At the time this article was written Ruth
Wilson was a member of the Executive of the National Youth Parliament
0ne evening last summer, in the Senate
Chamber in Ottawa, a young Inuit man stood up to speak in his native tongue.
Jacapoosie Peters was a delegate to the second session of the Youth Parliament
of Canada/Parlement Jeunesse du Canada. He was noticeably nervous and unsure of
House procedure, but through an Inuktitut interpreter, he spoke from his heart
about his people and their land, and his hope for their future.
In his few poignant words, Jacapoosie
dramatized the purpose of the youth parliament movement in Canada. That purpose
is: to stimulate the interest of young people in the welfare of their nation
and promote a spirit of co-operation, understanding and goodwill among
Canadians, and to provide a non partisan opportunity through the parliamentary
process to gain a practical educational experience in leadership, public
speaking, and debate.
These goals were realized at the first two
sessions of the Youth Parliament of Canada. In 1980, and again in 1982, 110
young Canadians gathered together to consider issues of national and
international concern. In addition to debating in the House, the delegates
participated in committee and cabinet meetings, back room lobbying, and panel
discussions with media, community, and political personalities. In their spare
time, they tried to get to know each other as youth parliamentarians, friends,
The Youth Parliament Tradition
Although the Youth Parliament of Canada is
still a very young organization, and experiencing some growing pains, it is the
outgrowth of a long tradition. In 191 2the first regional youth parliament was
held in Saskatchewan under the name Tuxis' and Older Boys' Parliament. The late
John G. Diefenbaker attended the first session. Within a few years, the United
Church boys' program, Tuxis (Training Under Christ In Service), had initiated
boys' parliaments in all regions of Canada.
At its inception, the movement was intended
to develop Christian leadership ability in young men through an awareness of
social and parliamentary issues. By the 1930s it had loosened its ties with
Tuxis; and young men from outside the United Church began to attend. The
Christian element remained strong nonetheless. In each region, one member of the
cabinet would act as "Minister of Devotional Affairs" and be
responsible for presenting legislation of an ecumenical nature.
By the mid-sixties, most youth parliaments
had dropped all association with Tuxis and become simply Older Boys'
Parliament. Today, only Alberta's youth parliament carries the name Tuxis.
There, participation in a Christian setting remains the focus of the program.
In the early 1970s, the boys' parliament
movement faced its first serious challenge. In some provinces, the interest in
parliamentary debate was declining; and the active, co-ordinated support and
member solicitation by the Church was missed. In other regions, pressure from
the community was mounting to open boys' parliaments to women as well. Women
were finally admitted into Alberta's parliament only two years ago. All
provincial and regional organizations are now youth parliaments.
At present, there are eight regional youth
parliaments in Canada. The three maritime provinces share a single
jurisdiction; the remaining seven provinces maintain independent programs.
Regional parliaments are held, for the most
part, annually during the Christmas season in the provincial legislative
buildings. About eighty-five young people, age 1621, attend in each region.
They are sponsored by schools, churches, youth groups, MLAs, etc. They spend
three to five days debating legislation written by themselves, learning
parliamentary procedure, and planning the year's activities. Each regional
youth parliament has developed its own unique characteristics. Yearly
activities vary from running social welfare programs for underprivileged
children, to organizing "mini parliaments" in remote areas.
All the youth parliaments are non-profit
organizations funded by the participants, corporate donations, and government
Toward a National Parliament
Being a youth parliamentarian in the sixties
and seventies meant taking part in discussions about the possibility of
organizing a national youth parliament. Usually, these discussions took place
at a cabinet meeting, or a regional annual meeting, and older members quickly
convinced the others that the concept was admirable but unworkable. All the
usual arguments used to discourage any national organization in Canada: the
country is too large; effective communication is impossible; fundraising is too
large a task for eight independent organizations, each very set in its own
traditions. These arguments were strengthened after a national conference was
held one year and no follow-up took place.
In the 1960s, the delegates to the National
Conference on Parliaments and the Church met and voiced support for the idea of
a gathering of youth (boys') parliaments. In 1967, about a hundred boys from
all provinces attended a national parliament, in Calgary, to mark Canada's
centennial. The delegates voted resoundingly in favour of further conferences,
but no strategy was mapped out and nothing came of it.
