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In stunning debate, youth MLAs vote 9-8 for more counsellors

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Teenagers acting in place of NWT MLAs delivered a powerful, wide-ranging debate on mental health supports for their peers on Thursday, eventually passing a motion to expand services by just one vote.

Eighteen participants in the territory's Youth Parliament, mostly aged 14 or 15, voted nine to eight – with one abstention – in favour of introducing "dedicated youth mental health specialists" across the NWT's high schools.

The motion, put forward by Kam Lake youth MLA Stella Smyslo, was opposed by the seven teenagers representing cabinet. They said the funding did not exist to deliver on a promise they found sprawling and imprecise.

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The debate was extraordinary, most notably for its genuine and frank exchange of views over a 40-minute period, unrestrained by some norms and hangups of adult politics.

Also striking was the near-complete reversal of the territory's adult gender balance in the legislature.

Whereas only two female MLAs currently hold seats in the NWT, 15 of the 18 teenagers present on Thursday were female.

An organizer at the legislature said that figure reflected the weight of applications received from female candidates for Youth Parliament. (Cabinet on Thursday included not one male MLA.)

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In a further role reversal, several adult MLAs served as pages for their youth counterparts on Thursday, delivering notes and papers as the session proceeded.

Those MLAs witnessed first-hand the enthusiasm and desire to effect change which pervaded Thursday's debate, in spite of clear differences regarding the territory's ability to fund a significant increase in the availability of school counselling services.

Youth MLAs were concise, clear, and collaborative even in disagreement, while their discussion became remarkable for the degree to which it illuminated the real-life pressures of government.

Some of the eight who opposed the motion admitted they had surprised even themselves by doing so.

Above: Watch the youth MLAs' debate in full (from 1 hr 10 mins in).

"I've been shocked by the amount of people that aren't supporting this. As teens I thought we would all relate to this a lot more than we are," declared Smyslo, who moved the motion, as dissenting voices mounted.

"Funding may be a problem but I think this is something we should invest in," said Madison Beck, the Hay River North youth MLA, who seconded the motion.

"The youth are our future and, if we don't invest in it now, there may not be a promising future for all of us."

The debate touched on many aspects of turning ambitious policy into reality, such as how to train and retain northern staff, the potential awkwardness of seeking counselling from someone you already know in a small community, and the cost of housing additional staff.

Alongside bolstering provision of in-school counselling, the motion sought to create a comprehensive suite of "online and anonymous" counselling services for youth.

"There are still not enough resources out there. I know a lot of the small communities in the NWT have very limited resources – not a lot of access to a counsellor, or someone to talk to – and putting this in motion would allow these people to get the help that they need," argued Smyslo.

"Getting help is a much bigger challenge than we give it credit for."

Emilie Gauldreault, health minister for the day, looks up as youth MLAs listen to a question on May 9, 2019

Emilie Gauldreault, health minister for the day, looks up as youth MLAs listen to a question. Actual MLAs Herb Nakimayak and Cory Vanthuyne, top, look on as pages. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Cabinet members, who voted en-bloc as their adult counterparts almost invariably do, were unmoved.

"Bringing in counsellors for all of the communities will cost a lot of money … and it doesn't say here how it's going to be funded," said Crystal Kisakye – in the shoes of Wally Schumann, the Hay River South MLA and industry minister – referring to the motion.

"Because of that, we disagree with it."

Later, Kisakye told Cabin Radio: "I never expected myself to go against the motion because mental health really is important. It's just that we could approach it in a different way.

"First of all, we all agreed until somebody started reading it out slowly. And then we realized that it said all of the high schools, and we said, well, we have other problems we need to deal with that need finances.

"So if we use all our money on all the high schools, even the ones that already have funding, even the ones that already have counsellors, then that would be wasting some of the government's money."

Stella Smyslo

"I was not expecting the whole cabinet to turn against me that quickly," said Stella Smyslo.

Kisakye admitted the experience had made her sympathetic toward politicians who make such decisions for real.

"I can't imagine what they go through with more serious stuff, making decisions for everybody," she said. "That must be very stressful.

"But I do realize now that they do what's best for everybody here," she added – a view not entirely shared by Smyslo.

"I sympathize so much, having to prioritize money over mental health. It's a really difficult decision to make," said the Kam Lake representative.

"If I was in the cabinet, I bet I would become iffy too with the motion. But I think, eventually, I would still come around. Just saying."

Crystal Kisakye

"I want to be part of making good decisions for people and making this world a better place," said Crystal Kisakye.

Both said they would be interested in doing the job for real some day.

The nine youth MLAs in favour of the motion alongside Smyslo and Beck were Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh's Tanesha Norn, Nahendeh's Ava Erasmus, Frame Lake's Malcolm Deans, Yellowknife Centre's Tori Haogak, Deh Cho's Lennie Mager, Nunakput's Marie Carpenter, and Mackenzie Delta's Charleigh Blake.

The eight opposed, alongside Kisakye, were Great Slave's Emilie Gauldreault, Inuvik Twin Lakes' Keely Voudrach, Range Lake's Peo Boitumelo, Thebacha's Felicity Beaulieu, Yellowknife South's Abagail MacDonald, and Inuvik Boot Lake's Cassidy Lennie-Ipana – all of whom were cabinet members – plus Yellowknife North regular MLA Rayyan Awan.

Sahtu MLA Gosahte Bird abstained after a compelling speech in which she documented her own struggle to receive adequate and timely counselling, declaring, "Our youth just doesn't have the trust." Monfwi's Magen Rabesca could not attend.

Asked if her government would respect the will of the House having been narrowly defeated, Kisakye grudgingly announced: "I guess so."

Whether the actual, adult government takes heed of the debate and its conclusions is to be determined.

The territory has a youth mental wellness action plan, running from 2017 to 2022, which does include a relevant pledge to "explore the use of technology to deliver mental wellness messaging and to ensure a broad range of service delivery options are available to children and youth."

Kids Help Phone, already in existence, is a national, round-the-clock service for youth accessible by phone or online.