Back in September, I received an email from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada saying that I was one of one hundred youth from across Canada selected to attend the YOUth in Office conference in Ottawa. An all-expense paid trip to the capital city? Yes, please!
What is YOUth in Office? It is a two-day conference for Canadian youth involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters and/or Boys and Girls Club, in which you spend a day job-shadowing a Member of Parliament! I am a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters in their GoGirls program, which is a school-based, lunchtime program for girls aged 10-12 with activities and discussions centered around healthy living and self-esteem. It is a very rewarding program to be involved with, and I highly encourage you to volunteer with them if you ever get the opportunity. YOUth in Office was sponsored by WestJet, Heritage Canada, and Coca-Cola. Thank you!!
The conference started on the night of November 5, shortly after my arrival in Ottawa. The conference was held at the Lord Elgin Hotel, a beautiful, historic building in downtown Ottawa, minutes from Parliament and other major landmarks. The hotel catered all of our meals, which were wholesome, tasty, and fairly healthy. My room was clean and bright, with a view overlooking the front entrance. That night, we heard from Health Canada about the upcoming Cannabis legislation, and they heard our thoughts on legalization from a youth perspective. I also helped to facilitate a focus group on Canada’s upcoming Children’s Charter. Afterwards, I went out for a quick stroll, despite it being rainy and dark, to take in a little bit of the city as the following day was going to be very busy. (Apologies in advance for the terrible picture quality– I only had my iPhone!)
On Monday, the first full day of the conference, we were up bright and early for breakfast and activities in the Lord Elgin’s Pearson Room. Free coffee on tap that day was my very best friend. Opening ceremonies were conducted by an elder from the Algonquin First Nation, who left us with some very inspiring and insightful words. The Parliamentary Intern Program (PIP) participants led a mock Question Period and gave us some information about the program (which is a great opportunity if you’re bilingual!). Samara International held a Democracy Talks workshop to teach youth about how democracy works in our country. Andy from WestJet talked to us about decorum on Parliament Hill and what to talk to our MPs about. An Instagram rep led a workshop on how to use Insta Stories and led an Insta Stories scavenger hunt. Finally, the Boss Ladies and Cody Coyote performed an Aboriginal showcase with incredible traditional and modern music and dance. Check out Cody Coyote on Spotify and iTunes!
That day also ended with a stroll around the city in the dark and a visit to Byward Market and Notre Dame Cathedral. I had been in Ottawa for more than 24 hours and had yet to be outside in the daytime! Our schedule was jam-packed. I am eternally grateful for this opportunity, however, the activities were really geared toward younger youth, and the majority of attendees were 14-16 years old. I was one of only two 20-somethings in attendance, which made me the same age as the conference facilitators. I wish the organizers had taken this into consideration when planning the conference.
Tuesday was another even earlier rise. At 7:00 am we were walking from the hotel to the Instagram #KindComments Mural unveiling event. The mural is a Canadian first, and a beautiful reminder from Instagram to be kind online and not to leave hateful or hurtful comments. I was proud as a blogger and avid Instagram user to be present at this event.
The Best Part
I was matched to job shadow Steven MacKinnon, Parliamentary Secretary of Public Services and Procurement. His assistant, Anson, picked me up from the Instagram event and together we walked to their office, where I met Fred, Steven’s other assistant. Fred and Anson gave me a whole new appreciation for the hard and vital work put in by Parliamentary staff. They really are the oil that keeps the gears turning!
Steven was so friendly and eager to show me everything he could in the short time we had. I was brought along to the 2017 Canadian Aerospace Summit, where Steven was a panelist. I was able to meet fellow Newfie, Jim Quick, who is the President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada. I also met Honorable Andrew Leslie, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Canada-U.S. Relations); Jean Rioux, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence; Pam Goldsmith-Jones, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade; and Leona Alleslev.
Next, I had the opportunity to sit in on a committee meeting, discussing Aboriginal Procurement Strategies. Here I listened to the conversation, learned how the committee process works, and ate a delicious lunch. Afterwards, Fred and I walked over to Center Block on Parliament Hill, where he gave me a quick tour.
After looking around for a bit, Fred brought me to meet up with Steven again at the House of Commons. Steven brought me ‘backstage’ in the lobby which was quite busy as Question Period was about to start. I am very lucky to have had that opportunity because not many other youths (if any) from the conference got to go back there.
Here I met so many incredible and influential individuals, including Randy Boissonnault, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on LGBTQ2 Issues; Bill Blair, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and to the Minister of Health; Honorable Harjit Sajjan, Minister of National Defence; Honorable Bill Morneau, Minister of Finance; Honorable Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada; Honorable Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change; Honorable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Public Services and Procurement; and Peter Schiefke, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Youth).
I also met Honorable Bardish Chagger, Minister of Small Business and Tourism, and the first female Leader of Government in the House of Commons. She is such an inspiration to me, and it was so fulfilling to meet her in person. To make an already fabulous moment better, she high-fived me. Why? For being a woman exploring a career in politics, for being a woman who is having my voice heard and who is seeking opportunity. I will never forget that moment.
To end the day, I sat in on Question Period, which is nothing like it seems like on TV! I learned so much from being able to see behind-the-scenes in a Parliamentarian’s work day and how our government gets things done. It was so validating and encouraging to know that Canada’s leaders were hearing my voice and valuing my input. I cannot thank Steven and his staff enough for hosting me and making my day great.
Of all the things I learned at YOUth In Office, my main takeaway was how wonderfully lucky I am to live in a country where I have the freedom, as a woman and a young person, to speak up, have a voice, and find opportunity around every corner. I am struggling to find the words to explain how inspired I am by this experience. I have a newfound kind of pride and respect for my country. This was a day I will never forget.
Thanks for reading,