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72nd Annual Summer Conference, August 7–10, 2003

Discussion Group: The Youth Define the New Agenda

Summary by Tanzeel Merchant

The discussion group aimed to brainstorm, discuss and explore various issues that Canada’s youth felt was important both in the context of our generation and the issue of growing economic and institutional integration on the North American continent.

The Generation Gap

  • Today’s Youth are unaware of the social, political and economic climate in which NAFTA was negotiated and signed. Where we stand today, looking at the years ahead in which our generation will participate, would we accept the same terms? What would we choose to keep, to include and to take off the agenda? What issues are important to us?
  • Is this group representative of Canada’s youth? As an elite group, are we really able to speak for the larger body of young Canadians including those living in rural communities that do not enjoy the same exposure as we have.
  • Most young people don’t even have the time and resources to enter into this discussion and movement, saddled as they are with everyday economic and societal pressures.
  • It is possible that our youth lack a sense of history and time. We want instant fixes and solutions. What we may need is “experience” and an understanding of our real history so that we are aware of the effort and work it takes to effect change and build a nation.

Participation in the Political Process: The Need for More-responsive Institutions

  • Today’s Youth choose not to act through the formal, established political system but participate instead through a plethora of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and interest groups that address and resonate with various aspects of their multi-faceted identities.
  • There is growing disillusionment with traditional means of representation and the political process. This is partially because of the perceived corruption, inaction and lethargy as well as the ineffectiveness of these institutions to hear us. This was a recurring theme throughout our discussion.
  • Are we taking our own democratic “responsibilities” as seriously as we demand our “rights”? Canada has very low youth participation in its electoral process, its youth are perceived to be politically apathetic. How many of us vote and even if we feel it is pointless, cast a blank or protest vote? Are we doing enough with the means of redressal we currently have available to us?
  • There need for electoral reform so that our institutions are more representative.
  • Are we merely “reacting to” the status quo and have we made sufficient effort to actually involve ourselves in changing things? The “outside-in” approach allows us to assert pressure through various fronts on our organisations, but making the effort to involve ourselves directly in their functioning may allow us to have a more significant impact.
  • We live in the world we live in and can’t just “scrap” everything we don’t like them or they don’t work for us. We have to make the effort to understand and where possible reform and reinvent our existing institutions.
  • There a need for a new level of institution with flexibility and scale that allow us to participate in our democracy and articulate our agendas, concerns and expectations through a formal system similar to those that various levels of governments use to speak to each other? What kind of institution of representation do we want?
  • Is there a need to create political channels that connect into schools and universities and involve us in the political process? Is it healthy for our youth to participate in this considering the narrower compulsions and interests of political parties and the effect this may have on education and the idealism that is often only experienced in one’s youth?
  • Over the next decade, there will be a faster and larger intake of young people into Canada’s administrative services than ever before with a large segment of the current workforce retiring. This is an opportunity for us to involve ourselves professionally and effect generational change from within.

Networking and Solidarity

  • There is a need for the various interest groups and formal and informal organisations we belong to and create to network and connect as well as build “structure” in order to present a strong and visible front so that we may have real political presence and have access to power to effect change.
  • A “youth lobby group” would allow us to press for significant change and recognise our civic and economic role and potential.
  • Certain issues became rallying points for our youth over the last two years, namely gatherings of international economic institutions and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Various youth-based groups with very different agendas rallied together to both become visible as well as vocal in the urban environment. Why are more and more students becoming involved and what do they hope to get out of this? Is this potentially a new model of democracy?
  • Demonstrations do give us a voice and make society look at and listen to us, but do they really give is “power”?

Diversity. Local and Global Connectedness

  • Canada’s youth see themselves connected globally in both a physical and virtual realm. They also see themselves as being more aware of global cultures, issues and events than their American counterparts.
  • There is also the desire by Canadian youth to understand, travel to and work in other parts of the world. In our perception, that is not something characteristic of young people in the US. We also feel we have the capacity to “think globally and act locally” with a very flexible and open-ended approach to external as well as local influences.
  • We see ourselves as many different identities, as Canadians, as members of our own ethnic and interest groups, as North Americans and as citizens of the world. The unique quality of being Canadian allows us to participate in and “juggle” several identities and ethnicities simultaneously.
  • We are possibly also a “rootless” generation of “portable people” in the sense that we can live and work in foreign countries without losing our sense of being Canadian, i.e., being on Canadian soil is not essential to our understanding of “self”.
  • We are as a working collective more diverse and multi-cultural than the US and aware of it without it affecting our sense of being Canadian, e.g., American university applications ask individuals to define their ethnicity, Canadian’s see themselves simply as Canadian.
  • There is a need to build stronger intra-national links between Canada’s provinces and with states in the US similar to Europe’s Erasmus Program that will allow us to understand each other better and build stronger links and develop a more contemporary cultural-hybrid identity for future cooperation with less conflict.
  • There is a sense that our “leaders” do not have as much exposure or an understanding of contemporary Canada as we do, being born into and living in it.
  • We also have a strong sense of what being Canadian is and what our core values are.

