This spring in the legislature, I introduced Bill 100, a private-members bill to create a mandatory civics course in high school, specifically at the Grade 11 and 12 levels. A course similar to civics was promised in 2015 — 21st century citizenship — but delays and alterations have made it so this class will be at the Grade 9 level, starting in the 2018 school year. This course covers a wide range of topics and I have concerns about these topics being introduced at the Grade 9 level.
My 13 years as an educator at Prince Andrew High School taught me that curriculum is maximized when it is age appropriate. Historically, we have altered the grade level that certain topics are taught — one example being Mi’kmaq Studies. This course was taught at the Grade 10 level for years and only recently moved to the Grade 11 level, a time at which the material would be more age appropriate.
Having taught social studies for most of my career, I believe Grade 11 or 12 to be the best time to teach civics and politics. Materials involving political understanding and civic engagement are much more significant to 16 to 18 year olds as they prepare to take part in the political process. Not only are these the years when they approach the eligibility to vote, but it is also a time when they are on the cusp of graduating and entering the adult world. In my opinion, that is the perfect time to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills to navigate our political system.
Since the 1960s, we have experienced a steady decline in voter turnout. Our last provincial election had a 53 per cent voter turnout. Across the province our youth turnout is even lower. According to Elections Nova Scotia, only eight per cent of 18 to 24 year olds voted last May. The greatest threat to democracy is apathy. Parents, grandparents, teachers, politicians and community leaders all have a role in engaging our youth in the political process.
I know all MLAs in Nova Scotia wish to see improvements to our democracy and voter turnout. One of the greatest ways to improve voter engagement is to communicate and instill in our youth a sense of responsibility to take ownership of their community. Many of the students I taught often expressed to me that they felt politics was something that happened on television or the internet, rather than something to participate and engage with. A mandatory civics course in Grade 11 or 12 would teach our students the dynamic nature of democracy and the structure of our federal system, along with Indigenous forms of governance. A focus on these topics will only help strengthen and enhance our student’s ability to understand the world they are about to embark on.
Our youth are looking for more opportunities to learn more about their society in school. We need to emphasize courses that focus not only on academics, but also practical life skills. Political literacy and civic engagement are necessary ingredients for the health of our democracy. I hope this private member bill is passed so that all Nova Scotian students graduate high school with an understanding of their government and society.