Involving youth in municipal council important first step

First published:
August 15, 2001

Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner is proposing the formation of a youth council in Cobourg as a means of generating interest in municipal politics and giving young people in the community an opportunity to comment on a wide range of local issues. The idea is an excellent one and deserves support from politicians, taxpayers and, most importantly, local youth.

On August 7, Spooner asked council to approach all three high schools to send two people from each school to council meetings every week starting this fall. This youth council will receive an agenda in advance. They will be free to ask questions, pass along comments, and respond appropriately to what is going on that week. Spooner said in an interview, he wants all councillors to work with the young people in providing them with whatever information they need on an issue. If they wish to advocate for something, then they can approach council as a delegation.

The format is unusual, since there will not be the traditional monthly meeting often associated with other advisory committees like LACAC, police and planning. Instead, the young people will give a weekly commitment and be engaged in the process more regularly.

Port Hope has a long history of involving youth in its process. A youth committee was set up in 1991 as an advisory committee to council. Currently, three youth, four adults, and a representative from the parks and recreation department make up the committee. An ad hoc youth council is set up at the high school, which feed ideas and comments directly to the youth committee. This way students at the school provide direct input. When the skateboard issue was hot, as many as 20 students show up to voice an opinion, said Eugene Todd, director of parks, recreation and culture.

Todd said there are some great ideas that flow through to council. Students also get a better idea about how the political process works. The tough part is the heavy turnover of students. Each time it takes a while to educate students about how it works.

Port Hope and Cobourg should compare notes. Spooner might like to encourage the high schools to set up a regular meeting between students and the six youths who are appointed to the Cobourg youth council. It would legitimize any concerns or advocacy and broaden the involvement to include a wider range of students.

While having students come every week is great, the time must not be wasted. It is a huge commitment from both sides. The students need to feel they are being heard and that they can advocate for issues that are important to them. They also need to see results. Otherwise, it will be an exercise in frustration that will turn young people off politics rather than turn them on to it.

Port Hope may want to examine its youth committee, also.  Spooner is giving the youth council an open mandate to comment on everything from Wal-Mart to dog parks, not just recreation issues. Often, youth are associated with recreation. This underestimates the contribution young people can make and the range of issues that are important to them. By opening the mandate to include planning, health care, economic development, among others, could make them feel a more integral part of the larger community.

We all need to get behind this initiative. Studies done by the National Crime Prevention Centre have proven that a community where youth are involved has lower crime rates. It is only one example of the benefits.

Like every generation before them, young people face a handful of challenges. Full-time employment is nearly a fantasy for them. They look forward to a workforce that will make them work two to three jobs to earn a living. Employment opportunities in Northumberland are almost zilch.

They also need to feel their creativity and energy is valued and not exploited. So many co-operative programs and volunteer jobs are ways of employers getting free labour. Often youth are called on to do menial task that do not demand leadership or skill. The youth should be honored for the entire contribution they can make to the political system.

For the young people, this is an opportunity to demonstrate their talents. They can assist in making our community better and more diverse. So often the same voices are heard and the tired ideas keep getting put forward. Politics is cool. Indifference is not, despite all the cultural bafflegab being rammed down their throats.

Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, provides a very powerful image when the spirit of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge two ghastly children hidden under his cloak. One is ignorance and the other is Want. The spirit says Ignorance is the one to be most feared because DOOM is written on its forehead.

If young people are ignorant of the issues facing our community, our province, our nation and our world, then we are all doomed. The indifference encouraged by popular culture bombarding our young people is dangerous. Only 26 per cent of young Americans voted in the last election. Canada is no better. Those who to control their lives exploit their apathy and inattention. It is vital for them to understand politics, so they can have a say in their future.

The youth councils are an important step in engaging young people in the political process. It is time well spent on all sides. Now all we need to see is other municipalities in Northumberland do the same, including the county.

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