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Forum for Young Canadians: An unforgettable experience

By Marie-Anne, Manager at  Canadian Heritage

There were 130 of them. They came from Nunavut, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador . . . from all across Canada, in fact. And for most of them, it was their first time in Ottawa.

They were between 15 and 18 years old and had been chosen to take part in the Forum for Young Canadians. It didn’t take them long to get settled in, meet their roommates and start preparing for their first day of discovery. The group leaders—I was one of them—had been given training during the weekend before the Forum, and had in hand the program and the list of students under their charge.

The students knew the requirements for participation: discipline, observing the dress code and punctuality. They had planned for everything—except the frigid cold that week: at the meeting on Parliament Hill at 8:00 in the morning, the temperature was -25 degrees Celsius and many of the students were taken by surprise, especially those from British Columbia and Alberta; the students from the North, however, remarked on how mild it was!

Visits to institutions in the federal capital

The Forum, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, began with a visit to Parliament. A knowledgeable guide recounted the history of the building, the sculptures, the stained glass windows and the massive paintings illustrating moments in Canada’s history. Before we went up the Peace Tower, our guide also showed us around the magnificent library that houses thousands of books, reference documents and texts of legislation made available to parliamentarians.

The visit was only the prelude to a packed schedule: the students went on to discover a number of institutions, including the Canadian War Museum, the Governor General’s residence and the House of Commons and Senate Chambers. They also attended presentations given by Forum partners such as Export Development Canada (EDC), which is strongly committed to youth. EDC organized a one-day event in their offices, at which students were given a tough challenge: in little over an hour, they had to negotiate and conclude a major (fictitious) contract, following strict rules imposed by the federal government.

The speed and effectiveness with which the students carried out this simulation was awesome. I was particularly impressed by their work methods, leadership and determination. Their main tool was their smart phones, which they used for everything: to search, communicate, write and validate. In just a few minutes, they had chosen a spokesperson and typed up their presentations on their iPhone or iPad, and were ready to make their presentation to a room of 200 people.

The tone was set. All of the exercises, group projects and simulations were in the same vein. The students listened to all the presentations with the same attention, and displayed the same curiosity when taking part in discussions with other Forum partners such as Bombardier and Elections Canada.

From sea to sea . . . unanimity among the students

When asked what they liked most about their visit, the students were unanimous:
1.        Question Period in the House of Commons: they hadn’t realized just how noisy Question Period could get, and they were surprised to find that most of the answers given by the Government had little to do with the questions being asked.
2.        The House of Commons session: seated in the places of the ministers and MPs, they had a chance to put questions to the Honourable Andrew Sheer, the youngest Speaker of the House of Commons in the history of Canada, as well as to the pages, who spoke to them about their work. Did you know that, to be a page, you have to remember the names and ridings of all 308 MPs, in both official languages? And there’s no room for error: the pass mark is 100%.
3.        Breakfast with parliamentarians: they got to meet senators and ask them questions, and they also visited the rooms adjoining the Senate Chambers.
4.        The reception at the Château Laurier: they had an opportunity to network with Forum partners and talk to their MP at their table and with senior public- and private-sector officials.

The Forum for Young Canadians is a truly stimulating and enriching experience. In one week, the organizers were able to introduce the students to a world hitherto unknown to them, and provide them with opportunities to make new acquaintances and gain new experiences. For the group leaders, it was a chance to discuss, inform, guide and, above all, to realize that these young people represent a dynamic, passionate and confident upcoming generation that is ready to embark on highly complex projects.

The Forum has continued to be a success, year after year. And yet it is a relatively modest organization: visits by hundreds of students wanting to learn more about political life in Ottawa are organized, planned and managed by a three-person team. Supported by a few volunteers, these three individuals handle emergencies, help out, deal with unforeseen situations and accompany the students during their free time.

The Forum is an incredible learning opportunity, even if the days are long. I am thrilled to have been able to take part in the Forum and to have experienced, during our week together, the enthusiasm, humour, motivation and intelligence of these 130 students.

If you are interested, you can visit the site at https://forum.ca/ and apply for next year’s Forum.

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