At the age of 20 Sarah O’Connor of Lytton has a better grasp of the workings of government than most people twice, even three times, her age.
And for that she can thank, in large measure, her four-year involvement with the BC Youth Parliament, an organization devoted to providing 16- to 21-year-olds both a forum for debate and an opportunity to serve.
“The BC Youth Parliament program fosters pride in the province and encourages civic engagement and community involvement,” says Ray Parks, CEO of the Provincial Capital Commission, which financially supports the parliament session held in the provincial Legislature each year during the week after Christmas.
This year marks the 83rd annual session, a record that dates back to 1924 and one that is broken only by the years of World War II. Originally it was an outreach program run by the YMCA and reserved just for boys, but in 1977 that all changed. Today, two-thirds of the participants are female.
The alumni include many famous British Columbians. Former premier and lieutenant-governor Walter Owen was a member, as was artist Jack Shadbolt, newspaper columnists Allan Fotheringham and Eric Nicol, and former cabinet ministers Jack Davis, Linda Reid and Colin Hansen.
The post-Christmas session is the only time when the parliament as a whole meets. Regional parliaments, of which there are six in BC, meet more often. At the plenary session, 95 members gather in Victoria to debate issues, set policies and elect a premier, leader of the opposition and deputy speaker, who hold their offices for 12 months beginning each year in September to coincide with the school year.
By holding the session in the legislative chamber, the young parliamentarians get a taste of what it is like to participate in a real parliamentary setting.
Current premier Jess McElroy of North Delta appointed 13 parliamentarians to handle an array of responsibilities that parallel the provincial ministries, at least in name. She asked Sarah to take on two roles: deputy premier and minister of external affairs, a measure of the respect and confidence she has in the native of Lytton.
Sarah does her community proud but has some good leadership models to follow. Her father, Chris O’Connor, a forestry consultant, was mayor of Lytton for nine years, ending in 2008. Her mother, Denise O’Connor, a long-time teacher, is principal of Lytton Elementary school.
Sarah attended high school in nearby Ashcroft, staying with family friends. One year she went on a Rotary exchange to Belgium where she attended school in the modern, planned city of Louvain-la-Neuve, becoming fluent in French in the process.
After graduation she enrolled in an arts program at Thompson University. With two years behind her, she decided to get some first-hand government experience working as a legislative assistant in the government caucus in Victoria.
Sarah says she joined the Youth Parliament in 2007 at the urging of a friend who felt it was a great way to meet new people, have fun and get involved in community services aimed at youth. Not surprisingly many of the service projects Sarah has taken on have been Rotary inspired. As a youth parliamentarian she is expected to put in 20 hours of community service each year, a quota she has easily exceeded.
As minister of external affairs she is responsible for organizing a joint session of youth parliamentarians from western Canada who will meet in Vancouver over the coming Victoria Day long weekend. The joint session is held only once every two years with each of the four provinces hosting in turn. The last time BC hosted was in 2004.
“It’s a big job,” says Sarah, who will have a budget of about $20,000 raised through a variety of fundraising projects to see it through.
And her job is going to get a lot bigger. At the session just ended Sarah was elected the next BCYP premier.
by Derek Sidenius
for the BC Youth Parliament