In the past year we saw new or previously inactive voters mobilize to decide Canada's federal election, the Brexit vote and the American presidential race. It's clear that now more than ever people want to have their voices heard when they believe that government policies affect their lives.
There's one segment of the population that can't express themselves through a ballot, and that group is children. Yet many of the laws and policies debated by government have a direct impact on their lives. In Canada at this moment federal parliamentarians are debating parental leave benefits, marketing to children and funding for First Nations children, among many other issues. We must ensure that the people directly affected have a say in these discussions and decisions.
That's why UNICEF Canada created Bring Your MP to School Day, an initiative in celebration of National Child Day on November 20th. The event is an opportunity for elected leaders to hear the concerns of their youngest constituents - generally a quarter of the population - and to ensure that their actions are in the best interests of the children they represent.
On the fifth anniversary of this event, thousands of young people across the country were able to speak face-to-face with their Members of Parliament in school visits. And they had a lot to say! Here are just a sample of some of the questions they posed to their elected officials:
• Students in Montreal, Quebec asked their MP what he's planning to do about the abandoned cargo ship, the Kathryn Spirit, that risks polluting Lac Saint-Louis;
• Young people in Whitby, Ontario asked tough questions of their MP on drug policy and defence strategies;
• Children in Fredericton, New Brunswick asked how the government is helping vulnerable groups like homeless populations and newly-arrived refugees;
• Young people in Vancouver, British Columbia asked whether their MP supported the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.
These elementary and secondary school students expect answers and action from their Members of Parliament, just as any Canadian adult would. These kinds of questions are what led one MP to state that children aren't the leaders of tomorrow; rather they're the leaders of today.
Other participating MPs echoed this sentiment:
"I was so pleased to see that they take seriously their responsibility to hold their elected officials to account. I was also impressed by their eagerness to make their voices heard. With engaged students like these, I am excited and thoroughly optimistic about our country's future."
"My experience at Take Your MP to School Day reinforced my belief that there is much wisdom to be gained from listening to young people."
"The experience was very rewarding. I was impressed by their knowledge of current events and their concerns for Canada's welfare. The future seems very promising."
It's easy to assume that we know what our children and youth want or care about and decide what is in their best interests. Some worry that young people lack capacity to develop informed views. But when we give them the time to be heard we see that young people can be just as civic-minded and politically engaged as adults.
Ensuring that young people across the country are regularly given the chance to voice their opinions is the only way we can be sure that their varied interests are being represented in public policy decisions. This can be done in many ways: through consultations; through using Child Rights Impact Assessments, a tool to evaluate the impact of bills and policies on the lives of young people; or even through lowering the voting age.
UNICEF Canada thanks the children and young people who engaged with their Members of Parliament in asking tough and thought-provoking questions as part of Bring Your MP to School Day 2016. UNICEF Canada also thanks the following Members of Parliament who took the time to listen to young people:
Mr. Dean Allison, M.P. for Niagara West
Mr. William Amos, M.P.for Pontiac
Mr. Gary Anandasangaree, M.P. for Scarborough Rouge Park
Mr. Ramez Ayoub, M.P. for Thérèse-De Blainville
Mr. Vance Badawey, M.P. for Niagara Center
Mr. Larry Bagnell, P.C., M.P. for Yukon
Ms. Sheri Benson, M.P. for Saskatoon West
Mr. James Bezan, M.P. for Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman
Mr. Daniel Blaikie, M.P. for Elmwood-Transcona
Mr. Mike Bossio, M.P. for Hastings-Lennox and Addington
Mr. John Brassard, P.C., M.P. for Barrie Innisfil
Ms. Celina Caesar-Chavannes, M.P. for Whitby
Mr. Sean Casey, M.P. for Charlottetown
Ms. Bardish Chagger, P.C., M.P.for Waterloo
Mr. Shaun Chen, M.P. for Scarborough North
Ms. Pam Damoff, M.P. for Oakville North-Burlington
Mr. Don Davies, M.P. for Vancouver Kingsway
Mr. Matt DeCourcey, M.P. for Fredricton
Mr. Nicola Di Iorio, M.P. for Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel
Mr. Wayne Easter, P.C., M.P.for Malpeque
Ms. Ali Ehsassi, M.P. for Willowdale
Mr. Darren Fisher, M.P. for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour
Mr. Peter Fonseca, M.P. for Mississauga East Cooksville
Mr. Peter Fragiskatos, M.P. for London North Center
Mr. Sean Fraser, M.P. for Central Nova
Ms. Hedy Fry, P.C., M.P. for Vancouver Center
Mr. Marc Garneau, P.C., M.P. for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce
Mr. Bernard Généreux, M.P. for Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup
Ms. Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, M.P. for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky County
Ms. Karina Gould, M.P. for Burlington
Ms. Patricia Hajdu, P.C., M.P. for Thunder Bay-Superior North
Mr. Anthony Housefather, M.P. for Mount Royal
Ms. Gudie Hutchings, M.P. for Long Range Mountains
Mr. Angelo Iacono, M.P. for Alfred-Pellan
Mr. Matt Jeneroux, M.P. for Edmonton Riverbend
Ms. Bernadette Jordan, M.P. for South Shore-St. Margarets
Mr. Tom Kmiec, M.P. or Calgary Shepard
Mr. Andrew Leslie, M.P. for Orléans
Mr. Ben Lobb, M.P. for Huron Bruce
Ms. Sheila Malcolmson, M.P. for Nanaimo-Ladysmith
Ms. Irene Mathyssen, M.P. for London-Fanshawe
Mr. Michael McLeod, M.P. for Northwest Territories
Ms. Maryam Monsef, P.C., M.P. for Peterborough-Kawartha
Mr. Alexander Nuttall, M.P. for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte
Ms. Jane Philpott, P.C., M.P. for Markham-Stouffville
Ms. Tracey Ramsey, M.P. for Essex
Mr. Scott Reid, M.P. for Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston
Mr. Pablo Rodriguez, M.P. for Honoré-Mercier
Mr. Don Rusnak, M.P. for Thunder Bay-Rainy River
Ms. Ruby Sahota, M.P. for Brampton North
Mr. Raj Saini, M.P. for Kitchener Center
Mr. Darrell Samson, M.P. for Sackville-Preston-Chezzetcook
Mr. Peter Schiefke, M.P. for Vaudreuil-Soulanges
Mr. Marc Serré, M.P. for Nickel Belt
Ms. Brenda Shanahan, M.P. for Châteauguay-Lacolle
Mr. Jati Sidhu, M.P. for Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon
Ms. Sonia Sidhu, M.P. for Brampton South
Mr. Francesco Sorbara, M.P. for Vaughan-Woodbridge
Mr. Bruce Stanton, M.P. for Simcoe North
Mr. Marwan Tabbara, M.P. for Kitchener South-Hespeler
Mr. Adam Vaughan, M.P. for Spadina-Fort York
Ms. Salma Zahid, M.P. for Scarborough Centre
Want to do more to help give children the time to be heard? Here are four ways to do so:
1. Learn about children's rights in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
2. Empower young people to use their voice. Encourage children and youth to write to their Member of Parliament, join a children and youth council or start a UNICEF club at their school - anything that sparks a discussion and gets their ideas heard!
3. Use social media to join the conversation by using the hashtag #timetobeheard.
4. Read about how UNICEF Canada thinks we can improve the electoral process to better represent young people.
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