The lack of a clearly articulated national youth policy agenda represents a substantive gap in Canadian public policy. Through its strategic planning processes the National Children’s Alliance (NCA) identified youth issues as a key priority for policy development and action.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that youth have the fundamental right to participate in a democratic society. The symposium was a first step to explore ways in which youth voices can be heard, to identify issues of importance to them and begin to discuss options to close the youth policy gaps.
The ninety people who attended “Towards a National Youth Agenda” in Kingston, Ontario were part of a dynamic and interactive three days. The depth of the dialogue was reflected in all aspects of the conference from personal stories and presentations on key issues through to the early stages of policy development. The goal of the inter-generational agenda was to start by listening to the voices of the youth delegates in order to shift the leadership from adults to youth.
The National Children’s Alliance proposes moving forward by considering how the stories of youth and the issues related to their lived realities will be linked to a wider lens of youth policy development.
Akua Schatz led a workshop on making change. Akua introduced concepts that would encourage the participants to consider themselves as political beings and agents of change. The Butterfly Effect inspired participants to consider the theory that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could affect the weather in Texas. Small changes have long reaching impacts.
Akua explained that public policy is whatever you choose to do or not
Speak up!! Advocate!! And Vote!!!
Youth participants spoke to the need for opportunities and second chances as youth are learning how to ‘be’ in the world. Youth want opportunities to give back to the community. Youth want clean and positive environments, good leaders and “safe” communities. To accomplish this, more funds and more knowledge are essential. Racial prejudice and discrimination, gender roles and disability issues were highlighted.
Environments could be influenced positively by educating people, through art, theatre and dance.
A broad range of concerns were brought forward related to: youth in care; negative images of teens; child abuse; homelessness; environment; food insecurity; Aboriginal women’s rights and Aboriginal rights more broadly. By de-stigmatising marginalized youth and by bridging the gap between service delivery organizations and youth, a more robust safety net could be created.
The Honourable Landon Pearson, Senate of Canada in spoke with enthusiasm and respect for the young people she met with the previous evening. Young people have found their voices in a variety of ways. The question today is how to get youth voices from here to there - from protest to policy.
Senator Landon Pearson encouraged the youth to make use of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as a way to legitimize their voices and to create a Canada fit for youth. This is a legal instrument of international importance. Youth have the right to have their voice heard - not necessarily to have the final word.
This is a generation that has access to technology in ways that most adults don’t. This is a very exciting evolution where regimes needing to be changed can become more democratic. You are the generation that has access to technology. Make it work for you to have your voices heard towards political mobilization.
Jan Nato from Winnipeg recommended that all youth take charge in their own schools given that they have the knowledge, the motivation, the capacity and the power to do so. There is an entire generation of change-makers in each high school and college. One person can begin a peaceful revolution in a minute, and they can ask others to help build momentum. Jan urged every person just start something!
Maryam Toson is originally from Egypt and now lives in Toronto. She believes that youth should stay in school as long as possible and that it is also their responsibility to work and help out their families. Maryam thinks that work teaches youth many things, mainly responsibility and how to live in the real world. When Maryam gets a job she plans to spend her earned money on food as she doesn’t have enough right now, clothes, school supplies, transportation, movies, going to the club and saving for college.
Shinars Hoossein is from Zimbabwe and has lived in Toronto for three years. Shinars believes that youth should work to help out their families. Shinars has been working for four months at McDonalds and makes $200 each month which she sends back to her home in Zimbabwe, buys some clothes, food, bus tickets and gives her mother $120 at the end of each month. Although she loves her job and it keeps her on track, working is not always easy and sometimes can get in the way of school, homework and social activity.
Youth clearly expressed the political realities associated with cut-backs in education funding. There have been cut backs in guidance departments and not enough personal time is spent with each student. Privatization and contracting out in the schools have created problems.
Equality among schools is an issue. Some schools have trades and some do not and some students may not succeed in the academic stream - they need to be offered trades to succeed. The credit system overrides being there to learn. Maybe there aren’t enough options.
Cari Gibbons told the participants that it is important to include the voices of youth in the dialogue about disability rights, advocacy and education. She believes everyone should contribute to equal citizenship and participation in a society that is inclusive in its values, beliefs and policies. Inclusive education is more than just a policy. It is a philosophy, a value, and a belief. It requires the conviction that all persons, including those with disabilities, have the right to equal citizenship and participation in our society. Special needs children are twice as likely to be bullied. They need to be valued by others. Inclusion is about all people. Special needs children and youth are not treated equally or fairly.