The inherent weakness of the Calgary conference
was the absence of active support from the provincial organizations. The 1967
gathering was financed through church sources, and was the brainchild of one
person. No one was willing to commit the time and effort toward future
Over the next few years, other attempts were
made without success. Two youth parliamentarians, for example, received an
Opportunities for Youth grant and spent their summer travelling across Canada
"seeking responses to the concept of a national youth parliament." By
the time they got home, they had run out of money and enthusiasm. No one heard
from them again.
In 1977, representatives from seven of the
eight youth parliaments met in Collingwood, Ontario to initiate the program
that now meets every two years in Ottawa under the name Youth Parliament of
Canada/Parlement Jeunesse du Canada. The difference between this meeting and
those held previously was that long-term goals were set. An organization was
built to develop and support an ongoing national youth program. No one at the
Collingwood meeting was satisfied with the idea of a onetime affair.
Although enthusiasm was readily available,
the new organization still had many barriers to overcome. Organizers were young
and inexperienced, funds were scarce, resignations caused setbacks: and
community and government support was badly needed. Finally, in November 1979,
the group of young people was federally incorporated as a non-profit
organization operating under the name National Youth Parliament Association. At
the same time, the first Board of Governors' meeting was held. Two directors
from each regional parliament gave a six-member executive the mandate to carry
out plans to hold the first Youth Parliament of Canada in Ottawa in August
Who are the Members?
The key to the success of the national youth
parliament movement is the members. There are about 110 of them at each session
ranging in age from 1823. Most of them have grown up in their own regional
movement, but about twenty of the young people are "members-at-large",
un-associated with a regional youth parliament.
If you ask some of the members what they
expect to get out of the experience of the Youth Parliament of Canada, the
answers will vary. One wants to learn more about other youth parliaments and
try to apply what he has learned to better serve young Canadians. Another might
place more value on the quality of debate and the strategies involved in
passing or defeating a piece of legislation. Yet a third might try to take the
enthusiasm found at the national parliament home to strengthen the movement in
his own region.
The differences among youth
parliamentarians, however, are less striking than the similarities.
Representatives are elected by their own regional youth parliaments and are,
therefore, the "crème de la crème." The members may have different
accents, speak French or English, or have opposed political leanings. But they
are generally bright, well-educated, ambitious, outspoken, stubborn, and
idealistic. When they stand to speak in the House, they do so with conviction.
What they say is often a paraphrase of a recent newspaper editorial, a
Maclean's article, or a favourite politician's speech. But their words ring a
little louder and clearer and often truer than the real House debates.
Observers of youth parliaments often mistake
the participants for aspiring politicians. In most cases, this is not true,
although several well known politicians – John Diefenbaker, Lloyd and Tom
Axworthy, and Waiter S. Owen, for example formerly participated in boys' parliaments.
Quite naturally, youth parliamentarians have a greater than average interest in
current affairs and the political system; but the experience is a lesson in
citizenship in the parliamentary framework rather than a study in politics.
Political life may seem less alluring to delegates after a week of media
attention, not all polite, and ego bruising question periods in the House.
The Canadian Youth Parliament tries to
balance its cultural representation in Canada by inviting French-speaking
Canadians, Inuit, and Native Indians to participate as members-at-large. It is
these members-at-large, like Jacapoosie Peters, who often best represent the
goals of the national program. They teach by example that being a Canadian
means something more than defending provincial autonomy, and that co-operation
needs to stretch over cultural boundaries as well as geographic ones.
At the one session of Youth Parliament the
Indian and Francophone delegates defended the more basic rights of land claims
and culture. The Inuit member called for co-operation of his people as a race
and not as Canadians. Members learned that the Inuit do not consider themselves
Canadians. To them, Americans and Canadians are lumped together under one
Cultural differences are displayed, language
barriers are overcome, and a spirit of co-operation between all regions of
Canada is generated. The national forum is truly an experience in Canadian
The practical experience of parliamentary
debate and tradition is an important part of the educative experience.