Rights and Responsibilities

  • Are we as aware of our responsibilities as we are of our rights and should we be making an effort to be more involved and responsible in our civic duties?
  • Today’s youth need a model of democracy that allows them to participate in what is meaningful to them.
  • Today’s youth are not entirely helpless. There are organisations like Canada 2025 and “Youth Cabinets” and fora in various cities for us to get involved.
  • It is also our responsibility as members of the “elite” to spread awareness of these forums and make them accessible to young people across the length and breadth of Canada, especially in rural communities that need to be brought into this dialogue.
  • “What can the average kid in Canada do to get involved? For that matter what can anyone do?”

Catalysts for Change

  • The youth are undeniably a catalyst for change both globally and locally.
  • Youth action is characterised by “passion”. This stage in our lives allows us to participate and involve ourselves more fully than any other age group might. If we care enough, we can make a difference.
  • There is more awareness in our generation than in previous generations of global and local issues and the older generation’s inability to recognise this is frustrating.
  • The issues of our generation that are being decided on will be our inheritance, especially environmental issues which we will inherit in time in the form of colossal economic and social problems.

New Technology and New Means of Effecting Change

  • The global community and the internet has fundamentally influenced the character of our generation.
  • Governments have begun e-enabling of the political and civic process. NGO’s and other organisations have also adapted and embraced the internet both to organise and administer themselves as well as disseminate information. Often enough, they are more organised and broadly spread than governments and provide a real, trans-national environment for our youth to collaborate and act on issues that are important to them.
  • The internet has allowed our youth, both as individuals and groups, to build strong and meaningful alliances and relationships across borders. These allow us to understand and cooperate with our peers across the world in building a dialogue and effecting change without the need for formal institutions and resources.
  • Do we really think a populist system is in our best interest and is what we think we want by popular demand in our best interest?
  • In the wired age, how are we receiving our information, how de we receive it and what’s the “spin”. Sources of information and media of expression and the control of them are real issues, both nationally and globally, for our generation.

Image, Perception and Representation

  • Are today’s youth represented fairly or is the media demonising us? This is especially true of the coverage of youth demonstrations in the recent past, which have not fairly represented the actual environment in reality and picked up on a few stray incidents to brand the larger effort in a negative way.
  • What does the media choose to print and not print about us and with what motive? The role of the media in shaping expectations at every level is of concern to us.
  • Do we as a group fairly represent Canada’s youth? How many of us know our own countries and have travelled within Canada? How many of us in Canada have even travelled outside our immediate neighbourhoods and tried to understand that.
  • What do the youth on the other side of the border watch and listen to, how and through what agency do they receive that information and how do they understand us?
  • What are the implications of continental cultural exchange on our sense of sovereignty?
  • The word “youth” is used for our generation as a pedantic, derogatory term. We should instead see ourselves as “young individuals” which as much opportunity to cause change as any other member of society. Re-orienting our sense of “self” will make us stronger in our actions and the direction in which we choose to move.
  • Are we stuck in the same dilemma of inaction that the “adults” are in?

Key questions arose while summarising this discussion that addressed both the nature of our questions and responses and provided a foundation to move the discussion forward in the context of the topic of the conference; “Continentalism, What’s in it or Us?”.

  1. How do we relate to American foreign policy in light of the profound impact it will have on our futures?
  2. What are the issues we feel are important and want to effct change on?
  3. Should we be building communication channels with youth activists like ourselves on the other side of the border?
  4. Do we think the legacy of NAFTA is important and on what fronts do we feel we want to move forward on it?
  5. We are largely uncomfortable with the policies of the current Bush administration both locally and globally; what differences if any do we have with America’s youth?
  6. What differences might they have with us?
  7. Should the media be more responsible and contextual in how we receive our information and interpret it in a generation that is so “wired” and connected?
  8. Do we value the Canadian model of the “mosaic” versus the “melting-pot”? Do we find issue with the move towards continentalism, keeping in mind the values of diversity and equity that we value?