Forum for Young Canadians: Inspiring young people to become difference makers

Today, perhaps more than ever before, it is imperative that young Canadians have the opportunity to learn about their government and how their participation can affect the quality of life for all. Enter the Forum for Young Canadians, an organization that has been hosted by senators in the Red Chamber for decades. The Forum is three separate weeklong sessions that encourage leadership skills and gives the participants, ages 15-19, the opportunity to learn about democracy, their government, and the responsibilities of citizenship. These students are also given the chance to meet with various players in the Canadian government and to connect with other youth from across the country who may share similar interests. In 2018 the senators joined the participants in small groups to impart their expertise, as well as to listen to the priorities and expectations these youth have of their government. They also discussed various policy issues of the day.

Forum for Young Canadians was conceived in 1976 as a non-partisan program funded by the Foundation for the Study of Processes of Government, a registered non-profit organization founded in 1975. The foundation’s two primary goals are to promote Canadian citizenship and to educate young Canadians regarding the role of the three levels of Canada’s democratic government. The forum provides students with the opportunity to learn about their nation’s government in a personal and hands-on setting.

In the mid 1970’s Parliamentarians supported the idea of developing a structured way for students from across Canada to learn about their government in a non-partisan fashion. The idea was proposed by Tony German, the then director of development at Ashbury College. He soon had the backing of many in parliament. Senate Speaker, Renaude Lapointe, changed the Senate rules to allow students to sit in senators’ seats, so that they could have a concrete experience of events that take place in this historic chamber. Senator Eugene Forsey, respected for his knowledge of constitutional matters, agreed to participate.

The Senators have hosted this annual event ever since. “The Forum is an important opportunity for young people in Canada because it allows them to establish a sense of belonging within our parliamentary institutions,” according to Senator Jim Munson. “It helps peak their interest in politics.” The success of the program is undeniable, and it has grown steadily over the years. It separated from Ashbury College in the 1980’s and is now primarily run by alumni. And so the torch is passed from generation to generation.

When the selected students arrive in Ottawa, they inevitably connect with each other and, as a result learn about the strengths and needs of other communities across the land. This fosters a deeper and broader understanding of the Canadian government’s role in addressing some of the challenges of the various regions. “We spend a week in Ottawa and (visit) Parliament Hill to learn how government works,” explains 16 year old Breanne from Chilliwack, BC. “We do simulations and listen to the Senators and all that sort of stuff.”

As part of her application process, Breanne had to submit a letter explaining why she deserved to be selected. In less than a week she received her acceptance letter. “I was very surprised,” said Breanne. She is extremely happy about this opportunity. “It’s important to seek to understand, to listen, and to extract as much information as you can (at these events). Listening to other youths will help me to build better connections….” They say that it takes a community to raise a child, and I’m still young and long for that myself. It’s important to build trust and have integrity in our relationships every day so we can build together a place…where everyone can find the room they need to grow.”

The cost of attending the event is nearly $1,000, but included in the sum are airfare, accommodations, and food for the week. The Forum covers 57 percent of the tab, which would otherwise be $2,500. “I think it’s really important that people know about this opportunity,” added Breanne. “Everyone should apply for it because it’s investing in the future of Canada.”

Students in need may be eligible to receive a bursary to lower the cost of their Forum experience. These bursaries are accessible according to the students’ household income, number of dependents in the household, and how many of them are entering post-secondary education.

Jananni, a Scarborough student, was also selected to attend the youth forum. She believes that the experience will provide yet another way to “learn about our government, politics, and law.” One of the group exercises is to recreate the Parliament in order to collaborate, share ideas and opinions, and watch public affairs up close. This gives Jananni, one of 300 other students selected this year, the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes experience of what is involved in running the country. She is interested in studying political science and law when she attends university in the fall.

Her recent community involvement includes volunteer work with politicians during the elections. She assisted a PC candidate by gathering material for seminars, planning conferences, and campaigning door-to-door. “It made me understand the other side of how politicians actually get to where they are,” Jannani said. “That’s what made me want to go into politics because… I feel that I am capable of talking to people… and I’m pretty clear of what I want to say, so I really feel that I could be doing this in the future.” Jannani also participates in Model United Nations, a conference that engages students in debates on a variety on of global issues and teaches them about how the UN works. She has also been the master of ceremonies at her school’s provincial election debate.

