Thirty years ago this month, I was given the opportunity to participate in the Forum for Young Canadians. The name speaks for itself – for one week in Ottawa, young Canadians from all over Canada came together to learn about Canada’s institutions and learn from each other.
Forum is one example of the power of bringing young Canadians together. In my case, it led to many lifelong friendships and it opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of our federation. It also opened my eyes to the potential of contributing to the life of Canadian institutions.
How many young people were inspired to be a part of public service that week? Well, it certainly fuelled my engine in terms of politics and government. I was already hopelessly hooked as a teenager (an oddity), but I certainly came home with an even bigger appetite.
There were a lot of kids from all over Canada. In the photo above , you will also see Cyrus Reporter, Senior Advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. All the way from Merritt, BC.
And Stuart Hickox, the Executive Director of ONE.org in Canada, Bono’s initiative to combat extreme poverty in the world. My volunteer work with ONE stems from meeting Stuart at Forum 30 years ago, where he traveled from Winsloe, PEI.
I met lifelong friend Kimball Kastelen, who I cajoled into joining the BC Liberal Party and he made it to the ballot in 1991, placing a strong second in Kamloops.
At the end of that week in Ottawa, there was a
mock First Ministers’ Conference held with students forming provincial delegations and selecting a premier from amongst their ranks.
Kimball and I didn’t have a lot to do so we decided to promote a free trade agreement. For the balance of the day, we lobbied provincial delegations and managed to secure the agreement as one of the conference’s top priorities, with 8 of 10 provinces agreeing. Typically, Ontario refused to part with its protectionist ways but Manitoba was being hopelessly ideological. In any event, we got it done. (Brian Mulroney was a little late to the game with his free trade agreement).
Yes, I know. Hopelessly geeky. No, not the fact that we were earnest students. The fact that I would keep this piece of paper for 30 years!
With my Liberal heart beating inside me, the other mission that week was to pay homage to my Leader, Rt. Hon. John Turner in his 4th floor Centre Block office.
His ever attentive constituency assistant, Diane (Wells) Ledingham, arranged for me to crash a meeting between Mr. Turner and one of the Forum participants from Vancouver Quadra, Tom Kaweski, who despite my interloping, remains a lifelong friend.
Think about that. A former prime minister, then serving as Leader of the Opposition, making 15 minutes to shoot the breeze with two teenagers from BC. I’m not sure that happens as much anymore – maybe it does. But it sure made an impression on me. Mr. Turner, resplendent in his red cardigan, showed us around his office, including the secret panel where apparently MacKenzie King would hide from people demanding to see him.
It was a different time. There was virtually no security on Parliament Hill. We wandered the tunnels and hallways freely. There was no email or social media. There were no cel phones. Fax machines were new! When our week concluded, those of us who stayed in touch sent each other handwritten letters. Believe it or not Millennials, that’s how it used to be done.
Of those fresh-faced youngsters in the group photo, I’m not sure where most of them ended up, but I assume many are leaders in their community, academia, government, business or NGOs. In any case, I expect that that week in Ottawa 30 years ago was as formative experience in their lives as it was for me.
I don’t think Canada can have too much of these programs. The more interaction among young people from different regions and walks of life – the better; the more exposure to federal institutions – the better.
It’s good to see Forum continuing their good work. It remains a great program for young people today and in the future.