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Giving a voice to youth

You never can tell what may strike a chord sometimes at the Confederation Building. 

Last week, for example, it was the debate centered around amendments to municipal legislation in the province known as Bill 6.

In one of two changes, the legislation would allow town councils in the province to appoint one or more non-voting youth representatives “to sit with the council and participate in its deliberations for a term and on conditions that the council may decide.”

The other amendment would allow council members to participate in meetings via teleconference if they are unable to physically be present in person.

On its face, the youth representative amendment seems easy to get behind. Encouraging young people to become more involved in their towns can’t hurt, right?

But Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) spoke out strongly against the legislation last week, and the Liberals are no fans either.

To be clear, it’s not youth participation in municipal politics that’s the rub.

MNL CEO Craig Pollett told The Telegram his organization thinks inviting youth to sit at the council table but not including them in private committee meetings – where much of the hard discussions that inform decisions take place – would be problematic and not necessarily the best means of engaging youth in democracy.

The Liberals, on the other hand, feel the language of the legislation is vague and could be abused.

In The Telegram article, Municipal and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Kent agreed a bigger municipal youth engagement strategy is needed but called the proposed amendment a step in the right direction.

And it may be so, but Mr. Pollett makes a good point as well. Why limit youth to non-voting positions on municipal councils, exposing them to the often lengthy and tedious conversations of town council meetings, if that’s all you’re proposing to do? Why not offer supports to young people for the creation of youth town councils in communities? They exist and are, in fact, thriving in other jurisdictions.

Once such example can be found in Amherst, N.S., a town with a population just under 10,000. The Amherst Youth Town Council was formed in 2009. It has been a big success, according to Councillor Robert Bird, who was the group’s liaison with Amherst Town Council for several years.

"Youth council has been wildly successful, beyond anybody's imagination,” he told TC Media’s Cumberland News Now last year.

One thing everyone should agree on is that youth need and deserve a stronger voice in their municipalities, particularly in rural areas where the populations of many towns continues to decline.

It does so, in no small part, because young people leave for greener pastures – bigger towns and cities where there are more opportunities and amenities – once they’ve finished high school. For the most part, few of them ever come back to live full time again. 

Perhaps if youth were given more influence in their communities and a bigger say in how issues in their towns affect them, it may foster a larger sense of ownership and belonging.

It might also, thusly, encourage them to seek ways to stay rather than leave for good. 

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