FORT FRANCES—Funded by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, two young adults from Rainy River District attended the Ontario Rural Council’s public forum last week in Belleville entitled “Rural Youth: Leading Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond.”
Kerri Dittaro, community development officer for the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, and Ian McGinnis, research historian for Rainy River First Nations, joined more than 160 delegates to voice their opinions and offer recommendations to engage youth in rural communities.
“It was a good conference to bring up and discuss youth issues,” noted Dittaro, who feels there is a lack of opportunities for youth when they have completed their post-secondary education.
“It’s difficult for them to go back to the small community where they grew up and work,” she added.
Dittaro, particularly interested in job opportunities, joined a discussion group on this topic.
She noted with the range in ages at the forum—from high school to late 20s—there were different perspectives on the issues.
“The high school students were interested in applying for summer jobs and career counseling to be prepared for the future,” she explained. “But I think there needs to be more opportunities for youth when they finish school so they can go back to the rural communities.”
She noted suggestions made during the discussion included offering funding to encourage employers to hire on youth, and giving youth more meaningful work to make them feel they belong and will want to stay.
Dittaro also indicated she brought up some issues that pertain especially to Fort Frances and Rainy River District, like the passport issue.
“Since Fort Frances is a border town, passports are going to pose a barrier for youth in the area,” she noted. “For example, it is where the closest movie theatre is and many sports teams travel back and forth.”
She added transportation also was identified as a barrier.
Without a public transit system, Dittaro described how something is needed to help youth and volunteers get to their jobs.
“Some rural communities have transportation to take seniors to appointments. Maybe there could be something like that,” she remarked.
Dittaro said there was good representation at the forum from communities in Northern Ontario, such as Hearst, Timmins, and Red Lake.
“The purpose wasn’t what I could get out of it so much as what I could contribute,” she explained. “We went to ensure Northwestern Ontario had a voice in southern Ontario . . . We definitely have different issues here and we were able to offer our opinions.”
McGinnis also felt he made his voice heard last week, but noted the mandate of the forum didn’t specifically address issues relevant to First Nations people.
For example, he will participate in an Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council forum later this month, which will focus on the prevention of youth suicide—an important issue at a national level.
“I think they could have integrated the different issues together,” McGinnis noted. “They could have listened to both sides of the issue and helped create solutions for both parties.”
However, he conceded the rural youth forum offered a lot of insight on how to engage youth through specific programs.
“The sessions were good, like putting youth and non-youth on the same page,” McGinnis explained. “How to engage non-youth with the youth—that’s what I got out of it.”
Michele Walter, the communications and project co-ordinator for the Ontario Rural Council, explained they will formulate a report of recommendations and actions based on what was discussed at the forum—and ensure policy- and decision-makers hear what youth have to say.
“It was to bring together rural youth from across the province to share in success stories, best practices, strategies . . . [and] to talk about issues that affect them,” Walter stressed.
“The most pressing issues for rural youth—living and working in rural and remote communities in Ontario today.”
Walter noted the non-youth and youth delegates engaged in sessions geared towards them and then came together at the end of the day.
“They identified the issues and discussed some of the strategies to go forward and how to improve their situation,” she added.
Local Northern Development officer Jane Gillon said it was an excellent opportunity for area youth.
“There’s no sense in having a province-wide forum with no representation from the north,” she remarked. “I’m sure we’ll build on and use the information gathered to incorporate strategies to move Fort Frances forward.”
The youth at the forum came up with the following six easy-to-implement ideas to work towards a better engagement and understanding in a community:
•Commandeer the front page of your local newspaper once a month to feature photos and stories about the good things youth are doing in your community;
•Collaborate with drivers who transport seniors and the disabled in your community to extend the service to include transporting youth to extracurricular and volunteer activities;
•Invite teenage moms to come and dialogue with youths in health class or at drop-in centres (ensure there is babysitting available);
•Educate funders to better understand that it takes longer than six months for an intern to get the capacity/experience he or she needs to apply for a job that always seems to ask for five years’ experience (also consider including money to cover benefits, such as full or partial coverage of eyewear);
•Mobilize your municipal council. Youths can ask for meetings with the mayor/reeve and councillors to help educate them about youth-identified issues and possible solutions; and
•Help others to actually see homelessness in rural areas. Engage through candid discussion and key identifiers.
For example, although the homeless are not sleeping on heating grates, they may be sleeping in their cars or couch-surfing, or finding their way into abandoned buildings).
These actions may provide the necessary ammunition for beds in churches or the creation of a shelter.