Structured into the program is a full cabinet, shadow cabinet, and committee
system. House rules have been adapted to suit the peculiarities of the
organization, but are based on House of Commons procedures. All the pomp and
ceremony of parliamentary tradition are there. During the opening ceremonies,
an Honour Guard ushers in the Governor General to read the Speech from the
Throne. (The Hon. Jean Marchand has served the youth parliament as Governor General
in both the first and second sessions.) In this setting the young people learn
to work for change from within the institution. of parliament.
Individuality within the rules is stressed.
Government and opposition are not patterned after the present federal divisions
of Parliament. Each member votes according to conscience on all matters. Even
the cabinet can be found to disagree in formal votes.
Eight cabinet members, one from each
regional youth parliament, present one piece of legislation each to the House.
Resolutions, and the debates that follow, tend to be regionally biased. This
was particularly true at the first session: Alberta presented legislation
demanding increased autonomy of its oil industry, Saskatchewan defended the
Crow's Nest freight rates; and Quebec called out for a new language policy. But
by the end of the week, this diminished as members accepted the need to discuss
issues with a national and international outlook.
This increased awareness was highlighted at
the second session by the contribution of the "members-at-large" and
the debates on private members' resolutions. Regional differences were
forgotten during debate on the penal system, Inuit land claims, reform of the
federal parliamentary system, and the Mid-East crisis. Youth parliamentarians
looked outward and focussed on a global viewpoint.
Behind the Scenes
An increasingly co-operative attitude
distinguishes the National Youth Parliament Association, the incorporated
sponsoring body of the Canadian Youth Parliament, as well. A six-member
executive shares the responsibilities of fund raising, government and public
relations, publicity, program development, focal arrangements, and financial
matters. All members of the executive, and of the Board of Governors, are
At early Board and Executive meetings,
members tended to stress the differences between parliaments and argue over
which system the national program should adopt. Now, emphasis is on the
national organization as an independent outgrowth of the regions.
Most of the executive members are former
youth parliamentarians themselves. They have all witnessed the results of
successful youth programs across the country and are committed to working
toward a continuing national parliament.
During the ten days they spend in Ottawa
immediately prior to, and throughout the session, the executive and its
volunteers take over the Senate area of the Houses of Parliament. Long hours
are spent seeking publicity, preparing press kits, printing, translating and
typing legislation, finalizing all local arrangements; and constantly seeking
support and guidance from government officials.
Happily, government support is very
apparent. Interpreters, translators, typists and printers are at the
organization's disposal. Office space is donated and administrative advice is
freely given. A sizeable grant from the Secretary of State relieves financial
In the months between sessions, the
Association is reduced to a young and scattered organization. There are still
legitimate concerns about finances, continuity and feasibility of future youth
parliaments in a country as large as Canada. Long range plans now stress the
need to build a system that cannot easily collapse. That demands a pyramid
structure of responsibilities and committed volunteers. In fact, it demands the
building of a bureaucracy. Youth parliamentarians may wince at the word, but
they wince more at the thought that the Canadian Youth Parliament could still
collapse after so much effort and so much success. The value of the youth
parliament movement in Canada is too important to the participants for it to
die. It is that determination, and that optimism, that will ensure its future.
The value of the experience that youth
parliamentarians hold so dear was summed up by John Diefenbaker when he
recalled his own days as a member of the Older Boys' Parliament of
Few of the opportunities open ... for
self-improvement and participation for a full role as contributing members of
the Canadian community are more rewarding than participation in the ... [youth]
As members of such a Parliament, young
Canadians learn of Parliament and the way in which our country is governed, and
gain an insight into the kind and variety of the problems with which elected representatives
are faced. It is on-the-job training that can be secured in no other way short
of the real thing.
During the session, they are brought
together with other young people of widely different backgrounds, ability, and
outlook. They learn the art of compromise and co-operative endeavour., and the
difficult knack of getting the best from others and from themselves. They learn
to think before speaking; to marshall their thoughts in logical and orderly
fashion, to express these thoughts clearly, logically and convincingly. They
experience leadership and discipline, patience and moderation.
The rewards of this experience can be
immense. . . [it] will be of value throughout life.