Young people from across the Northwest Territories got a taste of political life during Youth Parliament 2019.
The week-long program is an opportunity for high school students to walk in the shoes of the elected officials who represent them and learn about the daily workings of the legislative assembly.
During a mock session on Thursday, the students made members’ statements about issues that mattered to them, from food security and affordability to the lack of after-school activities for youth in Fort Resolution.
In some ways, the Youth Legislative Assembly was the opposite of the regular assembly – not only were the members younger but also noticeably more female. Out of the 18 youth members, only three were male, in contrast to the regular assembly which has just two women out of 19 members.
“It was just the applications that came in,” explained Charlotte Digness, media and communications co-ordinator at the legislative assembly. “It was just very female-heavy.”
Stella Smyslo, a Grade 9 student at Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife, was the youth MLA for Kam Lake for the day. She put forward a motion for more mental health supports in high schools in the Northwest Territories and an online counselling option for teens who don’t feel comfortable seeking help in person.
After a lengthy debate the motion passed 9-8 with one abstention.
Smyslo didn’t expect the motion would be as contested as it was.
“I thought it would be a really easy debate,” she said.
Grade 10 student Crystal Kisakye was the youth MLA for Hay River South, and a member of cabinet, which unanimously voted against the motion.
“When they brought it up everyone was like yeah this is a great thing, no one’s going to disagree,” said Kisakye. “But then in cabinet, we were talking more about it and reading exactly what it was saying and we said some of these things don’t add up.”
Members of the youth cabinet cited concerns about the cost of providing counsellors to all schools in the territory, rather than just those in need.
“It said there would be counsellors in all high schools and right now Yellowknife, for example, has enough right now,” said Kisakye. “And in smaller communities, they have to wait a year, like one of the girls said there.”
The youth cabinet decided to vote against the motion.
“We knew that no one was going to see it coming because it’s mental health and we all know that it’s important but there’s just some things that can’t work with that motion,” Kisakye explained.
“We did agree that it was an important concept but some of the ways they were going to handle it wasn’t what was best for the territory,” said Cassidy Lennie-Ipana, youth MLA for Inuvik Boot Lake and a Grade 10 student at East Three Secondary School.
“I did believe there’s some communities that already have the resources,” she said. “If they maybe rephrased the motion, I would have been in favour of it.”
She did support private online counselling for patients.
“Some mental health cases you don’t want to go outside, you don’t want to see anyone so having that online opportunity is where you’re at home, where you’re comfortable,” said Lennie-Ipana.
After the close vote, the youth said they sympathize with adult politicians who have to make unpopular decisions.
“There’s a lot of realities to situations that I didn’t really consider before joining this program,” said Stella. “Like listening to all the statements and everything, funding is an issue for like, everything. And there’s all these incredible causes but there’s just not enough money to do it all.”
Despite their disagreements, the youth MLAs said they enjoyed the spirited debate, said Kisakye.
“And if we all thought the same thing, if we all voted the exact same way on everything I don’t know how well that would work out,” she said. “We want to hear everybody’s opinion. If I suggest an idea, I want someone to tell me the little things that could be wrong with that, and we could work to make it better.”