Most of what Seth McDermott knew about politics came from his evangelical Christian home and his father’s extreme views. The ideology was so ingrained in him that when he was 13 and a friend who was bisexual touched his arm, he “freaked out.”
“I ran and washed my arm,” says McDermott, who was grappling with his own sexuality at the time. “Like I’ve been contaminated, it’s going to take me further down this path. It wasn’t for a few years that I was able to wash that compulsive fear.”
In school, exposed to different types of people and opinions than the insular Kitchener church community he grew up in, he began to develop his own political views. He watched the historic 2008 U.S. election in which the country saw its first Black president, Barack Obama, and he noticed how a lot of the televangelist messaging coming up in that election fell in line with what McDermott had grown up with through his father.
“It really made me have to evaluate all of my own perspectives,” McDermott says. “Now there aren’t these really restricting boundaries so I’ve got to kind of define my own. It made me really mature quickly as a political citizen.”
McDermott, now 26, openly gay and living in Toronto, has since accepted his own sexuality, developed more liberal views on social issues and politics, and even opened up his mother to new perspectives on everything from LGBTQ rights to Indigenous issues and more.
McDermott’s story highlights how many young people grow up to develop vastly different political views than the ones they grew up hearing. For some, the differences between their views and those of their parents are minor — debating whether to vote strategically or not, or which candidate would be best for the family company — but in each relationship parents often end up learning from their children and vice versa.
And sometimes both sides develop a better understanding of where each side is coming from.
According to an Abacus Data report from May that surveyed people aged 15 to 30, half said they have tried to convince parents or caregivers to change their opinions about an issue. The issues they talked about most were immigration, climate, education and diversity.
“This weekend in particular can be really important in terms of how this election ends up turning because it’s that moment, a week before the vote. A lot of people might actually go vote together (in advanced polls),” says Abacus chief executive officer David Coletto.
Though there’s no way to predict or quantify the impact family political conversations may have on the results of the Oct. 21 federal election, Coletto says “it’s a worthwhile question to ask what impact those conversations are going to have and really look at what young people prioritize versus older people.”
“I think climate change falls into what kind of Canada and government we want,” he says. “Young people could probably put pressure on their parents to consider the choice.”
Young people are more likely to hold progressive political views compared to older generations, according to Forum Research president and chief executive officer Lorne Bozinoff.
In the latest Forum poll released Oct. 8, 58 per cent of people aged 18 to 34 indicated support for more progressive parties (21 per cent for Liberals, 15 per cent for NDP and 22 per cent for Greens) while 35 per cent leaned right (28 per cent for Conservatives and 7 per cent for far-right PPC). In the general sample, support for progressive parties was 53 per cent (28 per cent for Liberals, 13 per cent for NDP and 12 per cent for Greens) and 38 per cent for right-leaning parties (35 per cent for Conservatives and 3 per cent for PPC).
Still, the data can’t draw a connection to whether young people are successfully swaying older family members.
“I’m sure that kind of dinner table discussion is going on, it’s a natural thing,” Bozinoff says.
A family political discussion around gay straight alliances at school was what first showed Edmonton resident Lydia Fleming, now 22, that her views didn’t align with her conservative Christian parents.
“It was a little bit jarring because I guess I felt, being 15 and kind of cocky, that I was so advanced and how are they so backwards,” she says. “As you grow older you realize that you don’t know everything, that you’re not a genius at 15, but I still stand by that opinion that just because something has been believed for decades or centuries doesn’t make it right.”
Though debates with her parents over various issues would often get heated, Fleming says things are calmer now as she’s more educated and able to express her opinions without getting overly emotional.
“I’d say they’ve definitely softened their views a lot more in the last couple years. They’re still pretty pro-life but they’re realizing that there are circumstance that they have no right to judge people on,” she says. On the other hand, her parents’ perspectives on economics have convinced her to keep a closer eye on the finances behind the policies put forth by more leftist parties she supports.
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“I’m more analytical thanks to their views as well, which is good,” she says.
Even when families are aligned in their political views, debates are bound to arise. For Dena Farsad, an environmental studies PhD candidate at York University, the hot topic in this election is whether to vote strategically for her Liberal candidate to prevent a Conservative win, or whether to vote with her heart for the NDP. Farsad believes everyone should vote for who they honestly support, but her parents don’t want to potentially waste their vote.
“It’s a source of contention,” says Farsad, 37. “They ultimately believe what I say, it’s not like we disagree,” but she hasn’t been able to convince them on the topic.
She’s tried sending them articles on the perils of strategic voting, but in the end they’ll make their own decision.
“What are we actually looking to do by voting? Are we just trying to keep the Conservative at bay or are we trying to somehow bring about some change that’s different from what’s been happening for the past few decades?” Farsad says she tells her parents.
In Jasmine Garcha’s Surrey, B.C., family, the discussion usually revolves around two topics: which candidate is best for people of different ethnicities, and who would be in the best interest of the family construction business.
“I definitely am someone who is more of an environmentalist and that’s really important to me whereas it’s not really on my dad’s radar,” Garcha, 29, says, adding that her father prioritizes the economy much higher than she does.
“It’s more a broad conversation that happens in my family,” Garcha says, adding that they do their own research and fact-checking and then discuss pros and cons together before voting for whomever they decide individually.
McDermott, now a civil engineer, says his views now fall more left of his far-right upbringing. Though he stopped speaking with his father after he turned 18, McDermott discusses politics often with his mother, who separated from his father when McDermott was 5.
“We’re definitely a lot more on the same page than we used to be. In some ways, her views have been dragged to the left because of me,” McDermott says.
When he came out to his mother a year after he left for university in Toronto, his mother decided right then to leave her church because of its views towards the LGBTQ community.
“It’s amazing how your political views change because of your children,” says Beverley McDermott, though she added she would sometimes secretly vote Liberal while she was still with McDermott’s father. “They open your eyes to things instead of just voting the way your parents did or the way your church community did.”
Those conversations can happen even if people’s political views don’t align, says Seth McDermott, who now attends a more affirming church. Though he chose to stop speaking to his father, he says he doesn’t believe his dad is a bad person.
“I don’t think he’s evil or something I think there’s this motivation to protect,” he says. “He legitimately thinks the world is about to end … In his way of thinking, those hardline beliefs are what is necessary to protect people’s eternal souls.”
Understanding that gives him better insight into the minds of people with different viewpoints, he says.
“That is what allows me to continue to have a dialogue with other people who might take a more conservative stance on things … and saying ‘I just want the freedom and space to be able to live my life and my definition of what is a good person.’”
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