Janis slander “the other side” or those who voted for the UCP. It’s not that I was necessarily expecting her to; still, because my experience talking about politics has always been one full of tension and anger on both sides, I thought that politicians themselves would be much more vicious when talking about “the other side.” Rather than speak against her opposing party, she was extremely empathetic towards those who did vote for the UCP, pointing out that people come from different backgrounds and vote for many different reasons. Rather than bringing in an attitude of “let’s fight them,” she instead focused on brainstorming ways that my friend and I could help students like ourselves unite and work together to go after the change we are hoping to see.
One attitude that we see a lot of is one of hopelessness. Many people feel defeated as far as the budget is concerned and all the jobs lost (I personally know at least a handful of people who started working in their field post-graduation only to be laid off shortly after). Post-secondary students, in particular, are angry about the tuition hikes and the not-so-gradual increase of student loan interest. I myself have felt quite discouraged as someone who is graduating this semester, wondering if I’ll even find a job and if I just wasted five years of my life. It’s so easy to connect with others based on fear and anger, uniting in our sorrows and ultimately sharing in mutual non-motivation to do anything because “there’s not much we can do about it” (this is something I have said before).
Meeting with Janis showed me that there is, in fact, something we can do about it. Rather than deciding to sit and be unhappy and wait to see what bad news we will receive next, Janis, as well as other MLAs, are making it their mission to go out and talk to people like you and me and develop a plan for involvement depending on who you are and what capacity you can help in. We came up with several ideas in our meeting, and though we only sat together for about an hour, my friend and I both left feeling refreshed and excited to get involved. I felt like I was being heard, and if people feel they are being listened to, they will naturally feel more inclined to reach out.
It’s all too easy to look at current events and feel discouraged, and even easier to write off a situation as being hopeless. This attitude is why so many people don’t vote in elections. If you believe your voice doesn’t matter, why would you vote? After all, it’s true that one person cannot change a system on their own. I have learned the last few years, though, that if everyone wants change, nothing is stopping us from doing what we can on an individual scale. I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t have strong feelings about our current government—whether for or against—and this extends beyond the party that is currently in power. We live in a democratic country, and if everyone actively fights for a government that best serves the people, nothing is stopping us from getting out there and contributing to cultivating that change. Even if it’s as “small” as sitting through a question period and educating yourself on how politics work or knocking on doors, there’s something everyone can do. If we all do something, we can at least make a dent in our flawed system rather than sit and accept that our fates are sealed. You don’t have to be an activist to fight for a future that you feel hopeful about. Whether you are a people-person or an introvert, I guarantee that there is something you can do with the skills you have.
One last thing I would like to talk about is the idea that you must know everything about politics in order to get involved. This idea just isn’t true. I can personally relate to this; growing up, I always felt that everyone knew so much about government. I didn’t, and therefore I felt I could not get involved. We live in a time where information is accessible in seconds, and a quick google search can at least give you some necessary information you can start with. I am not the most politically versed person, but it would be ignorant to sit back and tell myself that I can’t help because I don’t know everything yet. No one knows everything, but everyone can learn. Whether you love politics or not, they are a massive part of everyday life, so it’s worth learning the basics at the very least. Ignorance is not bliss.
If you can get in touch with your MLA, whatever party you support, I highly encourage you to do so. They are there to listen to your voice and speak on your behalf. In the name of democracy, it is so important to take advantage of the opportunity. You might not be the one sitting in the Legislative Assembly, but your MLA can listen to your concerns and bring it up to the government on your behalf. Change happens through action, and action starts by taking that first step.