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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

A generation redefines civic society

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2003

Geneva Guerin, as a little girl, organized neighbourhood children for talent shows. She organized them for garage sales. She organized them for scavenger hunts. She organized them for roller-skating lessons.

"Always she was organizing something, from the moment she was able," says her mother, University of Victoria philosophy professor Susan Turner.

Today Geneva Guerin is 25 and living in Montreal. She has only just finished full-time classes at Concordia University; she graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications. She has successfully raised $25,000 to finance a sustainable-development project for the university. She has created a company, Sustainability Solutions Group, to move the project from feasibility study to implementation and to offer consulting advice to other institutions.

Last year, she was a member of the federal government's youth advisory delegation to the United Nations summit on sustainable development.

This year, as a member of the Sierra Youth Coalition, a non-government environmental organization, she has organized a group of environmental activists from across Canada to cycle to Mexico to protest against World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun. She will set out with them from Vancouver next month.

She spends three days a week at meetings at the university and the other four at her company. She spends her nights on telephone conference calls. She gives speeches. She writes: She's working on a 350-page book, and a documentary film, on the Concordia project.

"Every second I'm awake, it's go, go, go. It's never been this insane," Ms. Guerin says. Standing at the door of her small apartment near Concordia in downtown Montreal, she touches a hand to her cheek and declares: "I look sick." She looks tired.

When political scientists examine the political activities of Canada's newest adults and proclaim their alarm at the health of Canadian democracy, they do and they don't have Ms. Guerin in mind.

They see a generation registering the smallest voter participation rate for its age group the country has ever known: Just 21 per cent of Canadians in their 20s cast ballots in the 2000 federal election, resulting, over all, in the lowest electoral turnout in Canada's history. The cohort's absence from the polls, the academics say, foreshadows its voting behaviour as it ages.

They see a generation which has virtually no membership in political parties, a generation that believes more strongly than any other demographic group in Canada that advocacy organizations — like Ms. Guerin's Sierra Youth Coalition — are more able than political parties to effect political change.

They see a generation that, because of political illiteracy or political alienation, or both, increasingly finds the traditional institutions of Canadian democracy irrelevant to their concerns and their daily lives. And a generation disengaging from other forms of civic engagement as well.

The phenomenon is showing up in other Western countries. Moreover, it didn't just happen in Canada with this fresh generation of adults. The last time voter turnout for a federal election hit traditional levels was in 1983. Canadians in their 20s have merely made a disquieting trend more pronounced.

Behind this generation's civic conduct lies a more subtle and layered story, one found in snapshots of Ms. Guerin and her Montreal friends, with some of their seeming contradictions in a postmodern world.

Ms. Guerin is not civilly disengaged. And she votes. But?

But after her experience with the UN summit delegation, she has vowed she won't again be part of any government-sanctioned political activity. It was a sham, she says. "I tried that as an experiment to make sure I hated working within the system, and it was awful. That's not my ball."

Ms. Guerin has multiple identities; she belongs to a generation of "ands." She is an activist and a jock. And a community volunteer. And a young woman in search of nurturing her spiritual and emotional health, as well as someone with limited financial means needing a roommate to share the rent. All of which has led to the acquisition of a rather paradoxical circle of friends.

She met Adrienne Moohk, 23, when she volunteered at Frigo Vert, a non-profit store providing low-cost, organic, non-genetically-modified vegan food at prices poor people can afford.

Ms. Moohk — it is a name she has assumed — is a paid employee at Frigo Vert, a former Calgary street kid who left an unhappy broken home at age 14. She spent a year sleeping on friends' sofas and in empty buildings, sometimes literally on the streets, until she qualified for child welfare.

It was a time, she says, of feeling alone and scared, which led her to become an outreach worker to other homeless and at-risk teenagers, many of them young natives. She also organized fundraising events for community groups trying to provide housing and services.

This won her a $50,000 scholarship from a national bank to be used for four years of post-secondary education (to qualify, she had to first graduate from high school, which she did) and the offer of a summer and part-time teller's job.

Two years later Ms. Moohk moved to Montreal because she wanted to attend Concordia. She has a year to go to complete her degree.

She brought her compassion for lonely, alienated and homeless young people with her, organizing street gatherings and "renegade tunnel parties" — dances under bridges and in other empty public spaces — without, as a matter of principle, obtaining municipal permits. The police usually closed them down.

She organized an "emergency February party" in winter for people who felt sad. She brings lost and lonely people into her home, a huge space above a row of shops in east-end Montreal where she lives communally with six other young people.

She is civilly engaged.

But she does not vote.

She rejects governments as oppressive undemocratic instruments of the rich and powerful and the capitalist patriarchy.

Ms. Moohk, a small, engaging woman — a gamine — who wears her brightly dyed hair in dreadlocks, labels herself a feminist without hesitation. She sees no contradiction in the fact that until recently she worked for an Internet pornography company, and she plans to return to the job soon.

She could earn $12 an hour just sitting in front of a live camera in her underwear, and an extra 25 cents a minute from paying viewers if she took off all her clothes and simulated masturbation. "You can fake a lot of things. It's pretty funny." The extras usually amounted to an additional $30 a shift.

"I don't think it was a huge jump for me . . . it's pretty easy to get paid for masturbating," she says at home over tea. "I think what's hard about it is that there's such a stigma, because people tell you you're so objectified, you're so commodified; that's really hard.

