Young people ‘have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic,’ writes Medhat Mahdy, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Toronto and president of YMCA Ontario.

The Star– With the Ontario Legislature rising at the beginning of May and the election writ dropping, a private member’s bill to put youth at the centre of the pandemic recovery will die on the order paper.

The proposed centring Youth in Pandemic Recovery Act, tabled in May 2021, would have established a child and youth recovery action plan to respond to the impacts of the pandemic on children and youth. It would have also created a child and youth post-pandemic recovery secretariat to ensure all pandemic recovery policies and programs included a youth lens.

That this youth-focused bill will not pass is disappointing, but it is not surprising. While Ontario has been preoccupied with economic recovery, comparatively few efforts have been made to prioritize the needs of young people who have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.

Though necessary and unavoidable, closures, co-horting and capacity limits required YMCAs to cancel or vastly reduce the programs and services we delivered to youth. These programs build confidence, skills, and important peer and mentor connections to set young people on a positive trajectory and help them take charge of their futures. They engage hard-to-reach youth and those facing barriers. The absence of these programs negatively impacted thousands of youth across the province.

YMCAs are also one of the largest employers of young people — thousands of young people experience their first job at the Y. With the cancellation of overnight camps, aquatics programs and more, many related job opportunities disappeared, leaving young people with fewer inroads to gain important leadership skills.

This trend was felt Canada-wide. During the pandemic, the rate of young people not in school, work or training rose to a generational high of 24 per cent — up from 11 per cent prior to the pandemic. According to a recent study led by CAMH on student mental health, more than half of young people in Canada feel depressed about the future, and more than a third feel the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health “very much” or “extremely.”

As we dust ourselves off, and try to move forward from the last two years, it’s clear that we could all use a break. A break on gas prices, a break on child care fees, and a break on rising inflation. But let’s remember that children and youth deserve a break, too.

We cannot allow the constant refrain about the resiliency of our youth to be an excuse not to invest in their futures. Because of the pandemic, young people had to shoulder a heavy burden during critical, formative years. They now require our support and investment in programs, jobs and infrastructure to help them emerge from the pandemic and thrive.

As Ontarians head to the polls this June, let’s remember what young people have lost and keep them at the forefront of our decision-making. Many are not yet eligible to vote and the future of our province is wholly connected to the opportunities that we afford young people today.

Opinion from The Star, May 4, 2022

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