When a group of high-school students went to the Yukon Legislature last week, their purpose was simple: get the government to rethink a plan that would leave them without a gymnasium for more than two years. They even came up with a novel way to get the politicians’ attention, doing stair climbs and calisthenics to demonstrate the importance of an athletic facility.
The chamber’s Speaker, however, was not amused. He not only booted the students from the public gallery, but took the unusual step of admonishing them in an angry letter.
Since then, his note has become the talk of the town, drawn criticism from opposition MLAs and left the teens and their parents wondering how a benign protest became a tussle over the exercise of democracy.
It all began with a plan to rebuild Whitehorse’s F.H. Collins Secondary School. Part of the project involves demolishing the building’s gym next year; the new one won’t be ready until the fall of 2015. In the interim, the Ministry of Education planned to bus kids to other facilities around town. But many of them would rather the government build a temporary structure until the permanent one is ready.
“The gym’s pretty much the heart of our school. Almost all the 700 kids at the school use it at one point in time in the day,” said Tristan Sparks, a Grade 10 student and volleyball player. “During our hour-long lunch, there are over 100 kids in the gym. I don’t know what we’d do without one.”
One day last week, 24 students made the short walk to the territorial government building. First, they met with the Education and Public Works ministers, then headed to the public gallery. When they stood up during Question Period, Speaker David Laxton told them to sit down.
The group started running up and down the stairs in an immitation of a gym class, again raising Mr. Laxton’s hackles.
“The students in the gallery are really trying my patience,” he said. “I don’t know what your purpose is, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Please come again when you can follow the rules of the House.”
The students returned to the legislature lobby, where they batted around a volleyball before heading back to school.
But the Speaker wasn’t done with them. He penned a sharply worded missive and personally delivered it to the school. In it, he outlined the rules of the House, then invoked the sacrifices of war veterans as he scolded the students.
“To disrespect the institutions, democratic processes and beliefs protected by these individuals demonstrates your lack of understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the freedoms you currently enjoy that Canadian soldiers have fought and died to protect,” wrote Mr. Laxton, himself a former peacekeeper.
The teens were stunned. “We weren’t trying to disrespect anyone,” said Grade 8 student Pascale Halliday. “The only reason we went to the legislature was because they wouldn’t listen to us when we were outside. To say that we were disrespecting veterans by practising one of our democratic rights – I thought that was a little weird.”
Janet Clarke, whose son was at the legislature, said the Speaker’s reaction was “heavy-handed,” particularly because the students had obeyed him, leaving the gallery when he told them to.
Mr. Laxton isn’t backing off. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said the demonstration was “disrespectful.” Told that some felt his letter, particularly its suggestion that the protest undermined democracy, was an overreaction, he said: “Everybody has the right to express themselves, and if that’s the way they feel, that’s the way they feel. I don’t feel that way.”
Ned Franks, an expert in Canada’s parliamentary system, said the Speaker was perfectly within his rights to chastize the students, even if he took things a little far. Like any member of the legislature, Mr. Laxton has the right to say what he wants, provided he uses parliamentary language.
“I would not have said that if I had been there, but I don’t fault him in any serious way for saying it,” said Mr. Franks, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University. “Part of being a member of a legislature is being part of a heritage and a history and that’s the point he was trying to make.”
The students have sent Mr. Laxton a response. In it, they said that, like war veterans, social movements – for women’s suffrage and against South African apartheid, among others – have been instrumental in winning democratic freedoms.
“We went to the legislature gallery to make the government aware that we are people too. Even though we are too young to vote, we are important and we are part of this community, and our needs must be recognized,” they wrote.
They may yet achieve this aim. Education Minister Scott Kent said the government is taking another look at the gym project and considering erecting a temporary building. No firm plans have been made, but a decision is expected next week.