Youth are meant to be seen and heard… sometimes

Delaying the reinstatement of the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves to appoint a “youth representative” is misguided.

It is a good thing that my 17-year-old daughter does not regularly read my column. I’m pretty sure she would not share the opinion I’m about to share with you. The main topic of this column is the recent push by the Provincial Government to have youth representatives on municipal councils and, more importantly for this column, the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council.

Government proposes youth representatives on municipal councils

Bill 6, if enacted, would empower municipal councils to appoint a youth representative to sit with councils and participate in deliberations. They would not, however, have any voting privileges and would have to be less than 18 years of age. At first glance, this seems like a wonderful idea. Many rural councils struggle to fill all the council’s seats. In the 2009 General Municipal Election, 28 per cent of the small municipalities in the province reported empty seats. This figure actually underreports the issue; there are many communities in the province which do not have the benefit of an elected council and, instead, are governed by “Local Service Districts”. Running a rural town has many challenges. Understaffed and under-resourced, councillors struggle to do the best for their communities under trying circumstances. A lack of participation in municipal elections forces the few civic-minded community leaders to step forward again, regardless of their level of fatigue. There is a serious need to bring in “new blood” on these councils and, on the surface, Bill 6 would seem like a step in the right direction.

But the proposal has run into opposition, largely from the municipal councils themselves. Some are concerned that the idea runs counter to basic democratic ideals – that no one should be appointed to sit on a democratically elected body. Others worry that most youth would quickly become disengaged due to the often boring and plodding nature of council deliberations. To their credit, even the detractors agree that more youth engagement is essential. They just disagree with this approach.

For my part, I’m still mostly on the fence. I think the detractors’ concerns are valid. On the other hand, something must be done, or rural councils will continue to suffer as our aging demographic H-bomb continues to tick. I leave this one to others more worthy to sort out.

WERAC appointments delayed to find youth representative

One issue for which I’m not on the fence is the Minister of Environment and Conservation’s idea to appoint a youth representative to the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council (WERAC).

For a province that has largely given up on conserving our natural environment, much ado has been made in the past year or so about the inactive status of WERAC. Now, many readers probably consider WERAC to be similar to the Status of Women’s Advisory Council — that is to say, that WERAC is a group of like-minded individuals who advocate for something (in this case, conservation). That opinion, however, is wrong. WERAC is much more than that – it is a legislated body required by law to provide advice to Cabinet (not the Minister) on the establishment and management of wilderness and ecological reserves. Simply put, you cannot establish a reserve unless this body meets, discusses and submits an opinion to Cabinet. And this body has not existed for years, in effect preventing any further conservation through wilderness or ecological reserves.

Want to stop those pesky protected areas from “alienating” any further land from development? Simply let the tenures of the existing WERAC members to expire and don’t appoint any new ones. Some reports say that this council has been inactive since 2006. Seeing as there have been no new ecological reserves in that time (except for the important but tiny Sandy Cove Ecological Reserve), it seems that government’s plan has worked spectacularly.

Criteria exist for WERAC membership

A lifetime ago, I worked with WERAC. As a government employee I supported their activities by arranging meetings, providing briefing materials, led field trips and so on. I can personally attest that the work of these volunteers is technical, detailed and quite serious. That’s why, many years ago, the council members themselves created minimum criteria for membership. To be appointed to WERAC, you had to have “significant training, experience or employment in a natural-resource field” among other criteria. This Council (it’s not a committee) is not for the faint of heart, either. Decisions are made that will permanently affect the landscape of our province as we know it.

After years of languishing in oblivion, hope appeared for the reinstatement of WERAC in the summer of 2013. The provincial government put out a call for nominations and names were collected. Then… nothing. Nearly nine months have passed and the appointments have yet to be made. Surely, after years of inactivity, appointing eleven members should not take nearly a year? The reason for the delay became clear during the 2014 Budget deliberations. As part of the budget review process, opposition members get an opportunity to ask the sitting Minister of Environment and Conservation questions about the budget (the minutes from that meeting have yet to be compiled, but an audio recording is available). When the current minister was asked about WERAC she replied (somewhat testily) that the delay over the past year was due to her desire to find and appoint a youth representative to WERAC. Opposition members, not fully understanding the role of the council, cooed their support.

What they don’t understand is that WERAC is not the place for a budding conservationist to cut their teeth. There are, literally, hundreds of opportunities for youth to become involved and engaged in conservation. As Randy Simms, Mayor of Mount Pearl put it in relation to Bill 6, you don’t get kids to start reading by giving them War and Peace.

To put it another way, do you think it’s a good idea to require the committee of engineers who design bridges to have a youth representative participate in their work? Of course not. The highly technical and serious work of such a committee necessitates the due consideration that only comes through training, experience or a combination of both.

No, the delay in re-establishing WERAC to find a youth representative is, at best, misguided and, at worst, negligent. The better part of me would like to think that the minister truly intends to do good by appointing a young person to WERAC. The more cynical side of me believes that this is simply one more delaying tactic by an administration that, through their abysmal record of protected area establishment, reveal their abhorrence for these critical areas.

If a youth is appointed to WERAC, I hope they meet the criteria spelled out by that far-seeing council years ago. Simply put, experience and training before age or sex.

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