Canada 150 & Youth: What is it we’re celebrating?


This blog is the first installment in our series for Canada 150 through a poverty and human rights lens. 

There is no escaping the fact that Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation is less than a month away, especially here in the country’s capital.

If you’re like me, you’ve been bombarded with plans for July 1st since the beginning of the year. Social media is home to seemingly endless photos, marketing promotions, and links to articles about Canada’s big “birthday” plans. #Canada150 is a thing. There’s even an app.

These are all pieces of a larger effort to engage youth in the upcoming sesquicentennial. Experiences Canada has been running “Canada 150&Me” youth engagement forums across the country over the past few months. RBC launched its “Make 150 Count” campaign to encourage youth to give back to their communities in creative ways. And, of course, the Via Rail youth pass debacle happened back in March.

These initiatives and countless others like them are, for the most part, promoting one of the main ideas behind the 150 celebration: that we are not only celebrating the history of the Confederation of Canada, but also looking ahead. Canada 150 is as much about the past as it is the future – and that belongs to the generation of young people who will be and are starting to become the MPs, community leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

But alongside all of this optimism about the Canada of tomorrow come the real challenges and daunting circumstances currently faced by the young people in this country.

In 2011, 4.37 million Canadians were between the ages of 15 and 24 – in other words, youth – representing about 11% of the overall population. At the same time, youth are over-represented in the populations experiencing homelessness (18.7%) and food insecurity (10 – 17%, depending on age). Close to half of temporary workers are under 30, less than half of whom transition into full-time work within three years. These statistics come alongside issues like student debt and mental health which disproportionately affect young people.

Unsurprisingly, youth who are also members of marginalized communities are the hardest hit by these alarming trends: 20% of youth in shelters identify as LGBTQ2; youth with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to their peers; and the suicide rate for Inuit youth is a shocking 11 times higher than the national average.

It may be easy to say that, while unfortunate, these numbers have little to do with the 150 celebrations. After all, Canada is a human rights leader with a positive reputation around the world and a globally-popular Prime Minister. But it is hard to reconcile those numbers – the real burdens faced by young people in Canada today – with the money spent on these sunny “youth initiatives”.

Or as Anastasia Qupee, Grand Chief of the Innu Nation put it: “There’s $500 million that has been spent [on the sesquicentennial celebrations] and we can’t even get a cent for our communities to try and help our children.”

Is this the Canada we want to celebrate? It might be easy to ignore, but poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and food insecurity are the reality for far too many across Canada.

Whether you are the type who will breathe a sigh of relief when the ball drops on New Years 2018 because the hullaballoo will finally be over, or someone who has been purchasing Canada 150 paraphernalia at every opportunity for the big day, we all must be clear on what it is we’re celebrating as a country and who gets left behind in these celebrations. If our enthusiasm for Canada 150 doesn’t come alongside real attempts to address the problems of young people today, there’s a very good chance that our great-great grandchildren will be left wondering what they have to celebrate at the next Confederation milestone.

Kathleen Burns is the Administrative Assistant for Canada Without Poverty.