St. Mary’s Youth Council bridges gap

By Lois Ann Dort    

SHERBROOKE -- Last winter the Municipality of the District of St. Mary's launched a pilot project to engage local youth in municipal governance by instituting a Youth Council comprised of 10 students attending St. Mary's Academy.

The Youth Council idea has been adopted by numerous municipalities in Nova Scotia, particularly larger municipal units such as CBRM and HRM. But smaller towns and villages are also seeing the benefits of this outreach.

The Youth Council model adopted by St. Mary's operated independently from municipal council, meeting each month with facilitator Josh Hilton, director of recreation for St. Mary's.

Hilton arrived at Youth Council meetings with an agenda addressing issues within the municipality that affected youth. Council members, who were comprised of members of the St. Mary's Academy Student Council and representatives from Grades 8 through 12, discussed the questions and would raise any concerns or issues they wanted the municipality to consider. Hilton reported back to St. Mary's Council on the meetings and their outcomes.

The pilot project ran from January to June and is expected to continue in the following school year starting in September.

“Youth's voice is sometimes lost and we don't really think about what their opinions are...and they have a lot of great ideas,” said Hilton.

Members of the Youth Council attended a regular council meeting to become familiar with the process. “They came down to council and sat in on a council meeting and they saw how to conduct themselves in meetings, what councillors do, and what topics are discussed. It gave them an idea about what goes on (in council) and how it impacts them,” said Hilton.

Youth Council meetings also played host to several St. Mary's councillors, who spoke to the students about the councillor's role in the community and on council.

Hilton said it was a positive experience for the students involved in the program. “They learned a little about what I did and what others in the municipal government did; what our role is in the community. If anything it opened their minds about what a municipal government does and how it works. It bridged the distance between youth and municipal government.”

An incentive for starting the Youth Council pilot project was to give youth a voice in the community with the hope of making rural areas more attractive and able to retain youth in the population. “If they want to stay in the community and want to make their home community a better place, it is nothing but positive. We need youth to stay here to make the community vibrant,” said Hilton.

Gracie Fleet, of Marie Joseph, sat on the Youth Council. She's been a member of the student council for the past four years at St. Mary's Academy and held the position of Student Council President in the 2017 – 2018 school year. She graduated in 2018 and will be off to Dalhousie in the fall but said the experience on the Youth Council made her “second guess what I was going to university for because I did get really interested in the municipal role.”

One of the issues of concern for the youth was the lack of programs for students in their age bracket. Fleet said there were lots of programs for youth aged Primary to Grade 6 but after that opportunities began to fall away.

The biggest issue the Youth Council addressed was how work-to-rule, instituted by the teachers union in the winter of 2017, continued to affect their school experience. School sports teams continue to be significantly affected with far fewer girls team sports offered at St. Mary's Academy compared to year’s past.

Fleet said the Youth Council hoped that their concerns would be brought to the Provincial Advisory Council on Education by the municipality.

The Youth Council, said Fleet, “Gave us a big voice and we felt a bigger part of the community. It gave me a larger perspective on what went on in the community; we youth don't hear much from that perspective.”

Fleet said that all communities should have a Youth Council. “It will make youth feel empowered within the community, which will be better for the future. It's really important for small communities to hear from their youth.”

She expressed thanks to the Municipality of the District of St. Mary's for giving youth in the area the opportunity to have a say and have their concerns addressed.