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Youth in Politics: the next generation of political leaders

YOUTH IN POLITICS: Reporter Tamara Cunningham investigates how youth influences politics at the municipal level during this two-part, multimedia series on Youth in Politics. Today, three young councillors from Nanaimo and Lantzville share their experiences working to represent the people at the council table.

When rookie candidate George Anderson launched his election campaign three years ago, he knew his youth would be a tough sell. Members of the voting public were already making it clear that at 20, he was too young to win a power seat.

Anderson said they seemed to have a picture of the typical politician and it was the polar opposite of an employed, young, Vancouver Island University student. He expected some legwork during his campaign to convince the public age isn’t everything.  When he won the election, finishing fourth ahead of seasoned city councillors, he knew he’d have to work harder than anyone to prove voters made the right choice.

What he didn’t count on was a new kind of barrier at city hall – age discrimination.

“I wasn’t even sworn in as a councillor before my age was brought up,” said Anderson. “I knew I’d have challenges in regards to my age ... but I did not expect it to the degree I have experienced it on council, especially from elected officials. I would have expected [them] to be, in a sense, adults about it.”

According to the region’s civic leaders and young politicians, those under 40 are challenged to be seen as equals by their older peers, despite earning the right to sit at the council table.

It’s considered an obstacle for rookie politicians, who are encouraged to get involved in politics and share ideas for change on one hand but are faced with  dismissiveness and discrimination by their colleagues on the other.

Young councillorsThey report an experience-trumps-age attitude and pervasive feeling of being less respected – like being referred to by first names instead of the formal titles other councillors use for each other and seeing their opinions given less weight or consideration. Some councillors have faced intimidation or outright shots at their age.

In a February meeting, Nanaimo city councillor Bill Bestwick told the gallery he’d let a point raised by Anderson go “with youthful ignorance” while Coun. Jim Kipp said he wasn’t prepared to be lectured to by “my 22-year-old.”

Even the mayor, who promised to give the top vote-getters in the election a coveted seat on the Regional District of Nanaimo board thought twice about appointing Anderson because of his inexperience.

The mayor said he was concerned the university student’s grades would slip and questioned if he’d be able to balance school with civic and regional affairs simultaneously when he didn’t have the training.

The same attitudes and comments wouldn’t be made to another, older councillor, said Anderson, who questions why age should be a factor at all.

It’s like bringing up the colour of someone’s skin or hair or opting not to listen because someone is a woman or has a different sexual orientation.

“I see it as exactly the same,” Anderson said.

It is not only setting the wrong tone for the community, but could deter youth from getting involved in politics, he said, adding it’s time for ageist attitudes to end. Lantzville councillors Andrew Mostad, 25, and Jennifer Millbank, 37, agree.

Treating young candidates differently because of age isn’t new to Canadian politics, according to Janni Aragon, assistant teaching professor of political science at the University of Victoria. She can name at least two recent examples off the top of her head, including a recent conflict between a senator and 20-year-old MP Charmaine Borg. A letter was circulated by senator Jean-Guy Dagenais which Borg said was condescending and misogynistic. She wouldn’t likely been treated the same way had she been one of the senator’s older colleagues, said Aragon, adding her age made her an easy target.

Young people in politics do see their ages continually referenced – “you see this with [Liberal leader] Justin Trudeau” she said. “[Age] is an easy and cheap way of attacking them immediately. It’s a way of delegitimizing what they said or the beliefs they hold.”

It is not all malicious, but it seems to be a way of thinking, according the region’s youngest politicians.

Mostad said older members on council can be “elders” in the community who feel they have been through the war and back with the life experience to show for it. They feel entitled to the advantages they hold today, “whereas I haven’t seen the same experiences, so my voice doesn’t have the same weight in their eyes,” he said.

“It’s this whole feeling of ‘how dare this little whipper snapper stand up and see himself as equal [to] someone that has been around as long as I have’.”

City councillors say it’s an “uphill battle” to get their voices heard and they want to be heard. They say they want to be a part of making decisions for the future and have fresh perspectives on issues that are typically looked at through the lens of one generation.

People who purchase their house for $50,000, for example, might have trouble understanding why secondary suites are important. Retirees with three cars in their garage may not be on the bus day-to-day to know the challenges riders face or the need for more hours.

“An overwhelming mass majority of people in municipal politics are over 60 which doesn’t bode well for decision-making because most of the economic issues that we are going to be looking at and social issues have implications for people in younger generations,” said Millbank. “People aren’t used to thinking in these terms.”

Mostad agrees.

“We can just look at infrastructure – our sewers, our water systems, our roads have been done pretty much exactly the same way for 50 years and I think it takes new people coming in who haven’t had all the experiences … [to] start shaking up the system and figure out new ways of doing it.”

But as the region’s young politicians have found, advocating for change isn’t easy when their peers don’t consider them equals.

Lantzville mayor Jack de Jong believes part of the issue is young people challenge the status quo, the methods, laws and rulings municipalities have governed themselves by and can be seen as a threat to long-standing council members.

“I think some of the councillors should do a rethink and welcome these young [councillors], lead them by the hand, but no, they view them as opponents, as people not in sync with [their] train of thought.”

Ruttan also recognizes there has been age discrimination on his council, but he doesn’t believe anyone holds a true age bias. Some comments have been made in the heat of the moment, he says, and how do you overcome a temper?

Kipp “gets angry quite quickly and then makes statements I don’t think he’d make in a less challenged environment.

These are spontaneous things that are largely made up as a result of a strong difference of opinion,” he said. “It doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that he disrespects George in any way.”

Ruttan suggested young people need thick skin in politics. It’s a reality that at any age you can be attacked in a number of ways and for a number of reasons and youth is simply one of them, he said.

But Anderson says when bullying occurs, it should not be considered OK.

“That is where the problem lies, I believe, is that no one on council has said this is a bad thing.”

He – and others – are set to find their own solution.

The second part of this feature series continues Thursday (Dec. 19) with a look at how attitudes affect youth considering entering politics.

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