(Editor’s note: Ian Waddell, formerly a four-term New Democrat MP and British Columbia environment minister, died March 15 at 78. Waddell in retirement devoted himself to an extraordinary array of projects including documentary films. On September 26, 2014 Waddell wrote a Blacklock’s essay on the trouble with politics. Here is his commentary as originally published)
I’ve been a Member of Parliament, a trial lawyer, a provincial cabinet minister, but at 71 I’ve never worked so hard. Why? Because I’m making documentary films. You have to try to get people interested. You have to find where the money is hidden. You have to get a broadcaster. You never stop pushing.They say in Hollywood it’s impossible to make a documentary in Canada because there’s no money.
In 2013 our company made a film about the British Columbia provincial election campaign. I was teaching Canadian history and wanted to give students some idea how the political process works. The film crew came back unhappy; they said people were telling them they’re not interested in voting. We decided to set up a lemonade stand and offered free refreshments if people would vote; we hired limousines and offered rides to the polls. It was funny, and then it wasn’t. The issue had deeper meaning. The result is an hour-long documentary we’re producing, Why Young People Don’t Vote. We hope to complete it in time for the 2015 federal election.
If poor voter turnout persists I think it represents a genuine threat to our democracy. Young Canadians are supposed to be the future, but how will they make a difference? How are we going to deal with issues like climate change if they don’t vote?
Youth rebellion has been always focused on dissent and engagement. Now young Canadians question the validity of the system itself. We interviewed them. One man says to the camera, “Oh, I just want to have some fun.” Some are lazy. Some think paper ballots are obsolete. Others say they’re too busy. Mainly the respondents seem scattered, almost unfocused. We used to read the newspaper, learn about an issue and form an opinion. Young people no longer absorb mainstream media messages and I think it affects their interest in voting.
In recent byelections in two provinces the turnout was dismal: 32 percent in Trinity-Spadina, Ont., 30 percent in Scarborough-Agincourt, fifteen percent in Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca, Alta. This should tell us something. Canadians have concluded voting is pointless, that it doesn’t make any difference who is elected since all candidates are alike.
Is it about policy? I don’t think so. In the 2011 general election New Democrats promised a tuition freeze, and Liberals promised $1,000 bursaries. Yet sixty percent of first-time voters did not bother with the polls. There is a corrosive suspicion that political promises are empty, that government is inept, that Parliament can’t deliver. Who rules? An economic elite. As inequality grows, voter participation declines.
So, we have a documentary. It is being produced by Triple Threat Films with a four-member team and a whopping budget of $200,000. Our host is Dylan Playfair, 22, from Fort St. James, BC. His father is Pheonix Coyotes’ associate coach Jim Playfair; his uncle Larry Playfair is the the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame. The kid was going to be a hockey player too till he got too many concussions. Dylan is idealistic and smart and determined.
Twenty-something Canadians are not a vapid generation; they are a radical generation. But they’re not like political activists of past eras. All our team are under thirty. My role is to encourage and mentor and open doors.
Filmmaking is a new career for me. Tell people you’re a lawyer and they cover the wallet. Tell them you’re a politician and they reach for the deodorant. Tell them you’re a filmmaker, and they all want to tell you a story. I love it.