A little less than a year ago, I received an email confirming my acceptance to an opportunity I have wanted to attend for years. “Congratulations – you have been selected to attend the 4-H Canada Citizenship Congress in February.” I silently celebrated, stopped for a moment, re-read the email just to be sure, then began to understand the incredible experience that lay ahead of me.

I have been interested in politics, law, and debate for quite some time. Student Council, speaking competitions, high school courses, and Mock Trial tournaments have all driven my curiosity further. I’m sure you can imagine the intrigue I felt when I found out there was an opportunity to explore these interests through a 4-H conference. Citizenship Congress is a national opportunity offering youth from across the country the chance to travel to Ottawa, ON to learn more about Canadian democracy through tours and guest presentations, alongside making lasting connections, and having fun.

I was one of the Ontario delegates for the 2023 4-H Citizenship Congress, making the six-hour drive to Ottawa on a snowy week in February. From the moment I arrived, I knew I was in the right place. Civic-minded delegates from across the country gathered, ready to learn over the next five days. Before long we were immersed in the excitement of Ottawa, attending a networking event in the Sir John A. MacDonald building - a grand ballroom hall located across from Parliament Hill. Here, we met with leaders across many Canadian sectors, including politicians, 4-H executives, and agriculture representatives. This networking opportunity allowed us to gain valuable knowledge about many of the future careers we hope to pursue, while making important connections.

“Citizenship Congress is a national opportunity offering youth from across the country the chance to travel to Ottawa, ON to learn more about Canadian democracy through tours and guest presentations, alongside making lasting connections, and having fun.”

Ethan Russell

Ethan and his fellow Citizenship Congress delegates not only toured the parliament buildings, but had the opportunity to hold a debate on the Senate floor.
Photo Credit: Ethan Russell

The following day was when the work began. Citizenship Congress is centred around one event: a formal Parliamentary-style debate held on the Senate floor. In the upcoming days, we would prepare within our roles for the event to be held on our final day. The majority of conference delegates acted as Members of Parliament (MPs), either arguing for the motion as a part of the Government, against the motion as a part of the Opposition, or as part of the Third Party.

Within each party, some members took on additional responsibilities, such as acting as a subject matter expert in the role of Shadow Minister or Minister, or in a leadership capacity as Party Leader or Deputy Party Leader. Of these additional responsibilities, I took on the role of Prime Minister, acting as the Government’s Party Leader. Other roles included Speaker of the House, responsible for keeping order while in the Senate chamber, Clerk, responsible for tallying votes and keeping records, and Press, responsible for reporting on the highlights of the debate.

I worked with the Government Party over the following days, drafting our main arguments with MPs, conducting research alongside the Government Ministers, and communicating with the Press. In between our work we would attend interesting events, including a tour of Parliament Hill, a trip to downtown Ottawa for Winterfest, and a meeting with Senator Rob Black.

On the final day of the opportunity, we had our debate. As the Government alone did not have enough votes to pass the resolution, we needed to convince the Third Party to join our cause. All the delegates took their seats on the Senate floor as the debate began. We presented our case first, fielding questions from both the Opposition and Third Party. The Opposition took their stand against our resolution, as did the Third Party. Ministers and Shadow Ministers traded questions. MPs made passionate arguments for and against. The Speaker kept everyone in order, enforcing a strict time limit aided by the Clerks. The Press took down recordings, hosting an interview with myself and the other Party Leaders during a caucus before the final vote.

Following our brief caucus, delegates re-entered the chamber, Party Leaders gave our closing remarks, and the voting began. After several minutes, the Clerks had reached a tally. The resolution was struck down - the Government failed to gain enough votes. The Press hosted another session with the other leaders and myself, where we expressed our intent to continue work with the Opposition and Third Party to reach a more agreeable resolution in the future. Then, it was done; we had just had a full debate on the Canadian Senate floor.

Later that night, we had a large dance and party, a celebration of all of our accomplishments and a bright look ahead to the future. The following morning, I made the same six-hour drive home – however, I felt different. I remember talking to many of the other delegates about their feelings following the debate. Everyone said they had learned something. Whether it was about our debate topic, public speaking, Parliamentary procedure, or just how cool the Senate chamber was; everyone had developed a new set of knowledge.

Personally, I took away greater confidence. If I could prepare and speak as a part of a national 4-H conference, what else can I do? This opportunity has allowed me to build skills I carried into my Student Council duties and Mock Trial tournaments later in the year, and gave me a greater appreciation for Canadian civics. Additionally, I met 4-H’ers from across the country, likeminded youth who were confident in their abilities to make Canada a better place.

Amidst the Ottawa skyline, Citizenship Congress proved one idea to me:

“Whoever you are, wherever you come from, however well you speak, or level of confidence you feel, you can make a difference in your club, community, country, and world.”

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