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Yonge Interviews: Vasiliki Bednar and Young Carers

When she spoke at TEDxToronto in the fall, Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar's shimmery shirt and playful ideas challenged attendants and viewers to rethink public policy. She says public policy is often viewed as "serious issues that require only serious people wearing serious clothing," but really it's a part of everyday life that affects us all. Public policy is the fluoride in our water so our teeth don't rot, and the community hours at our local swimming pools. It's also a way to shine light on the invisible issues that hide beneath the surface.
"Public policy keeps us safe and healthy," she says. "It's how we make things better."
The 27-year-old just presented the findings of her fellowship with Action Canada, a prestigious public policy and leadership development program that accepts 20 outstanding Canadians each year.  She and her team focused on "Young Carers," a group of often-invisible young people that provide significant care to a sick or disabled family member. The team presented their findings in Ottawa last week to senior officials and a mix of members from the public.
Yonge Street caught up with Bednar, the manager of engagement and executive assistant at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance, here in Toronto to find out more about the fellowship. The experience is just part of her plan to eventually run for office on a provincial or federal level, but first she wants to get as much experience as possible in different domains. 
You just completed your fellowship with Action Canada. Can you tell us more about it?
You travel to five different working conferences across Canada. We went to Quebec, New Brunswick, Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in BC, to Vanouver and finished in Ottawa to do our reports. At each of those conferences we spend time focusing on a particular leadership skill such as asking the right questions and thinking on your feet. We do a dinner where we go through a 101 of the province, stats on the labour force, what's the political climate here, what's making the headlines, what do people care about, and what's the history, the whole socioeconomic political landscape. Then we meet with business leaders, politicians, and community activists. We hear presentations from them. The conferences are a mix of that and task force work time. Overall, it's an amazing, really productive microcosm of the entire policy process.
Your task force project focused on young carers. Can you tell us more about this?
Young Carers are young people who provide a disproportionate amount of care work in the home for a loved one, usually a parent or a grandparent, but it could be a sibling. It's really under-recognized in Canada. There's no formal recognition in legislation, only a few provinces have any charity work or non-profit work going on to support young carers and to better understand them. We just don't have good data on them. Australia and the UK are huge leaders. It's not that we're falling behind, it's that there's something missing by not focusing more on young carers. 
How did you get young carers involved in the conversation?
We did a public consultation in Vancouver. We actually had a rapper, Patrick Stephens (Tricky P), this young guy who has experience as a young carer. We flew him to Vancouver and he opened up our public dialogue with a rap about young carers. It's a tough topic to present on, it's a sad topic and it's an invisible topic. We had young carers there in the audience with us. They were on hand to take a few questions, but to also make this invisible problem real by saying, 'Hey I'm 17. I've been caring for three years for my mom who has cancer.' You just don't think of kids doing that. Tricky P made this topic accessible in a light way, but his lyrics were all about what young caring is and it was inspirational and positive. It was a neat introduction to the issue.
What happened as a result of your task force?
We presented last Friday in Ottawa. We had three respondents there who weighed in and basically endorsed [the report] and also offered their criticism of the landscape. They consisted of Nora Spinks (CEO of the Vanier Institute on the Family), Bonnie Schroeder (Canadian Caregiver Coalition) and Larisa McSween (Manager of the Young Carers Program at Hospice Toronto). 
If anything, our biggest value add is that we equipped people who are already working in this area with something they can offer other people in terms of what the problem is in Canada, what's going on, what do we want to have happen and what needs to happen so we can better help young carers. 
We also made recommendations. Our first is increased awareness. Even for the young people themselves, they don't self-identify as a young carer because caring and loving someone in the home is part of being in a family. It's going beyond chores. It's not doing the dishes after the meal; it's having the responsibility of that meal. Also increased awareness for people at school: teachers. Someone might be coming in late or having trouble paying attention. It's not necessarily that they're a bad student, it's that they've stayed up late and they have the psychic burden of being at school, but they're thinking 'I hope dad's dialysis machine is working okay.'
The second is improved data collection and research. What was frustrating is we just don’t have good numbers on this in Canada. This early evidence from selected places in British Columbia and Ontario shows us that yes young people are doing this work, they need support, they need to be talking to each other, they need their school to be aware so they can be accommodated. The UK did something cool. They made this piece of ID that young carers can have at school to maintain some discretion. It can be hard to explain to other kids: it's personal and they could be bullied. They literally have to show this card to their teachers and the teachers understand no problem, this guy is a young carer, but it's maybe not a public part of his identity.
The third is a multi-sector approach. We're not saying in our report that this is primarily a government responsibility, it's also the responsibility of communities, community centres, schools, teachers, and principal champions to have this on their radar so productive steps can be taken to make sure these young people are healthy and reaching their full potential.
What challenges did you face with this?
The toughest conversation we had as a team was, do we want any young caring happening at all? On one hand it’s a beautiful thing. These young people are typically caring as part of a team. They're not the sole carer and it's not a burden that is theirs alone, but because they're not recognized they might go to the doctor with their mom and the physician can't ask direct questions to them even though they're a resource. 
As soon as they recognize that role as a young adult who is caring, there are other obligations: do we train kids to how properly lift someone out of a wheelchair? Do we train kids to help someone up and down stairs?  Should kids have access to medication that someone is taking? 
Even though we had different feelings in the group, we recognize from a policy perspective saying something is illegal or shouldn't happen would only make it more invisible and bring shame into the equation. We want there to be pride and for young people to recognize what they're doing. Also, the care recipients are a missing component. It must suck to be a mom and have that kind of responsibility, to know your daughter is walking her little brother to school and packing the lunch and providing different kinds of oversight. 
What did you learn?
It's tough that not more is going on. It was interesting to come to a topic and not have lived experience with it. I wonder how I might have approached it differently had I had that. That was a great part of the policy process. If anything, I do feel now that I've completed it, compelled all the more. I've never felt more Canadian or connected to what we're doing in policy or motivated as a citizen to be someone who is engaged, aware, but also active and getting my hands dirty. 
What's next for you?
I am helping bring something called Teach For Canada to life. It's a research and data-driven charity that aims to make education in Canada more equal. It lets me use my knowledge of policy and my data skills in an entrepreneurial setting: starting something new, engaging with stakeholders, making pitches. We just won space at CSI Regent Park and we are a client of MARS, but don't have a website yet. We're working on maps that show the economic geography of student achievement in Canada and original data analysis. Basically, we will take talented young graduates and put them in schools that struggle with teacher retention/turnover (rural, remote and Aboriginal) for at least two years. 
Sheena Lyonnais pens the Yonge Interviews series and is Yonge Street's managing editor. If you know an interesting young Torontonian who is making the city a better place, please nominate them by emailing Sheena. 
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