The wisdom of youth

by Andrea Bennett

In late January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, BA’94, strode into a town hall meeting at the University of Calgary in jeans and a blue collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up. As he took the mic in front of a massive Canadian flag, a crowd of about 1,700 cheered – and booed – his arrival.

Though talk quickly turned to prime minister’s controversial stance on oil and gas – he was admonished for telling a Peterborough town hall that Canada should “phase out” the oilsands – the prime minister’s emphasis for the evening was meant to be youth. Seated behind him were 26 members of a hand-picked group, including two current McGill students, Neha Rahman and Simone Cavanaugh.

“Politicians and politics in general have done a very poor job over the past years of engaging young people,” Trudeau told the crowd. “We need to challenge the status quo.”

The Prime Minister’s Youth Council is the first of its kind in Canada, and Rahman, 18, and Cavanaugh, 24, make up part of the council’s first full cohort. Both students applied online to join the non-partisan council last fall, completing a preliminary questionnaire and taking part in subsequent video interviews. They will each serve a two-year term, receiving the opportunity to advise the prime minister and his cabinet on issues ranging from the environment and the economy to diversity, innovation, and the military.

The town hall came at the end of the Youth Council’s first day in Calgary. Cavanaugh wasn’t surprised by the discord. “I knew very well that a Liberal prime minister walking into a Calgary, Alberta town hall wasn’t going to go super smoothly,” she says. “It also did strike me that no matter who the prime minister is, you have to be the prime minister of Canada, not just Quebec, not just Ontario, not just Alberta.”

For her part, Rahman, who is politically opposed to the pipelines, found herself personally moved by witnessing, first-hand, the passion of those in the crowd who support the oilsands and their related pipeline projects. “It directly affects their livelihoods,” she says. “The entire [auditorium] was filled up and everyone had questions. That was heartening, to see that people are actually willing to be politically involved, that people aren’t apathetic.”

Law student Simone Cavanaugh has a particular
 interest in issues related to disability advocacy
and accessibility (Photo: Owen Egan)

Cavanaugh, a law student, is the founder of Pivot International, a non-profit that focuses on improving the quality of life of physically disabled children in developing countries. Cavanaugh knows first-hand what it’s like to be a child dealing with a debilitating condition. She was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis when she was eight – it was so severe, she spent much of her childhood in a wheelchair – and has served for several years as a childhood arthritis spokesperson for the Arthritis Society.

At McGill, Cavanaugh has been an equity commissioner for the Students’ Society of McGill University and a commissioner for Women in House, a student group that encourages women to become involved in politics.

Given her strong interest in disability advocacy, Cavanaugh welcomes the opportunity to provide feedback as the government prepares federal accessibility legislation. She recently met with Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough in Ottawa. Cavanaugh hopes the legislation raises awareness. “It’s not just about the legislation concretely,” she says, “but a culture shift of our attitude towards disability in Canada and what that means and who falls in that category and what ‘accommodating’ and ‘accessible’ means in Canada.”

Classics and history student Neha Rahman will be focusing on feminist issues and
environmental concerns in her work with the Prime Minister’s Youth Council
(Photo: Owen Egan)

Rahman, who founded her high school’s feminist club, hopes to focus her efforts on intersectional feminist issues and environmental concerns. She plans to consult with environmental groups in Montreal so that she can bring their priorities and concerns back to the Youth Council, which will provide counsel on energy and environmental issues to the Prime Minister and his cabinet. A student of classics and history, Rahman also plans to encourage the government to establish an ambassadorship program for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

A member-at-large for McGill’s Classical Students’ Association, Rahman is also the co-editor-in-chief of Leacocks, a student produced arts and culture publication.

Both Rahman and Cavanaugh applaud the prime minister’s attention to youth. "A lot of us on the council were a little bit cynical, maybe just afraid that it was going to be quick and not as fulfilling as we would have hoped", says Rahman. "But the prime minister, and all his cabinet members, really seemed to be genuinely interested in the things we had had to say. They were listening not just to ideas, but to very valid and deep criticism. That made it feel genuine.”

Cavanaugh says that she was impressed with the prime minister’s ability to weather the storm in Alberta. “Even if you disagree with everything that comes out of the prime minister’s mouth, it’s hard to deny that this is a much more inclusive government than what I’ve experienced most of my conscious lifetime,” she says. “The whole time I’ve been an activist, it felt like the federal government was never somewhere that you could advocate to. Whereas now, even if you disagree, especially if you disagree, it’s time to advocate. They’re listening.”

While watching the prime minister conduct himself in his dealings with the Youth Council, Cavanaugh says it became clear to her that Trudeau had worked as a teacher before pursuing a career in politics. “It really feels like [the Youth Council is] the prime minister’s class,” she says. “Except that, instead of him teaching us, he’s expecting us to teach him.”

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