Youth in Politics: Group forms to support young politicians

NANAIMO – The region's youngest politicians are looking to solve age discrimination with a new network seen as a possible solution.

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. In this second article, young politicians discuss solutions to perceived age discrimination by creating a network of youth in politics.

When 25-year-old Lantzville councillor Andrew Mostad throws up his hand, his vote is counted like any other. Now he wants to make sure his opinion carries the same weight.

“There is a lot of push back, not so much against young people getting involved, but young people being heard,” he said of politics. “We need to be less of a novelty and something put up on a mantelpiece – your trophy young person on council –  and be seen as a contributing member.”

Mostad is among the Nanaimo region’s under-40 politicians facing age discrimination in local government. Despite being elected by the public, it’s a challenge for the change-makers to be seen as equals by their older peers. They report pervasive feelings of being disrespected, intimidated and subjected to “cheap” shots about their age in front of the electorate – and they say it’s time for it to stop.

Community leaders shouldn’t be tolerant of any kind of discrimination and by leaving negative age comments unchecked, councils are making it more challenging for young people to share ideas, they say, adding it also does little to reverse the trend of youth disillusionment with the political system.

There is a reason young people aren’t turning out to the polls in large numbers – and they should be, according to Nanaimo city councillor George Anderson, 23, who points out they are future taxpayers and will assume responsibility for decisions made by local government today. By including them in a meaningful way,  the city is also helping to ensure this is a place they want to stay and raise their families, he said.

With little action taken yet to change the tide of discrimination, Anderson and his peers – Mostad and Lantzville councillor Jennifer Millbank, 37 –  are ready to take matters into their own hands – from advocating for decorum to encouraging more political participation among youth and creating a new network of empowered, young B.C. politicians.

But they say the community and politicians also need to be part of the solution.

“It will not change unless there is some push back from people around the council table and the public to say this is discrimination and these actions are not acceptable … [that] we elect our politicians and expect each and every one of them to be given fair weight,” said Mostad.

The first-time councillor believes youths themselves, however, need to lead the charge in combating age discrimination by growing the ranks of young leaders, getting involved in politics and demanding their voices be heard.

Mostad and his Millbank see a grassroots mentorship network as part of the solution. They will host the first young elected officials conference in Lantzville this January, aimed at empowering young politicians and nurturing aspiring leaders from across the province. The idea took root more than a year ago when the duo looked around B.C. and realized some local governments didn’t have any young elected officials, let alone two.

Eventually the network will help people learn how to realize their political dreams, as well as help them get the support they need to “get out there and make change” and feel empowered, Mostad said, adding as a group they can also ensure discrimination is addressed. “We really need to combat the apathy in young people and really stand up together and say that we have a voice, we have something to say and we actually have quite a lot to say.”

Millbank hopes that by sharing experiences, young politicians will realize they are not alone with some of the issues they are struggling with. So far, about 40 people are expected at the event in mid-January.

Other efforts are also afoot. Anderson, a rookie politician, is advocating for Nanaimo city councillors to unite against age discrimination, pointing out that change takes a team. He also supports a new code of conduct that outlines clear consequences if someone isn’t respectful to other members of council. The policy is currently being worked on at city hall as part of recommendations stemming from a governance review. The move is supported by the mayor, along with potential changes to televised question periods during open meetings and counselling on respectful behaviour.

Mayor John Ruttan has acknowledged age discrimination exists on his council and says while attacks of any kind are an “unfortunate reality” of politics, he also wants to see it come to an end. Not only is disrespectful conduct not good for the image of the community or for individual councillors, it might also deter young people from wanting to get involved in politics. If there is a disconnect among youth and they become disinterested in the political system “we have a problem,” Ruttan said.

“If people of youth don’t have an opportunity to express their views and explain what they’d like to see changed and why, change may never take place,” Ruttan said.

To read more about how young people react to perceived agism in politics, please click here.

For previous articles in the News Bulletin’s two-part series on Youth in Politics, please see The Next Generation of Political Leaders and Age-related Comments Won’t Deter Youth.