"I don't think pornography is necessarily more degrading to women than flipping hamburgers. I think capitalist labour is exploitative, and I think you're exploited doing pornography just as you're exploited in a restaurant, but you're probably making more money.

"It sucks that the industry is large-scale men-owned, but so is capitalism. And I don't think sex is a bad thing. Sex is a great thing. People should get really comfortable with sex. Pornography is not in itself a bad thing."

Ms. Moohk is both poetic and passionate, talking about the quality of life she aspires to live. Her words tumble out.

"If you don't have a community, you can't survive. So as a matter of survival, you have to care for other people. I think that's where my passion comes from. Because if I don't change things, my life is going to look too much like my mother's life. If I don't take care of people, people aren't going to take care of me, and I need that care.

"I want to feel inspired all the time, I want to feel creative all the time. I want to feel open and honest. I want to feel caring and cared for. I want to feel challenged. I want to feel I have the strength to take risks. . . . I guess I don't ever want to feel numb.

"I think a lot of people are walking around dead."

She admits being discouraged. She tries so hard, so often, to build better, caring communities. She talks about "embracing" the pain of people who are lonely and numb. Nothing seems to change, she says. She talks a lot to Ms. Guerin about where she's going in her life.

She asks not to be photographed with Ms. Guerin and her other friends.

Ms. Guerin met Sascha McLeod, 29, playing university soccer. Ms. McLeod is a project development manager for a Montreal-based corporate Internet service provider, Open Face, and a close friend of the company's co-owner, Tan Soamboonsrup, also 29.

Mr. Soamboonsrup has an SUV, and used to drive the two women to their soccer games, until Ms. Guerin gave up playing because of lack of time, while she railed at him about the environmental unacceptability of his car.

"She accepts rides with us, and I get an earful from her every time I drive her to soccer," he says, laughing.

When she wasn't lecturing about the car, she was forcefully presenting other views. Ms. McLeod recalls one heated discussion having to do with Nigeria, another about Ms. Guerin's declaration that nation-states and international borders should be dissolved, leaving local communities to govern themselves.

The three developed an affection for one another. They began warmly anticipating their soccer-ride debates. Mr. Soamboonsrup did Internet research on his SUV and presented information to Ms. Guerin showing his six-cylinder model consumed less fuel than several non-SUVs.

Ms. McLeod often turned to the Internet for information on other subjects Ms. Guerin raised. "It made me go home and research what she was saying. And Tan would get excited, he'd say, 'We're going to be driving with Geneva, so let's talk about this.' "

They are not, they make clear, on the same page of the political hymnbook as Ms. Guerin.

"Geneva is out there," says Ms. McLeod.

"I see someone who maybe hasn't been exposed to the full spectrum of what working is about," says Mr. Soamboonsrup.

And they are not active politically. Yet . . .

They talk about the irrelevancy and pettiness of much of Canadian politics. They don't like the one-sided domination of government by the Liberals. The opposition parties don't feel real, Mr. Soamboonsrup says. "They're just there to banter," Ms. McLeod says.

She talks of getting angry one night watching TV news: "Five minutes on a story about someone calling someone else a moron. That drove me nuts."

They understand the political role of activists like Ms. Guerin in creating public awareness of environmental issues. They think, though, that change happens only incrementally.

They say they may become politically engaged later on, when their Internet business is more established, larger, more successful, perhaps giving them more influence in the community. Adrienne Mookh wouldn't like to hear that.

Beatrice Parsons, 22, falls closer to Ms. Guerin on the political spectrum.

She came a year ago to Montreal from Saskatoon to learn French, decided to stay and needed a roommate. So, at the time, did Ms. Guerin. They found each other through a mutual acquaintance.

Ms. Parsons, soft-spoken, of Cree descent, can be called a silent activist. "I've never been outspoken about anything. I've always been a quiet kid."

She enrolled in Concordia, met people Ms. Guerin knew, started going to protest marches. "I feel optimistic after them, except when I walk home along Ste.-Catherine Street and realize what a consuming society we are."

She already had an interest in environmental and consumer issues. She furnished her bedroom with cast-off furniture left at curbsides. She followed Ms. Guerin's example and stopped using toilet paper. "I was really enthusiastic about it. It was another thing I could cut back on in my life. My mum said, 'Well, don't forget to wash your hands.' " Ms. Parsons laughs, a sound like water in a brook. "Yes, Mum, thanks for reminding me."

Her only major purchase has been a computer. It is her doorway into the Internet for environmental information, especially information on unacceptable food. "It makes life more meaningful and easy to cope with to make decisions, to take action: composting, being less of a consumer, buying foods that don't wind up in the garbage."

She votes. She gets political information off the Internet although she's started to watch TV news with Ms. Guerin.

Both of them have suffered severe allergies. Ms. Parsons has passed on her naturopathic remedies. "She is doing way more for me than I am doing for her," Ms. Guerin says.

Lately, Geneva Guerin has been thinking that the anxiety disorder she has suffered most of her life is linked to her strong sense of dissonance in the world. She says it is time to separate herself from the dissonance.

She was going to begin studies at McGill law school this summer. Instead she has decided to keep going south, after the World Trade Organization protests in Mexico, and spend a year in South America not being political.

One less Canadian voter in her 20s if an election is called within the next 12 months. But she'll be back. ROBTv Workopolis