At the time this article was
Garrison was the Director, Public
Information Branch, Legislative Assembly of Alberta and chair of the steering
committee for Mr. Speaker’s Alberta Youth Parliament.
came alive for 83 Alberta grade 10 social studies students who spent five and a
half hours serving as MLAs during the first Mr. Speaker’s Alberta Youth
Parliament on April 15 and 16, 1999. Fourteen teachers participated in
the concurrent teachers’ program.
It was as close to the real
thing as the students could get, right down to live television coverage and
authentic issues of Votes and Proceedings, Orders of the Day, and Hansard (all
of which were subsequently posted on the Assembly’s web site,
www.assembly.ab.ca. At a bearpit session with Speaker Ken Kowalski,
several teachers commented that the briefing sessions were too short, the pace
was too hectic, students had to work too late into the night preparing, and
nobody had much of a chance to develop comradery within their caucuses.
“The whole experience is so real,” Speaker Kowalski replied. “These
are the same comments MLAs make after every election!”
With the initial impetus
provided by Speaker Kowalski, this program was sponsored by the Royal Canadian
Legion, Alberta-Northwest Territories Command, and developed by Legislative
Assembly staff with the help of six high school social studies teachers
nominated by the Social Studies Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Student participants each represented one of Alberta’s 83 constituencies
in the Legislative Assembly of the fictitious province of Rupertland. A
key difference from many other model parliaments was that the student MLAs were
paired with real MLAs and offered the chance to experience the representative
side of the MLAs’ role by talking with their own MLA, shadowing their MLA, or
spending time in the MLA’s office.
The quality of the debate was outstanding from the start and
it never deteriorated all day. The tremendous energy and creativity displayed
in the Chamber by these students was a delight to experience. With young
leaders of that quality coming out of our high schools in two more years, we
Albertans have a great future ahead of us.
Speaker Ken Kowalski
The application process required
each student to write about why they wanted to participate in the youth
parliament and how they would share the experience with others afterwards.
They submitted two letters of reference as well, one from a teacher and
one from someone in their community. Selection was based on their having
a good academic record, leadership qualities, an interest in community and
current affairs, and an interest in Canadian history. Organizers
evaluated all applicants from each constituency against the selection criteria,
choosing one to represent his or her own constituency. Alternates were
evaluated against the same criteria and selected to represent the
constituencies from which no applications were received.
Speaker Ken Kowalski receives the
Alberta Youth Parliament’s official new Mace from Ms Dani Krystle Keller of
Vegreville Composite High School. The school’s student council
sponsored the design and construction of the Mace, which was made by one of
the school’s teachers.
The program began with a lunch
with Alberta MLAs on Thursday, April 15. About 50 MLAs attended, a phenomenal
turnout at any time, much less on a busy day during session. This was a
key indicator of the level of support the members gave the new youth parliament
from start to finish.
After lunch, the Speaker
introduced the student and teacher participants as well as Legion
representatives in the galleries, where they sat to observe Oral Question
Period. They then had a VIP tour of the Legislature Building and spent
the rest of the afternoon in briefing sessions. The students were placed
in three different rooms, one for each party caucus, and the teachers were in a
fourth room. The briefings involved presentations on their own roles by
ministers, by opposition members, and by private members from both the
opposition and government. Members of the press gallery led the final
After a trip across the river to
the Strathcona Legion Hall for dinner, the students returned to the Legislature
for an evening of caucus work. Program organizers had decided early in
the planning that a minority parliament would provide a clear contrast with the
party breakdown in the Alberta Legislature and would best highlight a
parliamentary principle often overlooked: that the Assembly, not the
government, is supreme. To encourage the students’ creativity and
imagination, organizers created three fictitious party platforms, three new
party names, and even a new name for the province: Rupertland. The name alluded
to Rupert’s Land, the huge area which included Alberta and much of western and
northern Canada and which was later named the Northwest Territories.
I learned one million times more than I ever could have
without this experience. The chance to work as a party on our own was fantastic!
Grade 10 student participant
Prior to coming to Edmonton on
April 15, the students had received the party platform outlines, the draft
Order Paper, and two news articles about the results of the recent Rupertland
election. In that election, the governing Municipal Party caucus was
reduced from a majority of 45 to 30 seats, the Official Opposition United Rural
Party shrank from 28 to 25 seats, and the Referendum Party grew from 10 to 28
seats. When they arrived at the Legislature for their evening caucus
meetings, participants received a news leak commenting on the highlights of the
Throne Speech they would hear the next day.
Under the tutelage of Alberta’s
Table Officers and with the help of the teacher participants, the caucuses
spent three hectic hours getting ready for the next day’s session. They
received briefings on parliamentary procedure, selected party leaders and
cabinet/shadow cabinet members, and worked in small groups of five or six to
brainstorm arguments to use in debate and issues to raise during question
period. These caucus meetings continued formally on Friday morning at
separate working breakfasts, but party leaders were busy informally negotiating
deals well into the night at the hotel.
By 9 a.m. Friday the students
were at their pre-assigned seats in the Chamber as Rupertland’s
Sergeant-at-Arms, Oscar J. Lacombe, ceremoniously announced the arrival of the
Lieutenant Governor, a role played by Commander Tom Barton, then president of
the Alberta-Northwest Territories Command of the Royal Canadian Legion.
The students, at first nervous and tentative in these intimidating
surroundings, gained confidence as the day progressed. They quickly learned
that the way to score points in this House was to react swiftly on their feet while,
with as much authority as they could muster, challenge opposing policies and
defend their own as articulately as possible. But just like newly elected
members in real parliaments, they had to be reminded of technical details.
