Janice Churchill Elementary held a student election, beginning on Oct. 9 with the vote on Oct. 26. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

Youth

Lower Mainland school’s student election offers sweet lesson in politics

Young candidates’ campaigns feature big promises of more field trips, laptops and candy

Asha Parmar’s immense smile betrayed her sense of satisfaction – and relief.

Sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with a “Surrey First” logo, the 11-year-old took a moment to savour her slate’s hard-fought election victory.

“I’m feeling good, but I’m definitely going to let the other groups be involved,” Parmar said. “I think we could all lead the school together.”

The ballots for the Janice Churchill Elementary election in North Surrey were counted on Oct. 26, and Parmar and her JC First slate came out on top with 69 votes.

Now Parmar has campaign promises to keep – “having fun activities for classes every month, getting more gym time and technology.”

But while she relished the victory, Parmar also found herself lingering on some of the election’s more unsavoury moments.

Through the campaign, she said, she saw “a lot of sabotaging going around with other grades who were spreading rumours.”

Indeed, the election wasn’t easy.

In fact, Parmar says, it was quite “stressful.”

Asha Parmar in the photo to the left

Rife with unsubstantiated campaign promises, accusations of bribery and even sabotage, this election is one the students – and teachers – won’t soon forget.

THE ORIGINS

The 2018 Janice Churchill Elementary school election was co-ordinated by teachers Gurjit Pattar and Raj Binning, who teach Grade 6/7 split and Grade 7, respectively.

Pattar, who started teaching at Janice Churchill two years ago, said for the past five or six years she has registered for Student Vote, which gets students across B.C. to vote in mock elections during federal, provincial and civic elections.

RELATED: Surrey, White Rock students cast votes in mock elections

“I was doing it with, I think, a Grade 4 or 5 class at the time, and we were trying to discuss some of the issues,” Pattar said.

“I think it was the federal or provincial election. They got it, but it was kind of over their heads and it wasn’t engaging for them.”

Pattar wanted the students to know how the electoral process worked, how democracy worked and how to participate in a vote.

While she loved the lessons that came with Student Vote, she wanted more. It was then the idea of a council at the elementary school level came to her.

“You hear of student councils in high schools, why not do one in elementary school?”

With every election, Pattar said she gives her classes a choice between just learning about the election or holding their own election.

“Every year when I decide to do it, I say you can follow the Student Vote and we can research the politicians that are running or you guys can form your own political parties, discuss what your platform is going to be and then you can run your own election. Every year, the majority of votes go to running our own election.”

What are the elections like?

“Really neat because the kids get so involved.”

Pattar adds she loves this project because it allows students to collaborate and to take on a social responsibility.

“So one of the things we’re talking about in class is, ‘How can I make my classroom, my community, my school a better place?’”

THE CAMPAIGN

Students in Grade 7 were to campaign and survey students on what some of the issues were at the school, and then form their platforms with a debate planned for Oct. 25 and the election taking place on Oct. 26.

The students in Grade 6 acted as the media, and ran the voting station on election day.

JC First’s platform focused on getting more students to love school, while also planning to fundraise for more technology in the school such as projectors, laptops, phones and iPads.

A slate called Golden Eight campaigned for the school to add security cameras to reduce any stealing or vandalism.

The Fantaci party wanted to make school “not boring” by adding more activities such as a spring fair and other events.

And finally, a party called Make Janice Churchill Better (MJCB) campaigned to fundraise for more supplies and more field trips.

Shantel Chand, 12, was the leader of MJCB. She said she knew going into this election it would pretty much be a two-horse race.

RELATED: THE VICTORY: Doug McCallum is Surrey’s mayor once again

RELATED: THE DEFEAT: Tom Gill concedes to Doug McCallum in Surrey mayoral race

“Even though we have four (parties) running at the school, it was kind of between two groups,” said Chand, who closely followed Surrey’s municipal election.

“So we’re like, one’s going to be a Doug McCallum and one’s going to be a Tom Gill.”

Shantel Chand in the photo to the left

Throughout the campaigning process, which started on Oct. 9, Pattar said the young candidates would go out at recess and after school to ask their fellow students about what they might like to see changed in the school.

“We had class discussions about how they could determine issues that were pertinent to our school,” Pattar said.

“We encouraged them to ask questions that had possible choices so that students could pick one instead of saying, ‘I don’t know.’”

THE DEBATE

On Oct. 25, students in Grades 3 to 7 filed into the gym at Janice Churchill to learn more about the four parties’ platforms.

Each group gave their opening statements, and then the floor was opened up to students and teachers to ask questions.

More than a dozen students and teachers had the opportunity to ask questions, but due to a limited amount of time, there were even more who didn’t get to have their questions answered. One girl, who had her hand raised to ask a question for most of the debate, had crib notes scribbled on the palm of her hand, but she never got the chance to speak.

A teacher citing litter on the playground and cleanliness around the school asked the parties if they had a stance on environmental issues.

