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Young 'politicians' sound off

Youth parliamentarians give views on voter apathy

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While most students sleep in over the holidays, politically savvy youth are spending their free time at the 89th winter session of Manitoba's Youth Parliament.

They rolled out of bed early Monday for Day 2 of the five-day mock legislative debate inside the legislature.

"Often in media, you'll see that the political agenda is set for a different, older demographic and so this is an opportunity for our ideas to take the forefront," said 'Premier' Darcy Vermeulen, 22, a global political economy major at the University of Manitoba.

In an era when many young people don't even bother to vote, these students are the politically engaged exception.

Stacy Schott, 16, a first-year backbencher, found out about Youth Parliament by watching her older sister debate in the chamber.

"We've always watched the debates. We've always kept in touch with what's going on through the world," said Schott, citing her politically aware family as an influence.

For others, it was school that sparked their interest.

Vermeulen said his Grade 12 history teacher gave him an information package about Youth Parliament, so he applied and got in. It's "a sense of citizenship, something that isn't stressed enough in society," that pushes him to get involved politically, he said.

The Vermeulen family lost their Macgregor house to fire on Dec. 23.

For 'Finance Minister' Brent Hardy, 19, it was "a natural progression."

Hardy was involved in many student clubs at Teulon Collegiate Institute. He couldn't wait to turn 16 so he could join Youth Parliament.

The young politico has voted every chance he could since turning 18. According to Elections Canada, young people like him are a minority. Elections Canada reported that only 36 per cent of people 18 to 20.5, and 39 per cent of youth aged 20.5 to 24, voted in the 2008 federal election. The 65 to 74 age group had a turnout of 68 per cent.

When asked why young people don't vote, the students say politicians need to engage youth in more creative ways and pay attention to issues that matter to them.

Although Canadian politicians use new media channels such as Facebook to connect with the public, Vermeulen believes it's the message that is key to reaching young people.

"It's a combo of things, a lack of emphasis on the younger generation. The politicians don't campaign as hard to that demographic," said Vermeulen, who believes Canadian politicians need to step up their game.

Obama's 2008 presidential election campaign is a fair example. "Obama inspired a younger generation, at least for a little while," Vermeulen said.

Schott believes a change in education is key to engaging voters. "I don't think we're educated enough through the schools, it's not a big enough issue in the curriculum."

Hardy said, "Parties are election-winning machines when they're supposed to be a vehicle for engagement."

It's a place to engage the next generation of voters and politicians, the students say. "It's amazing we're lucky enough to have a say in things," Hardy said. "I'm not saying that our current system is perfect, but at least there's a forum."

Youth Parliament has operated since 1922. Alumni include past Winnipeg mayor Bill Norrie, University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy and former MP Bill Blaikie.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2010 B6

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