What gets a Yellowknife high school student’s vote?

École St Patrick High School held its own version of Yellowknife’s municipal election last week. Turns out, if you promise to build a skate park, that’s a vote-getter with teens.

Shortly before 10am on Friday, the school’s corridors are quiet except for groups of apprehensive students preparing to operate seven polling stations.

(Yes, that’s five more than the city has. No, there wasn’t a mail-in ballot option.)

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Joseph Depew, 14, has one job: guide would-be voters – most students aren’t old enough to vote for real – to their private voting station and ensure they know where the ballot box is.

But he also has his own views on who he wants to elect.

“I want Garett Cochrane, because I’m an avid mountain biker,” says Joseph. “Like, I love it. And our winters are so long, and he was talking about doing an indoor skate park. I think that would be pretty cool.”

If this election were determined by kids, Cochrane would probably be looking at a safe seat on council. The same skate park line tested incredibly well at a candidates’ forum at William McDonald Middle School two days earlier.

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Six of the 16 candidates – Cochrane, Stacie Arden Smith, Ryan Fequet, Rob Foote, Mike Martin and Stewart Pallard – sent video messages to help students identify their candidates of choice, said teacher Thea Campbell, who acted as a form of chief returning officer on Friday.

Asked more generally what kind of candidate he admires, Depew told Cabin Radio: “I’d probably go for someone who’s a bit more left-wing with their opinions, because I think there’s a lot of change that needs to happen to Yellowknife.”

What does left-wing mean to him?

“Someone who’s open to change and isn’t so old-fashioned.”

Gracie Brennan, front right, and Taylor Foss, front left, await voters
Gracie Brennan, front right, and Taylor Foss, front left, await voters. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A group of students arrives to vote
A group of students arrives to vote. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Next to him, Maria De Ausen – whose role is to cross voters off the list when they turn up at the polling station – picks education and homelessness as her key issues.

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Candidates who stand for “helping people out more” would get her vote, Maria says. (She’s also a skate park fan: “During the winter, there isn’t that much stuff to do.”)

A ‘very not-girl-like’ ballot

Generally, municipal elections don’t do a great job of explaining themselves to youth. That’s one reason why St Pat’s is holding its mock election, and is also why William McDonald held its candidate forum – 11 candidates showed up, facing a hundred or so students just entering their teens.

Even efforts to bring elections into schools run the risk of losing students when it comes to the complexity of the issues at stake.

How many 12-year-olds do you know who have a reasonable grasp of property tax? Which kids do you know who understand the dividing line between municipal, territorial and federal responsibilities? (Heck, how many adults, you included, would you trust with that question?)

The last question at the William McDonald forum came from a student who asked candidates what they would do to improve the way zoning works in Yellowknife. Asked if anyone actually understood what zoning was, dozens of voices chorused: “No!”

Which is why an asset that’s tangible to kids – an indoor skate park – can make an election that much more intelligible, if you haven’t yet really considered things like densification and downtown revitalization.

Students decide who to choose. Adults frequently issued reminders that filling out your ballot is, theoretically, a private moment
Students decide who to choose. Adults frequently issued reminders that filling out your ballot is, theoretically, a private moment. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Inserting a ballot into a ballot box
Inserting a ballot into a ballot box. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Students at Friday’s polling stations were reaching less for issues raised over the past month, and more for concerns that leapt off their ballot paper – like the gender imbalance among candidates.

“I’d vote for Stacie because she’s one of the only girls,” said 17-year-old Gracie Brennan, referring to incumbent councillor Stacie Arden Smith – also the only Indigenous member of the outgoing council – who is seeking a second term.

“I want to see myself represented on city council,” said Gracie. The list of candidates, to her? “Very not-girl-like.”

Ultimately, 337 students voted. Seven of those ballots were spoiled, Campbell reported.

So how did the students actually vote? You can find out when the real polls close. After 7pm, head to our live text coverage of the municipal election results to see who St Pat’s students would have elected and look at several other data sets that might help predict the eventual winners.