Editorial: Mayor and Council completely fumble on Youth Council

by Tristan Turner

After a stupefying debate, Council has effectively laid down their opposition to the creation of a Morinville Youth Council in one comment: I like the cut of your jib, kid, but let the big boys take it from here.

While never expressly said, that certainly was the nature of the discussion.

At their Sept. 15 Committee of the Whole meeting, Council was meant to discuss the best way of implementing a new Youth Council Bylaw. Instead of debating implementation, most of council — excluding Deputy Mayor Barry Turner and Councillor Brennan Fitzgerald — decided the whole project wasn’t much of a priority after all and made it clear that they wouldn’t back the idea if it came to a vote.

The Bylaw itself would create a Youth Council for Morinville that would have young people as members in the hopes of having issues that mattered to youth advocated to Council. These members would research and debate policy proposals, and bring forward recommendations.

Council’s arguments to oppose the Bylaw? They range from the absurd to the face-palm inducing. You could see the flinches in the face of Councillor Fitzgerald, who silently observed while most of his fellow lawmakers proceeded to miss the point entirely. For a Council, who has been so dedicated and successful at public engagement, it was shocking to see how clearly they stumbled when it came to engaging youth.

Councillor Stephen Dafoe led off the circus, commenting that “Our door is always open to any resident whether they’re 5, 15 or 55,” and that this open door policy was at risk of being impacted if a Youth Council was created. “Do we take away that ability for youth in our community to feel that they can just come to us, or do they have to come through this Youth Council because it is so formalized in a bylaw?”

He made sure first to couch his comments by saying that “I’m always for doing things for youth.”

Thanks, but youth would rather have the ability to affect that change themselves. Dafoe’s argument that youth might lose the ability to approach him with issues because a Youth Council exists is ridiculous.

The reality is, youth will be able to voice their concerns directly to Councillors just as effectively after the creation of a Youth Council as before. There’s nothing that could be put in a bylaw that would limit a resident’s right to contact councillors about their concerns.

To give Dafoe credit, Council clearly does have an open door policy. Both him and the rest of his cohorts have often championed questions from the community. This dedication is clear particularly in all of Council’s work on engaging the public on the rec centre project. However, the reason why Morinville needs a Youth Council was never because youth didn’t have an opportunity to talk to councillors, but rather because the town needs a way for youth to directly engage in policy and to bring forward issues that matter to them. This will engage youth to solve their problems, so long as they feel they will be given sufficient space to define the agenda on their own terms.

Councillor Nicole Boutestein added to the absurdity, latching onto an old favourite in the floundering argument game; the good old slippery slope. Except in this case, she seemed to be worried that the rest of town might follow suit and get engaged along with youth if we had a bylaw, a disturbing notion for a Councillor to be concerned about. Boutestein commented, “It’s not that I don’t believe youth should have a voice, but I also believe that seniors should have a voice and [middle aged] people should have a voice. But where do you stop?”

Surprising, Isn’t it?

Further, Boutestein suggested to Fitzgerald that if the Youth Council failed, he should invite the local kids out to a coffee night to work out the issues. It’s shocking how oblivious they are to the point here.

Not to be counted out, Mayor Lisa Holmes added to the troublesome line of arguments, talking about the interests of members of her family and how she felt after school programs would be more effective. At one point, she brought up the idea of having youth participate in programs where they tagged along with Councillors at events, handing out awards and certificates. Once again, the point of a Youth Council was so obviously lost here. It’s about youth today having the capacity to impact policy on the issues they care about. It takes a fundamental belief that youth are capable, considered and worthy of our trust and encouragement to have some measured impact on their community and their lives.

It’s only Deputy Mayor Turner and Councillor Fitzgerald who demonstrated that they had that trust in Morinville’s youth. Consistently they spoke reason during the discussion, with both arguing that we can have programming for youth AND an enshrined Youth Council, and that we should be working to do everything we can to include youth in the conversation, not be working to keep them out of it.

The remainder of Council however, continued to talk (for nearly half an hour) about different after school programs, art classes and hiking trips. At one point, a recommendation came up that Council should talk to the heads of local church groups, schools and rotary to figure out what can be done for youth.

Councilor Fitzgerald’s only response — and quite appropriately — was exclaiming: “So we’re going to talk to a bunch of old people about what to do about youth?”

He later clarified his comment, after being asked by a colleague to do so, substituting “not youth” for “old people”.
As if the comments from Council weren’t bad enough, Administration illustrated quite succinctly the attitude of local government towards youth residents in comments made later regarding a proposed resolution for an upcoming Council conference. The comment read: “[Youth under 18] do not have enough education or life experience to avoid being… misinformed citizens.”

It’s shocking to me that I’m still regularly asked why youth aren’t engaging in politics in numbers that they used to. It’s that kind of attitude that keeps us away, and I see it almost every day.

The reality is, youth are used to being discounted and disrespected. Nothing new here. But as a community, we can’t continue to disregard the capacity and passion of youth to change and impact their lives, and still wonder why they can feel so disengaged. By failing to show young people trust and compassion, we shun them away from the conversation.

It’s time to change that. Council has not yet voted the Bylaw down. They still have the opportunity to show our community that they have the trust and the vision to put forward a clear and bold plan to engage our young people in having their voice make a difference. It starts with a bylaw.

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