Samara Canada is a charity dedicated to reconnecting citizens to politics. Established as a charity in 2009, they have become Canada’s most trusted, non-partisan champion of civic engagement and a more positive public life. I got to sit down with Jane Hilderman, Executive Director of Samara Canada, and Sameen Zehra, Everyday Political Citizen Program Coordinator to chat about the work they do at Samara Canada, and the current status of women and youth in politics.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a bit about your formal and informal education.
Jane: My name is Jane Hilderman. I am the Executive Director of Samara. I hold degrees from the School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto (Masters of Public Policy) and Queen’s University (Bachelor of Arts and Humanities). I work to bring Samara’s mission - reconnecting citizens to politics - to life.
I grew up in rural Alberta. From the age of 9 onwards, I was involved in 4-H, a non-profit positive youth development organizations. The “4-H’s” stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health dedicated to a better living, community and country. It was very formative for me because I remember at the age of 9 at our monthly meetings, all the parents leave the room, and it’s completely run by the youth members of the club. This is done on purpose to give you a sense of greater agency, and to learn by doing. It was my first taste of self-governance and having to make decisions by a group coming together, without any adult supervision. This experience shaped my interest in decision making. I continued the program up until I graduated high school and started university. It gave me confidence and knowledge of how to run meetings, how to public speak, and how to communicate with others about the decisions that have been made.
What is the most important lesson or skill you learned inside the classroom? Jane: It is so important to ask questions because by asking questions, you may not even realize that there’s something about a subject you don’t know, until you need to pull out more information about an area. Asking questions allows you to you dive a little bit deeper, in terms of not just taking at face value that something is the way it is, or that you know there is to know everything there is to know in a subject area. I was a little terrible because I would just keep asking questions until either the teacher wouldn’t have an answer or would tell me to give someone else a chance. Even today, I believe asking questions is a wonderful way to tap into their knowledge that they may not even realize they have.
Has your marathon training had an impact on the way you work and approach problems?
Jane: Well, to be fair, I’ve only run 1 complete marathon, but I still run! I have a few things to say on this topic. I still like to go for runs before making a significant decision - running is a helpful way to think about it. It gets me into a different zone, it lets your mind wander. Sometimes I come to more creative ideas in terms of solving a problem. Running also lets me let go of some of the things that aren’t important. It can be a clarifying experience.
When I started training for the marathon, I wasn’t sure I could do it before committing to it. The trick that worked for me reminds me of how I solve any big problem - you break it down into small steps. I trained the marathon in ten minutes intervals - ten minutes is a far more manageable run to think about than a 4 hour or 4.5 hour run. I series of small 10 minute segments that I slowly increased until I was able to complete it!
Who was your most memorable teacher?
Jane: It is so hard to pick a favourite. I was lucky to have had several wonderful teachers. But, I will go with my drama teacher in high school, Mr. McDougall. I was somewhat of a shy person, and drama class demanded of you to perform. He pushed me in a way that I needed to be pushed at the time, in terms of being brave enough to try things that didn’t make me feel comfortable. Performing helped me to shed the social constraints, and to get out of my comfort zone.
In Samara’s article titled “Bringing Gender Equity to Parliament”, Samara’s position is it believes a House of Commons that better reflects the diversity of Canadians and their experiences will generate a more resilient and responsive Parliament, and can improve Canadians' willingness to participate in all aspects of public life. And yet, women remain underrepresented. We rank 61st of 191 countries when it comes to the proportion of women elected to parliament. What can we do to get more females interested in pursuing a political career?
Sameen: During my undergrad degree at the University of Toronto, I participated in a program called Women in House. Its mission is to promote greater female representation in government by getting young women to shadow a female MP. Having programs like this is really instrumental to getting women interested in politics. They accepted young women of all disciplinary backgrounds, not just political science majors. For me, being in that environment, and interacting with women who have made it so far in their political career encouraged me to want to break barriers and push the boundary.
