Youth Minister Trudeau: Is PM delivering on promises? | Toronto Star

OTTAWA—After winning the last federal election, the fresh-faced new prime minister, the second youngest ever to assume the office, bestowed upon himself a fitting extra portfolio: minister of youth. One of his first acts was to publish mandate letters...

Youth Minister Trudeau: Is PM delivering on promises? | Toronto Star

OTTAWA—After winning the last federal election, the fresh-faced new prime minister, the second youngest ever to assume the office, bestowed upon himself a fitting extra portfolio: minister of youth. One of his first acts was to publish mandate letters for each of his new cabinet ministers. You can read them online. They outline for all to see what important work Trudeau expected from his ministers in the coming months and years.

But there was — and still is — a striking omission. While some relevant platform points were included in his missives to ministers in the Finance and Labour departments, Trudeau published no mandate letter for his self-imposed gig for youth. And none appeared when the letters were refreshed after his January cabinet shuffle.

More than a year into the Liberals’ majority mandate, a sense has emerged that rather than bringing welcome gravitas and attention to the issues facing young people today, Trudeau the prime minister is overshadowing Trudeau the youth minister. He has a mixed record on fulfilling the youth-oriented promises of his party’s 2015 platform. In October, the sociable and still high-polling PM was heckled during an onstage interview with young members of the Canadian Labour Congress, after outrage was spewed over the finance minister’s comment that “job churn” — having to move from job to job over the course of one’s career — is an intractable part of the 21st-century economy.

At the same time, student activists are decrying his performance on accessibility of education, as tuition and student debt rise to record heights and youth unemployment stubbornly remains almost double the rate of the total population.

Consequently, some contend Trudeau’s turn as youth minister has been a disappointment — a betrayal, even, for a man who rose to power on a wave of voter turnout from Canada’s youngest electors.

“This government pays a lot of lip service to youth,” said Bilan Arte, president of the Canadian Federation of Students, which advocates for free post-secondary education.

“We’re not just a voting bloc that can be accessed every other election. We are concerned and we’re an active part of the electorate in this country.

“The only conclusion you can come to is this government doesn’t think this is a priority,” she said.

Whether such criticism is fair is up for debate. Vasiliki Bednar, head of the government’s Expert Panel on Youth Employment that was created last fall, said Trudeau’s decision to appoint himself youth minister showed issues such as tuition, student debt, and youth unemployment are a priority for the government. She added that the “job churn” comment was an honest portrayal of the reality facing young workers, and that one of her panel’s goals is to help Trudeau identify solutions to supporting youth who face challenges such as unaffordable real estate, a dearth of job benefits and pensions, and precarious work.

“A government that pretends that’s not a reality, and designs programs for quote-unquote ‘standard work,’ which is full-time forever jobs, is not a government that I want, because that’s an unrealistic, fantasy government,” Bednar said.

Trudeau, meanwhile, has defended his record. During his campaign-style tour in southern Ontario last month, the prime minister was questioned about his performance as youth minister. He rhymed off his accomplishments, including the creation of a youth council to advise the prime minister, increasing student grants by 50 per cent for people from low- and middle-income families, investing to create more summer jobs for young people and raising the annual income threshold that triggers the repayment of student loans from $20,000 to $25,000.

“There’s always more to do but I’ve constantly been inspired and challenged by young people to think more long term, to think more about the future of the country we’re building together, and I continue to be very pleased with the thoughtful and dynamic support and engagement that Canadian youth have towards this government,” Trudeau said.

Weeks later, while answering questions from university students at a convention in Ottawa, Trudeau echoed his finance minister’s “job churn” comment, arguing that young people expecting to keep the same job without changing careers in their lives are being “unrealistic.” He added that such workforce changes are why is government has moved to beef up the Canada Pension Plan and is pushing to make it easier to get training for new skills.

Arte scoffed at the prime minister’s progress on youth issues. She argued that the repayment threshold increase still means people earning poverty-level incomes will have to start paying back student loans (and that the government can start collecting interest on those loans), and pointed out that Trudeau has made no move to lower debt and tuition, which would help accomplish the goal of making it easier to get new skills in a changing economy.

