🕔Dec 15, 2005

It’s a wave that began breaking last May in the Hazeltons and the energy still hasn’t crested.

The energy behind the wave is the unprecedented mobilization in the Hazeltons that welled up around the May provincial election and the current work by one local non-governmental organization to help turn the trend into long-term community engagement on civil society issues.

It all began with non-partisan work on the part of Storytellers’ Foundation to increase voter turnout in the Upper Skeena, especially among the 70 per cent of the population in the area that is under 30 years old—a figure twice the B.C. average.

“We know from our previous work that there aren’t enough opportunities for youth to engage in community decisions, or have a voice locally,” said Melanie Sondergaard, co-ordinator of Storytellers’ informal education storefront called The Learning Shop. “Yet we have found that if you provide these same youth with the opportunity, they will gladly fill it and get involved with their community’s future.”

At the same time as young voters were being targeted, a parallel effort by Storytellers’ Foundation community education facilitator Anne Docherty was aimed at infrequent, or first-time, older voters.

“The natural arenas of community life are very structured in the Hazeltons,” said Docherty. “So we looked at who already is mobilized, what connections they have, and what webs they are connected to.”

The strategies worked, judging by the numbers in some of the communities in the Hazeltons, where the provincial voter turnout is usually low. Voter participation at polling stations for the Gitanmaax reserve was up by 24 per cent compared to the previous provincial election. In Gitsegukla the number was 44 per cent, and in Kispiox the increase was a phenomenal 58 per cent.

The participation rate was so unexpected in the latter two villages that Elections BC officials working at the polling stations May 17 made an emergency call for the delivery of additional ballots because supplies were running so low.

The number of registered voters who actually came out and voted in those villages was also through the roof, ranging from 81 per cent in Gitanmaax to a whopping 94 per cent in Gitsegukla. These numbers were at least 17 per cent ahead of the provincial average of registered voters who voted in the spring election.

In Kispiox, Reinhold Steinbeisser was one of the key volunteers in Storytellers’ effort to improve voter participation.

“There were lots of people I consider on the fringe who actually voted,” said the long-time teacher and principal at the Band-run junior secondary school. “I think they felt that this time their voice could be heard.”

Steinbeisser, who worked on the George McGovern U.S. presidential race in 1972, saw similarities between what happened in that election 33 years ago and the grassroots effort in Kispiox to increase voter participation.

He described a discussion with an old-time resident who had never voted and is known as a person living on the streets and fighting alcoholism. “It was election day and I told him he should vote, and what he needed in order to do that. He went away and I thought, ‘Well I won’t see him again today.’ Then, there he was a short while later riding his bike to the polling station.”

This example of voter mobilization typifies what community developers identify as drawing on the “social capital” that is built up over the years by informal leaders living in communities.

“It is all about relationships and it is built on the Gitxsan foundation of reciprocity,” said Docherty. “What Reinhold Steinbeisser did in Kispiox, drawing out the voters, is a classic example.”

Having candidates from the Hazeltons no doubt increased voter turnout, but Gitanmaax Band social development worker Tammy Baskins, 34, said it takes more than that to change infrequent voters like her.

“Generally I don’t vote. I don’t have faith. This time, knowing that a candidate was local and had roots deep enough to understand the community’s needs made a difference. But we need to better educate community members about the importance of voting provincially—that it does involve the future of your community.”

Docherty points out that what kept voters interested were local issues. “It was a teachable moment about connecting their lives with society, with a broader picture.”

An example provided by Storytellers’ staff is the planned expansion of open-net fish farms at the mouth of the Skeena and the adverse effect it could have on wild salmon stocks. The topic became a huge issue in the Hazeltons, and got many thinking about voting.

In working with youth participation, Sondergaard echoed Docherty comments. As a facilitation method, she utilized the existing “Philosopher’s Café” event, organized by youth workers at The Learning Shop, to focus on local issues of importance for the 18- to 30-year-old crowd.

“It definitely created momentum that voting could actually make a difference,” said Sondergaard. “Some attending the café weren’t even of voting age but they got excited too.”

In Kispiox, Steinbeisser also saw the excitement and mobilization amongst young voters.

“There were a lot of young people who had never voted but came out—not because they were being pushed out the door by their parents, but they were actually pulling their parents out, which gives me hope for the future.”

Keeping that momentum going and turning it into action is something Storytellers’ Foundation is finding the resources to support. It’s called community organizing and the approach involves supporting local people to self-determine rather than start with a preconceived development idea.

Sondergaard is now coordinating a group of youth workers, some of whom were influenced by the election mobilization, on projects where they support other young people in the community to take action on issues around food. Based out of The Learning Shop, the youth workers have focused on a number of projects since July including a good food box program, a community kitchen and conducting healthy eating, active living workshops in local schools with the aim to establish classroom food policies.

Sondergaard also sees a potential for civil society mobilization around the upcoming federal election. But in following the philosophy of The Learning Shop, she says it would be up to the youth peer educators working at that time to identify what form and to what extent that mobilization will take place.

What Storytellers’ experience with increased voter participation in the Hazeltons confirmed is the willingness of the large youth demographic to turn the mobilization into engagement, said Docherty. “There are very few opportunities in our communities for youth to become politically engaged—to work collectively for a greater common good. What our provincial election experience demonstrated to us, once again, is that there’s a group of young people who are ready, just waiting for the call.”