Fantaci, led by Jusneer Sandhar, said they would get a group of people to pick up the garbage while on the playground.

MJCB’s Chand said that although each class at the school has their week to go around and pick up garbage, the party was “pretty sure” Grade 7s would be willing to go around and pick up garbage after school.

Parmar, leader of JC First, said if the students don’t think it’s enough to have classes volunteering each week, “maybe we can have a group of people that volunteer at maybe recess every Tuesday or Thursday.”

But a member of Golden Eight said they would give up their lunchtime to clean up litter.

The question that garnered the most applause, though, was regarding each party’s homework policy.

While each group said homework policies were up to the teachers, leader of Golden Eight Amber Fatima reminded student voters that homework “isn’t all that bad.”

“Don’t you want to go to Harvard?”

The biggest issue seemed to be campaign promises. For example, one student claimed someone in a competing slate, Golden Eight, was promising to put candy machines in the school if elected.

“OK, so we really want some evidence because we didn’t say that,” Fatima said.

“It wasn’t us.”

Another student said they were told they would get cupcakes and lollipops if they voted for a certain party, which surprised Pattar.

“So there have been some promises made,” Pattar told the students. “How many of you have been promised something if you come out and vote for their party?”

Nearly all the students in the gym raised their hands.

“Really?” Pattar said.

“Interesting.”

Following the debate, Chand said, a lot of students were upset about people allegedly lying and “saying this and that.”

“I thought it was interesting,” Chand said. “For me, it goes in one ear and out the other, I don’t pay attention to it, but some people take it very seriously.”

Chand alleged that some students on the campaign trail said they would give kids cash or take them to a nearby store to buy stuff in return for their votes.

“Oh my God, none of that’s going to happen,” she said.

With the debate in the history books, students and teachers had until the end of recess the following day to figure out who would get their vote.

And while the voters were struggling to make up their young minds with some saying they didn’t want to vote because they’d have to choose between friends, Pattar said the student candidates were being prepared for an election win.

“We said just because you’re elected, does that mean what you say goes?” Pattar said. “What it does give you is it gives you an audience. You can say, ‘OK, we’ve been elected in, here’s our evidence, we surveyed the students, this is what they’re asking, can we work on a solution together?’”

THE VOTE

On voting day, Chand said she was feeling better after fighting some serious pre-debate nerves.

She said the previous night her brother was playing video games with friends and said he would be voting for MJCB.

“Even if we don’t win, the school is still probably going to be in good hands from the students voting.”

Students from Grades 3 to 7 came through to vote between recess and lunch on Friday, Oct. 26 with the Grade 7s who were running in the election coming to vote last.

Following lunch, Grade 6s headed back to the library to count the votes with a scrutineer representing each party.

The students set up a process to count the votes, but unfortunately, 20 ballots were spoiled which was “such a waste,” according to one student. After the votes were tallied the students went back to class, but were told to keep the results secret until it was time for the announcement.

Once back in the classroom, Pattar and Binning went over the voter turnout before announcing the results.

Pattar asked students what could have led to a 64 per cent voter turnout. Students said some people didn’t know the issues while other said some might have been absent on voting day.

Regardless, Pattar said the students nearly doubled their goal of beating Surrey’s voter turnout on Oct. 20, which was 32.5 per cent.

RELATED: Voter turnout at 36% in B.C.’s municipal election

RELATED: OUR VIEW: Nearly 70 per cent of Surrey’s eligible voters didn’t care

And finally, the results were announced. JC First won with 69 votes, MJCB came in second with 43 votes, Golden Eight came in third with 31 votes and Fantaci came in fourth with 17.

Chand said she was happy for JC First’s win, adding “everyone expected them to win.”

But she was surprised her team came in second.

“Even in the beginning, no one really knew who we were and I was really happy. I was really proud of my team too,” she said.

“We’re probably all going to work together to make the school better.”

THE LESSONS LEARNED

Post-election, Pattar said, the students will have an opportunity to set up a meeting with principals and teachers.

“If they’re elected, they’re allowed to come up with a proposal that they then present whether that be to the PAC, whether that be to the principal, whether that be to the teachers depending on who gets elected.”

In the end, Pattar said, the goal of this project is having students motivated to go out and vote when they turn 18.

“I’m hoping they leave here learning about the electoral process, but also the importance of how important that one vote is, really.”

From here, Pattar said the students will now be comparing Canada’s system of government to others around the world.

“We would like for students to see what role citizens have in government in different parts of the world.”

She said the students were so disappointed at the low voter turnout on Oct. 20, adding that in some places people have to wait hours to vote, but in Canada there are advance voting options and mail-in ballots.

“And they say, what prevents people from going out? Why is there not more of a turnout, especially when it affects you so much?”

Throughout the Janice Churchill election, Pattar said she worked to discover how much the students knew about Surrey’s civic campaign.

“Kudos to the parents because these kids already knew who was running, they knew the political parties, they knew the platforms.”



lauren.collins@surreynowleader.com

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