A number of municipalities across Newfoundland and Labrador are waiting in anticipation for the vote on Bill 6, which could take place as early as next week. Bill 6 aims to give municipalities the power to appoint a non-voting youth representative to serve on their councils.
As the mayor of a small town on the Southern Shore, I enthusiastically welcome this effort.
A number of the concerns that have been voiced in the debate about the value of the bill are worth considering. Limitations on terms of appointment, the establishment of a minimum age for appointees and concerns about the possible impact on councils’ democratic process are critically important considerations.
The wording of the bill, however, makes it clear that the intent is not to prescribe a recipe for councils to follow, but simply to empower councils to make these decisions for themselves.
Many of the province’s larger municipalities already have productive ways to engage young people in local governance, and have expressed reservations about the appointment of youth representatives. The majority of smaller municipalities, however, are not currently equipped with the mechanisms (or the means) to effectively engage young people. The result is that for most youth, what happens in council chambers is a complete mystery. This is unfortunate, since young people are deeply impacted by every decision we make.
For the province’s cities, implementing Bill 6 could be much more difficult than for towns like mine, in Witless Bay. For instance, expecting students to assist council in the selection of a youth representative through an election may not be feasible in cities, since co-ordinating with multiple schools makes this
difficult. It is much more feasible for a town council to organize an election
co-operatively with the student body and the administration of its local high school — especially if the province works with the school boards to establish the necessary procedures.
The question of democratic value of appointed members is another important concern. However, this only becomes an issue if opportunities for participation and input are not extended to everyone. This can be very difficult in larger centres, but in smaller municipalities, this is common practice. In Witless Bay, for instance, our council recognizes that the best decisions are well informed, and it strives to be as open, accountable and accessible as possible. Before we vote on any matter, the public is given the opportunity to speak.
Groups can make presentations during meetings, and we hold a discussion session following each meeting where stakeholders can express their ideas and concerns.
Given the way our meetings are structured, the introduction of a youth representative would add a new perspective and a vastly under-represented voice without undercutting our democratic process.
In the province’s smaller municipalities, the many benefits of having a youth representative on council far outweigh the costs. Having a youth representative at the table with us would strengthen our councils’ ties to the younger generation, reinforce these youths’ ties to their communities, and give us a liaison with other youths in the community.
Having a voice speaking on behalf of young people at the council table would serve as a constant reminder that we are responsible for the long-term stewardship of our municipalities and their resources. The presence of a youth representative would also give community leaders an important opportunity to foster interest in governance and provide mentorship for the next generation of councillors and mayors.
My correspondence with municipal leaders who have successfully adopted this initiative in Manitoba and Alberta has made it clear to me that the successful addition of a youth rep depends primarily on a council’s readiness to invest the time required to adapt the mechanism to the needs of the community.
While there are some challenges to be overcome, this is a worthwhile effort for a number of the province’s municipalities. For the successful implementation of this bill we will need the province to provide municipalities, school boards and school administrations with the tools necessary to ensure that Bill 6 is implemented effectively.
I am happy to see Bill 6 enter the committee stage in the House of Assembly, and humbly urge members to consider the great potential of this forward-
While some changes to the bill may be necessary (for instance, to limit terms of appointment and establish a minimum age for youth representatives), it is crucial that members focus on long-term benefits for the communities who choose to take advantage of the opportunity to work with the youth of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mayor of Witless Bay