Beyond Bake Sales – Engaging students in the political process

At our recent WISE, we held a session on moving students “beyond bake sales” when dealing with social justice issues. As a guideline, some schools are employing the “ABCs” of social action. A stands for awareness, B for bucks and C for change. Students like and are familiar with awareness and fundraising campaigns. Indeed, these activities are most effective at recruiting new students to your social justice group or getting students to buy in if you are tackling social issues in the classroom.

Change refers to taking the time with students to analyse the SJ issue at hand to try to understand the root causes. Once the (or a) root cause is identified and understood, change means demanding policy makers to enact changes to the current policies or legislation to address that root cause.

The change piece is harder for students (and teachers) to grasp due to several factors:

  1. root causes are difficult to identify and understand, particularly for teachers who have good intentions but not necessarily are experts in political science
  2. activities (research of root causes, discussion, letter writing) are less tangible than a bake sale which creates the “we done good” feeling in a group
  3. progress is minimal or unsuccessful – legislators may ignore your letters and invitations or you receive a form letter in response. In some cases, the bills or policy changes you are supporting could be defeated. Of course, as teachers, we always see these events as teaching opportunities.
  4. results are not big and obvious and might take a long time to see – reporting that an MP tabled your petition may not been seen as “sexy” as reporting how much money was raised at a bake sale
  5. students and teachers don’t have an understanding of how the political process works – just because we learned about the role of government in grade 9 social studies, doesn’t mean we know how to interact with the people we elect

Factor #1 will be addressed in following blog posts where we at MESJ will try and help you find good sources of information where you can direct your students to help with the process of understanding root causes. Factors #2 – #4 is an ongoing process of educating your students and your community at the school. It helps to build the change portion into your awareness or fundraising campaigns, i.e. having petitions available whilst people are buying your baking.

Factor #5 is the goal of this post. Our experience is with petitioning the House of Commons, so that is what we will describe here. If you and your students are ready to address root causes AND it is appropriate to contact your MP about the root cause, there are a few ways you can engage in the democratic process and it unfolds in the following progression.

1. Figure out what the change is that you will ask for – Which level of goverment deals with this issue? For example, mining, the criminal justice system, military, foreign affairs, trade, endangered species/national parks and indigeneous issues are federal; education, environmental issues like Lake Winnipeg, health care, homelessness, and child poverty are more provincial.

If you have determined your issue is federal jurisdiction, is there a bill before Parliament you want MPs to vote for? Is there a bill you want MPs to vote against? If not, you can  ask the House of Commons in general to take action to fix a root cause of a problem.

A helpful way to determine your request is to look into what other organisations have requested regarding the same issue. Organisations we have referred to in the past include: Council of Canadians, MiningWatch Canada, Development and Peace and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. There are many other organisations – we have just used these recently. We invite you to put your suggestions for other groups in the comments.

2. Document your request – We recommend the dual strategy of writing letters to your MP and the PM as well as petitioning the House of Commons.

Here is an example of letters sent to MPs and the PM dealing with the issue of corporate social responsibility in the mining and extractive industry. Much of the content for these letters was gleaned from other letters from MiningWatch Canada or Development and Peace which had similar campaigns running at the time.

Here is an example of one of the petitions used in the same campaign regarding Canadian mining practices overseas. The Parliament of Canada website has a fantastic practical guide to petitions, but here are some of the salient points.

  • any resident can sign the petition (read: don’t need to be a citizen)
  • no minimum age
  • minimum 25 signatures, from any riding
  • petition should ask the House of Commons to do something (not just voice an opinion)
  • on letter or legal size paper, one side only
  • signers don’t need to put their full address, only city and province are sufficient, as well as only their province and postal code
  • MPs can sign your petition, but you should ask a different MP to present it to the House

If you know of sympathetic MPs, feel free to contact them to ask for advice and/or proofread a draft of your petition.

3. Collect signatures/letters – This is where you can tie in with the other activities you have planned to raise awareness or bucks.

4. Get your letters to the MPs/PM – Sending mail to members of Parliament is FREE if you send it to the House of Commons; no postage is required. Letters to the Prime Minister just need to be popped into a mailbox. It is always recommended to personally deliver letters to local MPs, if possible, and if they will meet with you. Otherwise, just address the letters to the MPs in Ottawa (not their constituency offices in town), and drop them into a mailbox without postage.

Sometimes you might receive a letter in response, sometimes you might not.

5. Get your petitions to MPs – This is where you need to be strategic. If you have many sheets of the petition signed, pick MPs you think might be sympathetic and send them an original copy. Always try to arrange a meeting between your local MP and your students and get your students to do the talking. Delivering petitions in person has two benefits: students get to interact with a politician which is a special event with a photo op (“sexiness” factor) and the MP is more likely to help you out.

At the meeting, have students describe the issue (MPs are not always up to snuff on SJ issues), share why it’s important to your group and ask him/her to take your requested action. Also, it helps to promise that you will follow-up. Upon receiving properly formatting petitions, MPs are required by law to table them in the House of Commons. If you set up that personal contact, he/she will be more likely to rise and speak to the petition as opposed to just filing it as a part of procedure.

6. Follow-up – Ask your MP to have someone from his/her team contact you when the petitions have been tabled. Follow the MP on to track if and when your petition is tabled. Contact your MP again to either ask about the status of the petition or to thank him/her for speaking to the issue. If you ask the MP to vote a certain way on a bill, check to see if they did that (again on and follow-up.

That’s it! It seems complicated at first, but as you engage in this process with your students, the more comfortable you will be. As mentioned earlier, engaging in the process of political change takes patience and perseverence. More than likely, the bills you want passed will be defeated, or vice versa. However, the most important thing is to keeping having conversations with your students about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy as well as to have conversations with policy makers (from every political party, whether in power or not) about these issues.

What has been your experience? Do you have other tips or resources to share? Please share in the comments section.

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