As of 2012, student debt owed to Ottawa and the provinces was more than $28 billion, up from $19.6 billion in 1999, according to Statistics Canada. Average tuition for the 2016/17 school year rose to $6,373 and has tripled since the early 1990s.

“Young people are sounding the alarm and we need this government to pay attention,” Arte said.

It’s also not lost on activists like Arte that Trudeau’s Liberals came to power with a significant boost from young voters. Turnout amongst 18 to 24 year olds, the youngest segment measured by Elections Canada, jumped from 39 to 57 per cent between the 2011 and 2015 elections — the biggest jump of any age group.

Trudeau also promised to create a lot of work for young people during the election. The marquee pledge was “40,000 good youth jobs” in each year from 2016 to the end of 2018. But that’s not what happened.

According to the final 2016 job numbers published this month, just 9,000 jobs were created last year for workers aged 16 to 24. As Conference Board of Canada economist Craig Alexander pointed out, this is the net number after 40,000 full-time jobs were lost and 49,000 part-time jobs were created. All the job gains for youth, in other words, were for part-time work.

“I do think a concerted effort to improve youth outcomes is called for,” Alexander said, adding that the issue is complex and that the youth unemployment rate — 12.6 per cent in December — is stuck around the 20-year average.

On Parliament Hill, there are calls for Trudeau to shed the youth minister mantle and let somebody else wear it. According to the official record of parliamentary debates, the prime minister has spoken about youth issues only a handful of times in the House of Commons since the last election — until this month, each time was in reference to marijuana. It has fallen to his parliamentary secretary on the file, Quebec MP Peter Schiefke, to voice government positions on precarious work, unemployment and student issues.

The NDP’s youth critic, Quebec MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach, said the prime minister has “never” answered any of her questions on youth issues.

“If he is not taking seriously youth issues, maybe he should just give that portfolio to another minister who would respect Canadian youth and genuinely care about their future,” Quach said.

Trudeau, meanwhile, was asked during his tour to “grade” himself on his youth minister performance. The prime minister, a former teacher, refused.

“I’ll leave the grading to others,” he said with a smile.

Promises broken, promises kept

Youth Minister Justin Trudeau has a mixed record so far when it comes to keeping the promises made in the Liberals’ 2015 election platform. Here’s a look at some of the major pledges on youth issues:


The pledge: “We will create 40,000 good youth jobs — including 5,000 youth green jobs — each year for the next three years, by investing $300 million more in the renewed Youth Employment Strategy.”

The result: There were 9,000 jobs created for people aged 15 to 24 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, the 2016 budget earmarked $164.5 million for the Youth Employment Strategy. However, a month before the budget, the government announced a $339-million investment over three years in the Canada Summer Jobs Program, promising this would create 35,000 seasonal gigs in each of the following three years.

At the end of August, in its monthly labour survey, Statistics Canada published data that showed that while youth employment went up 22,000 that month, there were 48,000 fewer jobs for the age group compared with one year earlier.

The pledge: “We will invest $40 million each year to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and business programs.” (2015 Liberal platform)

The result: The Trudeau government committed $73 million over four years to create co-op placements in these areas. That’s less than half the annual funds that were promised.

The pledge: “We will invest $25 million per year in a restored Youth Service Program, to give young Canadians valuable work and life experience and provide communities with the help required for much-needed projects.”

The result: The 2016 budget included a pledge to invest $105 million over five years, and $25 million per year after that, in support of the Youth Service Program. That’s an average of $21 million per year until 2021-22, then $25 million after that.


The pledge: “We will increase the maximum Canada Student Grant for low-income students to $3,000 per year for full-time students and to $1,800 per year for part-time students.”

The result: The Trudeau government did exactly that in the 2016 budget.

The pledge: “We will ensure that no graduate with student loans will be required to make any repayment until they are earning an income of at least $25,000 per year.”

The result: The repayment threshold was raised last year from just over $20,000 to $25,000 in annual earnings.

The pledge: “We will create a Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council, consisting of young Canadians aged 16 to 24, to provide non-partisan advice to the Prime Minister on issues facing the country.” (2015 Liberal platform)

The result: The prime minister unveiled 15 members of this council last September, while another 11 joined the council in late January. The members, aged 16 to 24, are meant to get together and advise the prime minister.

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