“We don’t look at raised hands here. We stand, the parliamentary
way of selection,” the Deputy Speaker noted during debate on a motion.
During the day the Rupertland
Assembly approved two government bills, one creating the position of environmental
ombudsman and the other adding a compulsory work experience component to the
school curriculum. The Assembly also passed a bill on mandatory school
uniforms and private members’ motions calling for a citizenship awareness
program in schools and cleaner power generation. The student MLAs
defeated several items including an opposition bill to implement direct
democracy and private members’ motions to establish a four-day workweek, to
restrict teenage driving, and to abolish postsecondary tuition fees. The
students’ final act in the Assembly was a dramatic nonconfidence vote as the
two opposition parties joined forces to topple the fragile minority government.
Prior to the first session of Rupertland’s
Legislative Assembly, all student and teacher participants gathered on the
front steps of the Alberta Legislature with Speaker Kowalski, Legion
representatives, and program organizers.
For many of the students, some
of whom stayed up until the early morning hours Friday cramming for the actual
session day, it was an exhausting but enlightening two days which opened their
eyes to the realities of the parliamentary process. The teachers’ component of
the program involved 14 grade 10 teachers attending their own briefing
sessions, facilitating the caucus preparations, and participating in the
bearpit session with the Speaker and a separate discussion period. As
with the students, the goal of the teachers’ program was to place them at the
centre of the province’s democratic process and allow them to experience its
operations first-hand. Organizers designed the program to make
teachers more aware of resources, services, and support provided by the
Assembly and thereby to better equip them to teach parliamentary democracy and
responsible citizenship, offered the teachers a chance to interact with MLAs
and parliamentary staff, and provided a forum for sharing ideas, experiences,
and teaching methods. But all the teachers agreed that the most inspiring
part of the program was watching the debate itself.
Afterwards, the teachers were
unanimous that participation in the youth parliament dramatically increased
their ability to teach citizenship. They also returned home with a
renewed belief in the parliamentary process. “This exercise gives me more
faith in our present system of government and in the capabilities of future
parliamentarians,” one teacher said. Another believed that his own knowledge
of the process had grown enormously.
Purpose of the Youth Parliament Students’ Component
Mission: To develop in
grade 10 students an interest in, and an understanding of, Alberta’s
parliamentary democratic process.
To provide an experience of the parliamentary process
which will develop among youth an understanding of:
our parliamentary system facilitates decision-making on current provincial
roles and responsibilities of an MLA both as a legislator and constituency
diversity of points of view on provincial issues,
principle of public accountability in our parliamentary system,
rights and responsibilities of Albertans to govern themselves.
Mission: To enhance the teaching of parliamentary
democracy in Alberta.
develop more effective tools for teaching about parliamentary democracy and
provide a forum for sharing ideas, experiences, and methods of teaching about
the parliamentary process.
develop leaders in the teaching profession to champion the teaching of
parliamentary democracy and responsible citizenship in the community.
provide the opportunity to interact with MLAs and parliamentary staff.
become aware of the resources, services, and support provided by Alberta’s
Sergeant-at-Arms Brian Hodgson’s
close personal ties with the Royal Canadian Legion helped secure their
sponsorship for the project. The Assembly had also benefited from Legion
support early in 1998 when the Legion presented the Assembly with a new Black
“We knew we wanted an
organization that was provincewide and that was present in most communities in
the province,” Mr. Hodgson noted, “a grassroots organization representing
ordinary people in Alberta. The Legion has a very strong interest in
patriotism and the monarchy, and they are keen on ceremonial events as well as
I feel more like a participant than an interpreter of the
Social Studies Text. I have been to the mountain.
Grade 10 social studies teacher
For their part, Legion members
considered their participation in the model parliament a rare honour.
Commander Barton’s performance as Lieutenant Governor was a thrill for
him and for all the Legionnaires he represented. “Who’d have imagined an
old farmer from Lougheed sitting in the Speaker’s Chair of the Alberta
Legislature?” he joked, adding that he would always remember the experience as
a highlight of his life.
The Legion’s support included
chaperoning the students and escorting them to and from their hotel, as well as
paying expenses for transportation, food, and accommodation. Many
Legionnaires stayed in the Assembly’s galleries all day long to observe the
student MLAs in session. “I was blown away by the generosity of the
Legion,” marvelled one student in a follow-up evaluation.
Rupertland Party Platforms
The Referendum party
The United Rural Party
The Rupertland Municipal Party
democracy through the use of new technology
and supporting the agricultural industry
power for urban areas
against big business
open discussion of public policy matters
environmental protection legislation and enforcement
minimum sentences for young offenders
the rights of working people
intervention in the economy
social safety net
But it was money and effort well
spent, according to Legion members. “To say that the first Mr. Speaker’s
Alberta Youth Parliament was a success would be an understatement,” Legionnaire
Wayne Roberts explained. “Not only did the students leave excited and
educated about our system of government, but so did everyone else involved,
including the MLAs and Legislative staff.” In fact, the Legion has
committed to long-term funding for the program so it can be an annual event.
When the students applied for
the program, they knew that part of their responsibility, if selected, would be
to spread the word about the program to their communities the following year.
“I am counting on you to be our best promoter of this event in your area,
especially among those eligible to participate next year but also with parents,
teachers and classmates,” Speaker Kowalski noted in a letter sent to
participants. To that end, every participant received a complete
videotape of the proceedings and the official Hansard, including the
Votes fter the youth parliament ended, several MLAs read Members’ Statements in
the House congratulating the participants for a job well done. “I highly
commend the partners in this joint project,” one MLA remarked. “These
students can surely be our leaders of tomorrow.”