Jane: I'd like to see a demystification for women on how to be involved as political citizens, and provide as many examples of female political role models to inspire women. The most cutting-edge research shows that once a woman decides to run, she is as electable as any other candidate. But the question is, how do we get more women to say yes and run in the first place? Again, research shows they need to be asked more times to participate in politics than their male counterparts.
They also often face more familial pressure because women still take on a disproportionate share of household family duties. It would be great if we saw more awareness on behalf of parties, and other organizations building the “pipeline” of female candidates to be recruiting and actively supporting women, knowing that their needs may be different from those of a male candidate.
In the longer term, we need to make politics a place that is more open to accommodate people from a diversity of backgrounds. Our current system is based off a 19th-century model, before airplane travel existed, where MPs play a ping pong game traveling between Ottawa and their riding. Communications to their constituents make politics a 24-hour job. We haven’t explored how we can use new technologies in the House of Commons to make it easier for women (and men) with young families. The system needs to be more flexible. Right now, representatives are obligated to show up in person to vote on issues. If we want to bring our politics into the 21st century, then we need to use the tools that are available and create a shift in attitude to make politics more open and accessible both for citizens and people running for office.
Samara released a visual ‘open letter’ with recommendations for appealing to youth, as well as a compelling article titled Message Not Delivered: The Myth of Apathetic Youth and the Importance of Contact in Political Participation. These articles debunk the myths that youth in Canada don’t care about politics and aren’t interested in the world.
What can youth do to change the perceptions of their political apathy?
Jane: My advice to young people would be to take the time to reach out to elected officials at the relevant levels, and let them know how you’d like to see change on the issues you care about. Elected officials are always looking for young people who are interested and who have ideas, but they don’t always know how to go out and find them. That is why we created the poster for elected officials, as a guide to help them connect with young voters.
Young people do care about issues, but they don’t always connect them to the realm of politics as a way to change them. Look to politics as the lever to make change with your issues, for example, La Petite Écolière could appeal to change educational policies.
Sameen: Our definitions of political engagement might need to be reevaluated and expand. With technology and social media platforms, youth are sharing and voicing their opinions in different ways and through non-traditional platforms like social media. They are not always tapping into the formal processes to express their concerns and speak out about the issues they care about. If you look into how they are engaging and receiving their news online (i.e. through Facebook and Instagram), you will see that they’re not completely apathetic.
What types of programming and resources does Samara offer for schools?
Jane: We try to think about how to make our work accessible to different audiences. We’ve been investing in some educational videos - A Day in the Life of an MP (follow Priya) through a 24 hour period of her job. We also have a video on how to be an everyday political citizen, educator guides on our websites for teachers who are looking for a resource. We’ve been featured in the Grade 10 Civics textbooks, profiling elected leaders and young people as political role models. We think it is important to show the progression through the early stages of a political career, and it shows students that you can start at any age!
How can parents begin to talk to their children and get them interested in politics? And how can these conversations happen in a way that doesn’t sway their children toward their preferred political party?
Jane: Children are astute and pick up on messages about politics that parents are sending. They are also socialized at an early age on whether or not politics matter in their household. If politics never comes up as a subject at the dinner table, that sends a message in terms of its importance.
My advice to parents would be to be intentional about talking with their children about politics. Teach them about their roles as young citizens, and about the role that politics plays and the value that democracy has. Don’t assume they’re not interested or too young to care. Research has shown that children as young as seven or eight have attitudes towards political leaders, and whether they perceive them as “good” or “bad”.
One simple thing parents can do is to take their children to the ballot box. It sends the message that it is important to take the time out of your busy life to go and vote.
In terms of speaking to children about politics without swaying them, it is important to note that the behaviours that children see are often replicated in schools. If children see their parents yelling past each other about political topics, this is what will happen at school too. Try to learn to discuss and disagree about politics in a civilized way, and your children will hopefully do the same.
Not sure how you can make Canadian Democracy stronger? Get inspired by Samara’s Everyday Political Citizen Project – an annual contest that celebrates the ordinary advocates, educators, organizers, mobilizers, volunteers and politicos whose work gives life and energy to Canada’s democracy. Click here to read about this year’s nominees.