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Manitoba, meet your young new government

... At least for the holiday season

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While MLAs enjoy the holidays, representatives of Young Manitoba will borrow their seats in the legislative chamber.

The 92nd session of the Youth Parliament of Manitoba runs Dec. 26-31. The non-partisan model parliament gives young people ages 16 to 25 the chance to present, debate and vote on their own bills at the legislature.

Some of the young parliamentarians were at the legislature Friday to introduce the bills they will put forward for debate.

Education reform will dominate much of the five-day session. The young legislators have proposed abolishing private schools, increasing career training in high schools and offering all schoolchildren free breakfasts and lunches.

"Since all of our members have been going through education quite recently, whether it's high school or university, they find this really important in their lives," said Andrew Jones, this session's premier.

Manitoba's youth parliament started in 1922 and is the oldest mock parliament in Canada. The organization hosts a session in the legislative building each year and is run entirely by youths under the age of 25.

The mock proceedings included women before there were female MLAs in the Manitoba legislature, the group says. Jones, who is a master's of political economy student at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, said they have a long tradition of progressive debate.

"Over (the) years we've come up with lots of neat ideas that have been turned into laws," said Jones. "We proposed gay marriage, legalizing abortion and several other policies long before they became law."

On top of the multiple proposals for education reform, students have put forward controversial bills, including one to close all prisons and another to phase out gas-powered cars.

Speaker Daryl Reid said these debates encourage young people to participate in democracy.

"These young folks are our future leaders of our province and our country," said Reid. "And we want them to continue to participate in our democracy, which has always been a challenge in our society generally and by having youth parliament, I think it encourages young people to be involved."

Lauren Marshall is a second-year creative writing and political science student at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. She will table a bill to replace prisons with communal facilities and give additional rights to criminals and the mentally ill.

She said the Ashley Smith inquest inspired her to start thinking about an alternative to the current prison system. Smith was an inmate at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., who died from self-inflicted strangulation. Inquest jurors declared her death a homicide last week.

Marshall said she hopes her bill will foster debate and new ideas for positive change.

"My bill certainly isn't flawless, it's an idea and a platform, which is why I want the young people to discuss it and be creative with it and have ideas for it," said Marshall.

The youth assembly will be made up of about 60 students from across the province. They will spend their nights boarding at Kelvin High School.

Lloyd Axworthy, Bill Blaikie and Bill Norrie have all participated in the Youth Parliament of Manitoba in the past.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2013 A8

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