Wuanita Lund from Winnipeg came to the conference to speak about poverty and explain to the participants what it is like to live in poverty. Wuanita reminded the audience that fifteen years ago, Parliament committed to solve the poverty issue for children yet today one in six children still live in poverty. Wuanita told the audience that she still couldn’t go to the movies or McDonalds because her family cannot do things together that cost money. There are no lessons because there is no money. She is not part of the mainstream teen culture because she has so few clothes - only hand me downs that don’t fit. At times she’s angry, feels left out and feels that teenagers with more money seem more important.
A speaker from the audience said that poverty is often clouded by personal shame and that it is important to engage with the government on policy issues related to poverty.
Chris Beeson, Angie Vowles and Raheleh Saneie teach sexual health education to students from grade 6 to grade 11 in Ottawa. They are peer educators who speak about healthy relationships, responsible sexuality, communication, drugs and alcohol and how they affect sexual decision-making and contraception. Chris, Angie and Raheleh believe that it is time for the community to take more responsibility to inform kids about sexual health.
Ryan ‘Gitz’ Derange and Niki Grant talked about the Ghost River Rediscovery program in Alberta that gives youth, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, opportunities to repatriate their identities by attending back to the land camping experiences. Niki shared her experience with us about how she has been guided through life with the help of countless mentors, elders and the teaching ways of Mother Nature. It re-connected me with the earth to which we belong, it put me in touch with my native heritage and provided a supportive environment to discover my passion in life and helped heal from the hurt my childhood had created.
A northern participant asked the audience to acknowledge that harsh physical environments such as in the north generates a high calibre of commitment and integrity in youth pointing out that these youth have amazing ancient wisdom to offer and they live the cultural values.
Robert Barnard is the founder of D-Code, and used research results to show that people are voting less but are more educated. Political engagement is low, youth employment is the lowest it has been in years, and social engagement (volunteerism) is relatively low. High schools are the worst example of providing opportunities for political engagement. Youth detachment is related to the de-politicizing of schools. Teachers are not allowed to talk about politics in school. Youth delegates in the traditional political parties are extremely active but they are not visible at conventions. The average age of political party members is 59 years old. Should youth create their own political parties?
Emma Rooney spoke to the gaps in services and supports for youth. Emma graduated from high school and took time off to get involved with Street Kids International. She spoke of how there are homeless youth in our communities here in Canada. York region is seen as affluent, young and educated. However, many are surprised to learn of a growing community of homeless youth. These youth are on the streets of North York because of mental health issues, lack of acceptance for sexual identity, learning disabilities, abuse, lack of economic opportunities and lack of engagement accompanied by a culture of poverty.
Jocelyn Formsma and Ginger Gosnell presented Youth Caring Across Boundaries, a community program that engages participants in a two-day dialogue which highlights inter generational impacts of colonization. It provides opportunities to move forward in a collaborative process with First Nations Youth, the Voluntary Sector and funding foundations. Learning is enhanced by diversity in the group providing an invaluable experience for both communities.
The long-term effects of colonization are seen by indicators: loss of a traditional life style; inter-generational family fragmentation; mass removal of children to residential schools; relocation issues; loss of land entitlement and political self-determination. Issues of addictions, poor housing, food insecurities, high incarceration rates, high rates of Aboriginal children living in care, physical health and suicide are addressed as the direct outcomes of colonization - a multi-generational story of trauma accompanied by great strength.
Bobbie Ethier spoke about the link between public policy-making and community activism. Policy-making is a reflective, thoughtful and progressive process. Community-based advocacy gives you influence but advocacy is just a piece of the political process. Politics is where the “big” decisions are made. Voices are missing from political tables and disenfranchised groups are usually not part of the political process. It’s not a gentle process ... it’s about survival of the fittest. Issues such as food security, sex trade, student debt, and innovative social justice policy have all been brought forward and would not have been considered without youth members and youth voters.
Dave Farthing spoke about how policy evolves month-to-month and year-to-year through constant reflections of diversity, developmental transitions and marginalized youth. How do youth get the political voice they long for? One of the ways is through political structures such as the European Youth Forum, representing a coalition of youth from across Europe. The European Union brings together national council members and each country has a council of their own. Its ninety members have direct access to decision-makers through the Forum. National and international forums can empower youth to shape the political landscape by providing challenges and opportunities to act on such issue.
