Youth from Victoria and beyond take over B.C. legislature

Teens and young adults taste of life in the political trenches

British Columbia Youth Parliament Premier Sarah O'Connor

A packed B.C. Legislature is teeming with debate over controversial bills this week, including the reinstitution of the death penalty and a ban on aggressive dog breeds.

But it wasn’t MLAs filling the seats of the legislature.

Rather, 95 young people aged 16 to 21 descended on Victoria for the 84th annual B.C. Youth Parliament, a model organization that serves as a political training ground for engaged students.

“We debate legislation, present legislation to the members that is important to our organization. It frames the (activities of our) organization throughout the year,” said Sarah O’Connor, Premier of BCYP.

Originally from Lytton, O’Connor now lives in Victoria and works as legislative assistant. She credits her early years with the youth parliament as a catalyst for her enthusiasm for politics.

“It’s an amazing experience. You learn so much, you gain so much real knowledge and confidence,” she said, standing in the lobby of the legislature before session.

The parliament runs like any other, as legislation is tabled, debated and passed. Members are free to propose amendments, and they hone their public speaking skills quickly amongst a room full of non-partisan peers.

O’Connor sympathized with many of the students who were participating for the first time this year.

“I remember it being terrifying, so overwhelming,” she said. “You’re in the chambers, there are people who look and are a lot older than you, who are more confident than you, and you’re sitting in the back just trembling. But it’s an amazing experience.”

Allie Dickson is in her fifth and final year with the youth parliament. Serving as opposition leader, she hails from from Burns Lake and goes to university in Prince George.

“It’s a life-altering experience,” said the 20 year old. “Before, I was very shy and didn’t know how to public speak at all. (By) my second year, I was defending legislation and in the third year, I was defending acts. And now I’m the leader of the opposition.”

The application process involves submitting a personal statement and doing a minimum number of hours of volunteer work in the community. Around 140 applicants vied for the 95 spots from six regions across B.C.

The charitable organization is kept afloat by its many alumni, including current Richmond East MLA Linda Reid.

Other notable alumni include artist Jack Shadbolt and B.C.’s youngest attorney general, Robert Bonner, who served in the W.A.C. Bennett cabinet of the 1950’s and 60’s.

“Even if you’re not interested in politics today, it gives you a better understanding of the system and it gives you a better understanding of what goes on,” Dickson said.

She admits she may not have even voted when she turned 18 were it not for her experience with BCYP.

“You can look at politics today and see how they’re debating the same issues. They may have more of an effect on everybody, but for us, it’s as real as it gets.”

The Youth Parliament runs now through Dec. 31. To learn more and view the application process for 2013, visit bcyp.org.

dpalmer@vicnews.com