An estimated 1,700 people, many of them young adults, filled the University of Calgary's Jack Simpson Gymnasium to capacity Tuesday night to hear directly from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The town-hall style event saw the PM take a dozen questions on subjects including the economy, trade, Indigenous issues, poverty, relations with the United States, and of course, the oilsands.
One thing that set this visit apart from other town halls was that Trudeau brought with him the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, a group of 26 young people between the ages of 16 to 24 chosen among 16,000 applicants to engage with the government on youth issues.
With the council seated directly behind him at the event, Trudeau highlighted the importance of young people being involved in politics and helping to shape the future of the country.
Trudeau said the youth council was formed last fall due to lack of engagement between politicians and youth.
“We were stuck in a bit of a vicious circle, where politicians didn't bother talking to or about young people, because young people didn't vote, so young people were even less motivated to come out and vote,” said Trudeau. “I was pleased to be part of breaking that in the last election, as young people stepped up and voted more, for all different parties, than they ever have before."
Data from Elections Canada shows an 18.3 per cent increase in the youth voter turnout from 2011 to 2015.
Edmontonian Ashley Whiteman was the first Albertan to be elected to the youth advisory council. Even though she knows that politicians can sometimes have a bad rep, she said she wants to get back to the fundamentals of politics and focus on making Canada a better place.
“I've always loved helping people. I'm hoping to make a difference Canada-wide, but also in Alberta, my home community. It’s my passion, wanting to help youth to help youth,” said Whiteman.
There were initially 15 members of the youth council. On Tuesday, the next 11 members were officially announced by the Office of the Prime Minister, including two new members from Alberta.
While in Calgary, the youth council attended a cabinet lunch and then met with Trudeau after town hall wrapped up in the evening.
“Drawing in young people to the very heart of the kind of political conversations we're having is absolutely essential,” said Trudeau.
Trudeau suggested that the exchange of ideas between youth and political leaders is important because it allows the government to recognize “what insights and abilities young people bring to a political conversation.”
According to Trudeau, one of the abilities that youth bring to the table is resiliency, as youth are constantly going through periods of transition and adapting to life’s changes.
“To understand that change can be daunting but is also positive is something that we need to bring into our political thinking a little bit more. We need to challenge the status quo,” said Trudeau.
“Drawing in young people to the very heart of the kind of political conversations we're having is absolutely essential.” - Justin Trudeau
Whiteman said that if she could ask Trudeau one question, she would want to know more about how he plans to get youth more engaged in their communities.
“He says that youth are leaders today and that's so true, but we need our leaders that are older to mentor us, and us also to mentor them. Youth have the passion, they just need the help with stepping stones and building blocks to go towards their passion and be successful,” said Whiteman.
Patricia Hajdu, the new federal minister of employment, workforce development and labour, spoke briefly at the town hall to highlight the leadership capabilities of youth. “We always talk about young people being the future,” said Hajdu. “Here's what I know actually to be true: They are leaders today."
The audience also heard from Vasiliki Bedna, chair of the Expert Panel on Youth Employment, which recently published an interim report investigating the employment challenges that 15-to-29-year-olds are facing.
The report states that there are complex barriers for this generation to find employment, and in 2015, 12.6 per cent of Canadian youth who were not in school were unemployed, including those actively looking for work.
"One thing that I am certain of is that we can do a better job equipping our young people with the skills that they're going to need to thrive and actually to drive forward the economy of Canada,” said Hajdu.
Economic concerns were brought up more than once during the town hall, with Alberta still navigating through a period of recession. Many young people face fear and anxiety about the economy and their future.
In Alberta, this future is still largely reliant on the oil industry. One of the most anticipated questions posed to Trudeau as he neared the end of the town hall was a request for him to retract the statement he made last week about phasing out the oilsands.
His answer was delivered with confidence and met with both cheers and protests.
“We can build a strong economy with good jobs and protect the environment at the same time. That's what Canadians want. The world is changing and our job as Canadians is to recognize that that brings with it challenges and opportunities, and my job is to help you prepare to overcome the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities, and that's exactly what Calgarians, Albertans, and Canadians are going to be able to do.”
Although he faced some challenging interactions throughout the night and many Calgarians walked away with unanswered questions, Trudeau’s final words were followed by a majority of the audience standing to applaud.
- By Emily Rop