Ella enjoyed the more personal aspects of the smaller group engagement that was recently introduced. “As a young Indigenous Canadian, speaking with Senator Dyck about the Colten Bushie case was very interesting. The police need to be held accountable for their actions if reconciliation is going to be possible. We need to talk about these issues more.” Her concern and passion for the environment is evident. “I met with Senator Griffin also and we talked about climate change and preserving the environment. I come from Manitoba, where Lake Winnipeg is currently being invaded by zebra mussels. We had a great conversation about what we can do as young leaders to help address that and improve the environment in our communities. It inspired me.” There is no doubt that these politically engaged students will emerge from the program better educated about their government.

Participants are chosen by a selection committee based on their academic performance, leadership skills, community involvement, an essay submission and their overall interest in national and community affairs. There are three opportunities a year to attend the forum in Ottawa. In 2018 the three sessions ran from January through March. The 2019 Forum dates will be posted on their website sometime in September.

Before applying, a resume and a letter of motivation should be prepared and a contact person selected from the applicant’s school. The student should be ready to provide their telephone number and email address, as well as the address, telephone, and fax number of the high school. A current government issued ID for travel is a necessity, as is a provincial and territorial health card. Knowledge of who their Member of Parliament is, as well as the electoral district the student resides in, marks the beginning of their political education. Forum recommends that each student create their personal Twitter and Instagram accounts. For more details, as well as the application form visit: http://forum.ca/the-program/application/?lang=eng

Forum is a demanding experience, both physically and intellectually. It requires commitment and whole hearted participation. It also demands respectful behavior from the students at all times. Harassment of any kind, drugs, and alcohol are strictly forbidden and curfews are enforced. The experience is best viewed as a privilege and a wonderful opportunity. For questions on or problems with the application can be addressed at recruitment@forum.ca

The forum provides various activities and presentations on politics, policy, and international trade. These young students undergo simulations on election campaigns, cabinet sessions, a Supreme Court session, and a high-stakes trade experience. Additionally there is a simulation of a provincial-federal conference provided. Students also have the opportunity to attend a breakfast with Senators, enjoy an evening reception with MPs, and participate in a guided tour of Rideau Hall and Parliament.

For Tammy Robinson of Oxford House, Manitoba, her trip to Ottawa in the Spring of 2016 was transformative. It was a big deal for her and her community, a small and struggling fly- in reserve 950 kilometres north of Winnipeg. “A lot of students here are living in poverty and they get into drugs and alcohol, so they don’t really come to school, they don’t feel the motivation to come to school,” says Tammy. This was why she was so determined to get a small group of students from Oxford House to attend the Forum. Due to an unforeseen tragedy in the community, there was some last minute financial scrambling “just to get there,” Tammy notes.  “And we actually made it!”

For a young girl who has endured poverty, outdated textbooks, and a sub-standard education, this was an incredible event. It was a chance to participate in the dynamic world of Canadian politics with its inherent networking and potential for change. She learned the all-important skills of speaking up, working together, taking action, and making a difference. This group of seven friends from Oxford House were motivated to create a better future for their peers. What did she learn? “Parliamentarians are people just like me. It’s possible to make a change just like we did, to come here, to do these kinds of things…. Even if you feel like you’re stuck, it’s possible.” Her desire is to instill this hope in other kids, that they too can make a change for the better. She might even run for local council someday. Many of today’s political leaders discovered their passion at the Forum when they were students. In 2001 The Foundation created the Canada-U.S. Youth Forum in partnership with the University of Ottawa and with an emphasis on issues relevant to the bilateral relationship between Canada and the United States. The emphasis is on bringing together primarily university aged students from both countries for a one week of discussion. In light of today’s political upheaval in so many parts of the globe, the innovative idea of communication happening between the youth of different countries, can only be a positive. Best of all, Forum for Young Canadians seeks to broaden the identities of these youth to see themselves primarily as Canadians, and although their origins are rooted in disparate regions, Canada is the country they call home.

By Alison Zenisek