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Young People Are Citizens Too!

Young people are quick to identify not only the conflict of interest, but also issues in the design of the program. There's a difference between good learning-service opportunities and serving as cheap labour.

“Where was the ‘adult’ in the Prime Minister’s Office?” 

Commentators asked that question after controversy erupted when the charity WE, which has close links with the Trudeau family and other Liberals, was chosen without an open process to run a $900 million dollar youth volunteer program in Canada this summer. 

In contrast I am asking: “Where were the young people?” 

Young people are very alert to unfair treatment. The young people I have asked are quick to identify not only the conflict of interest, but also issues in the design of the program. They are also alert to the difference between good learning-service opportunities and cheap labour and being used to avoid hiring other low-income earners. 

Unemployed youth

On a second level, I ask that question because young people are paying the price for diversion of attention to another ethical quagmire with high political partisanship instead of issues that they see as important for their futures. I say “another” because the earlier SNC Lavalin ethical controversy is a major reason why the promised youth policy and climate change policy, both of great interest to young people, were under-developed before the last election. 

On a third and most important level, I ask that question because the core of the WE controversy is a lack of coherent public policy and governance for young people in Canada. If Canada had responsible governance for young people, it would not need to turn to groups like WE for short-term, expensive, band-aid solutions to issues like a high level of unemployed young people with little to do this summer.

Preventing long-term harm

The first attempt at a promised comprehensive youth policy ended up being little more than a few just-in-time election goodies, not a credible policy framework. Minister Bardish Chagger, charged with completing the youth policy, will be so tainted by the WE controversy that a credible youth policy will likely not see the light of day. 

Does that matter? The transition from school to work and from adolescence to adulthood, in a rapidly changing and uncertain context, is a critical societal issue and falls through cracks between traditional departments. Inter-generational issues, such as climate change and artificial intelligence, that have more impacts for young people, are being addressed in the context of an aging population with growing political demands on public resources. 

In addition, many young people are falling through the cracks of our fragmented community support systems. Let me give just two examples. It has taken years of advocacy work in several different provinces to address the problem of young people at age 16 being “graduated” from child welfare to survive on their own without any support. It took evidence in B.C. showing that more than 50 precent end up in the youth criminal justice system to get action on just one gap in how we don’t support young people. We know that youth homelessness, which is expensive to address, starts young and becomes a crisis because calls for help get lost in mental health, education and community services. I am now active in a campaign called “Duty to Assist” that would require some response within a reasonable time, in order to close those gaps and prevent life-long harm through early, appropriate assistance. Drug addictions, radicalization, and the over-representation of some groups in youth jails all require earlier attention and more comprehensive approaches for the adolescent-to-adult years. That is recommended in hundreds of research studies, but it is never implemented. 

Governance with youth in mind

Canada’s federal system makes this area of public policy more challenging, as does the way we govern slices of life through different adult-oriented departments. Effective youth governance that makes the connections between all the factors involved in adolescence would also know how to support young people through emergencies like COVID-19, which was the goal of this initiative. 

Young people deserve better. Frankly, Canada can no longer afford to let so many adolescents fall through the cracks or lose years of positive development because of our piecemeal programs and age-inappropriate governing systems. Youth, more than seniors, need to be centered in public policy for the sake of our future.


  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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