British Columbia·Metro Matters

No longer mistaken for wait staff: B.C.'s youngest mayors share early experiences on job

"They don't administer an IQ test before you become an elected official. And so people should know that their experiences in life, whether that's swinging a hammer for a living, or being a student, or running a business: they're all valid."

Young leaders feel their communities are giving them the authority to lead

Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions says "people often want to teach me and ... inform me of how things used to be." She approaches those discussions as a listening opportunity. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

What's the key to being a successful young politician? 

If you're 33-year-old Brad West, elected mayor of Port Coquitlam last year, the answer is not branding yourself as a young politician. 

"A very wise politician told me don't put yourself in the box," West said.

"Don't run as the youth candidate because when you do that, the message you send to other people in your community is that you're not particularly interested in their issues."

That person was Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth — who has now been in politics as long as some of B.C.'s young leaders have been alive.

The 2018 municipal election brought a wave of millennial politicians to local government: 28 councillors under the age of 40 were elected in the Lower Mainland, including a 20-year old in the province's most elderly city. In Saanich, voters elected a 19 and 23-year-old to office

And three mayors were elected under the age of 34 — each navigating the new waters that come with running a municipality at a relatively young age.

Lots of listening

At first, Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions thought it unlikely that her working-class mill town would choose a 30-year-old woman to lead it into the future.

"My intent was I would start a conversation in the community that I felt we weren't having. And that was my goal," Minions said. "I thought Port Alberni is not going to elect me because I'm not a typical Port Alberni mayor."

Minions has focused on growing the economy and revitalizing Port Alberni's waterfront — and says that while she has the community's support, being a young, female mayor sometimes requires a specific type of listening. 

"People often want to teach me, and people want to inform me of how things used to be. And my assistant said to me once, 'Wow, you sure do a good job of taking all of that,'" she said. 

But Minions looks at it as a positive.

"I've really learned to just embrace people who want to help. And that's really what they want. They want me to be successful. So they're trying to educate me in whatever way they that they feel is necessary."

Port Moody Mayor Rob Vagramov said he's inspired "there are so many young people that are actually engaged and starting to pay attention to politics." (Martin Diotte/CBC)

'A lot less eye rolling'

Port Moody Mayor Rob Vagramov also had to do a lot of listening.

"Some members of council, their attitude seemed ... as if they interpreted their job as educators in the community to try to educate people and say 'Well, you don't understand this issue, here let me tell you the facts,'" Vagramov said.

"I think that people really do not appreciate being condescended to regardless of age.

At 26, Vagramov became B.C.'s youngest mayor when he defeated incumbent Mike Clay last election, on a campaign of slowing the pace of growth in his community. Before that, he was a councillor — and says the change in how he's perceived at meetings is noticeable. 

"I feel now that there is a lot less eye rolling around the table," he said.

And there's a change at some community events, too. 

"I'm no longer confused for waiting staff, which is nice." 

Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West said young candidates shouldn't campaign too much on giving young people a voice, because it makes it less likely to get support from all demographics. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Understanding affordable housing

For West, the changes after being elected at 33 were minimal, in part because he had already served three terms on council before getting the top job.

"As mayor, people look to you for leadership in the meetings. And that's something that I've been comfortable with. I didn't start in that position, but I've got there over 10 years on council of learning from more experienced members," West said.

He said his age gives him an advantage on issues that tend to affect younger people, such such as affordable housing and childcare.

And when it comes to advice for young people wanting to enter the political arena?

"Just do it," he said. 

"They don't administer an IQ test before you become an elected official. And so people should know that their experiences in life, whether that's swinging a hammer for a living, or being a student, or running a business: they're all valid."

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

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