Ginger Gosnell from Burnaby spoke about the potential for a National Aboriginal Youth Organization. This could be the beginning of formal youth policy work in Canada. It is important to plant the seed with politicians that youth are essential to the political systems and keep repeating it. We can be pioneers and trail blazers in the political youth movement. Ginger spoke to the gift of insight bestowed on her by elders. She has been at many decision-making tables after having applied the vision quest to her life path. Ginger believes that youth have the job to build bridges and inter connectedness and in this way they can provide real help to Aboriginal communities.
Cindy Blackstock told the participants that making a difference begins with acknowledging there is something to learn which emerges from feelings of discomfort. No longer can we care for only the children in our own communities ... we must care about all children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child tells us not to wait for permission. If you want a voice, take it ... it is a recognized, signed and legislated choice and an important gift.
Through a process of dialogue and priority setting the final six priorities were developed:
Physical and social environments strongly influence youth development. As youth venture into society as full participants, the opportunities that are accessible to them shape their experiences. One of the most critical influences discussed was the education system. The need for quality public education was talked about. Accessibility to post-secondary education and training needs to be a continuing call for action to governments.
Sexual health education means moving beyond the scientific -- what’s important is negotiating healthy relationships. Youth must talk to youth. Youth must know the issues and learn the language of sexual health. Stay safe! Early sex education is extremely important. It is important to know about statistics, such as that 50% of high school students think that HIV/AIDS is curable or that Aboriginal women have the highest rates of HIV/AIDS next to developing countries. Knowledge allows you to choose the right direction when taking political action.
Social Injustice and Discrimination has always been put onto those who are excluded. How do we engage all Canadians, and all people of the world to take responsibility? Discrimination and injustice are particularly acute for refugees and newcomers. Bullying and verbal abuse are all part of this. It affects many of Canada’ s children. Aboriginal children feel that they are “not good enough”. Children with learning disabilities such ADD and ADHD are discriminated against. Prejudice, racism and discrimination need attention in the educational system.
Physical and Mental Health issues were illustrated through personal stories showing the connectedness between health and a youth’s circumstances of life. Stories were told about memories of knowing the neighbourhood you grew up in; pregnancy of a friend and fear of parental reactions; alcohol abuse and how it effects youth; Inuit suicide and the effect on communities; experiences in foster care; the cultural inappropriateness of the Canada Food Guide in meeting the needs of traditional Aboriginal peoples; and the children and youth who are “not as successful” when they have learning disabilities.
Access to education and infrastructure is based on equality of opportunity. Young people need to be able to access more trade-based educational opportunities. We need more scholarships to reduce financial barriers. There is a need for change in our educational systems and students need to take action to get for the kind of educational opportunities that they want. This kind of action must be a broad based movement.
Aboriginal issues need to be addressed through more cultural programming and cultural training. Tribal Councils are important to Aboriginal youth, as is a culturally appropriate justice system. Healing, talking and sharing circles are essential for Aboriginal youth. We need higher standards of living, more and equal job opportunities, better housing both on and off reserve, food security and bridging the gap of the misuse of power.
Dianne Bascombe spoke to the NCA’s role in moving forward. This gathering has been the first step, the first dialogue session about youth issues with youth informing us with their voices, experiences and commitment to change. How do we get from personal stories to practice and policy? We must find a way to make this happen through a process that may very well take a few years to realize.
Strini Reddy was deeply impressed by the diligence and commitment of the youth. He was excited to see how well the youth and adults worked with mutual respect and trust. This was a good example of how we should and can work together without being divided by the many artificial barriers that can so easily separate us - age, gender, ability, race, colour and creed. Having been born and raised in apartheid South Africa he could attest to the ugliness that results from dividing people in this way. We must make sure that all our efforts and initiatives are inclusive. I encourage you, whether injured or not, to strive forward to right wrongs, to advocate on behalf of others and to speak up for yourselves when injured. We all live in an interconnected web of humanity and what affects one of us affects all of us.
Creating Global Harmony, One Mural At A Time, One Mile At A Time was brought to the conference by Dianne Rogers as it is an official project of The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Decade of the Culture for Peace and Non Violence Among Children of the World (2001-2010). The youth participants were invited to paint a twelve-by-five foot mural. The completed canvas will become one of twelve miles of murals from countries around the world destined to wrap the pyramids in Alexandria, Egypt in the year 2010.
Dream Catcher symbolizes how we are all interconnected. Each participant threw a ball of yarn to another with whom he/she had connected during the conference. The dream catcher sits in a jar at the National Children’s Alliance office.
Ryan Gitz closed the session with a song he had written about friendships.
Thanks to all of the participants for beginning the journey Towards
a National Youth Agenda.