Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Perth County Pilots Youth Engagement Strategy

Meg Ronson / July 31, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: Perth County Pilots Youth Engagement Strategy

On August 15th, the University of Waterloo’s Community, Health, Environment, Communications (CHEC) Initiative is holding a presentation exploring the transformative potential of community-based participatory action research. Panelist Ryan Deska of OMAFRA will share his experiences with youth engagement in the local government and local economic development context in Perth County. The following is a guest blog post that discusses the process by which the community piloted a new youth engagement initiative.

In the spring of 2016 a number of stars aligned that led to the implementation of a new process for gathering and interpreting community level data. This process was a partnership between a number of visionary community level stakeholders who took a chance on a new idea.

The idea itself came together through conversations at the 2016 Rural Ontario Summit. This event had identified youth in rural Ontario as the primary theme for the event. The experiences, opportunities and challenges facing youth across rural Ontario were front and centre for all attendees.

“By bringing together a wide cross section of rural Ontario, including youth, provincial and municipal representatives and private and public organizations, we have created a truly collaborative approach for sharing ideas and learning from each other to build a bright future for rural Ontario.” – Jeff Leal, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs referring to the 2016 Rural Ontario Summit.

This philosophy proved to be effective – practitioners working in the field came together to zero in on an issue, share ideas and draw new connections.


At the time, Perth County was in the early stages of a strategic planning initiative for workforce development, specifically focusing on youth attraction and retention; they were looking at different ways to gather data to inform their strategic plans. The Rural Ontario Institute had recently completed research looking at the ongoing issue of succession planning for municipal leadership; they noticed a recurring message – “our youth are not engaged in municipal politics. We’re struggling to engage youth in our communities in meaningful ways”. The Brock Youth Centre was actively engaged with their local high school, building entrepreneurship skills through a hands-on, business pitch competition.

In bringing together these different perspectives, an idea for a new youth engagement process was born.

This youth engagement process was designed to:

  • Engage students in their communities, and foster an appreciation for the value of civic engagement
  • Support students in “learning by doing”
  • Gather data to inform Perth County’s community-driven strategic planning process


Ken Van Osch, a teacher with Listowel District Secondary School (LDSS) saw merit in this idea and agreed to pilot this process through his grade 12 independent study course. Three students selected this project as part of their coursework and final deliverables, and completed their deliverables over the course of the semester.

Students were provided with a high level structure for community engagement, a process outline to follow and ongoing community coaching and support from North Perth Community Information Coordinator Kim Kowch and OMAFRA regional advisor Vicki Lass.

To complete the process and to satisfy course requirements, students were required to:

  • Research and summarize the key issues involved with youth migration, rural population decline, and rural community vitality.
  • Research principles of municipal governance, priorities facing municipal councils, and the scope of decision making abilities at the municipal level
  • Review a wide variety of public engagement techniques
  • Develop an appropriate plan for consulting peers in a high school setting
  • Conduct consultations with peers around issues affecting youth migration and community vitality
  • Collect, sort and analyze data, looking for key themes
  • Present findings to municipal council


The students’ research was well received by council and community leaders in attendance during their presentation. Some of the main findings included:

  • Students felt they were being pushed away from home in the lesson plans they were hearing, the field trips they were taking and the degrees they were encouraged to pursue
  • Students identified a need for a safe place for local youth to socialize away from adult interference
  • Students didn’t feel they had a voice in their community – that they were not being asked about issues relevant to them

The students’ feedback was well received by the community, and they were encouraged to share their study more broadly, from the library board to LDSS staff to community service providers. It proved quite impactful for those who heard the students’ findings to have it coming from youth themselves.

“When we started this project, we wondered why we were even doing it – we didn’t think anyone was interested in hearing what we had to say.” – Sydney McCourt, LDSS Student

“Some of the findings from this study has had an impact in my overall approach to teaching. It’s not a unit, it’s not an assignment or a lesson, it’s part of my daily messaging. I’ve reframed the messaging in my lessons to focus on what happens here, or what businesses are here instead of pushing students to everything that is out “there”.” – Ken Van Osch, LDSS teacher

“It was really cool to have the community feedback. That just doesn’t happen for other students. This is something that you carry on, not a report that you hand in and forget about. I think a lot of people think high school students do projects that aren’t relevant, but to actually do something that’s important is really cool” – Wynter Alexander, LDSS Student

“For a lot of students there are deep rooted feelings about the community but no venue to express them. This was one of the first times for them. You could sense a weight coming off their chest.” – Jeremy, LDSS Student


To hear more about this initiative, its impact and uptake in the community, join us at the University of Waterloo’s Fed Hall, Columbia Rooms A&B from 11:30 am to 3 pm. Ryan Deska, Economic Development Specialist with OMAFRA’s Regional Economic Development Branch will share more stories in conversation with fellow panelists. RSVPs to the event must be sent to Tanya Markvart before August 8th, as space is limited.

Tanya Markvart, Ph.D., M.E.S.
Director of Research and Programming
Community, Health, Environment, Communications (CHEC) Initiative, University of Waterloo
Adjunct Professor, School of Planning, University of Waterloo
Email:  Phone: 519-888-4567, ext. 23015


About the panelist

Ryan Deska is an Economic Development Specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs and was one of the process designers of the youth engagement initiative in Perth County. One current area of focus in Ryan’s work is supporting communities in addressing the demographic challenges facing rural Ontario, and the impacts these have on economic sustainability and community vitality. Ryan will also be presenting as a part of University of Waterloo’s Economic Development Program’s two-day seminar, Delicious Development: Economic Opportunities in Value-Added Agriculture, running September 13th to 14th, 2017.

About the author

Meg Ronson is the editor of Higher ED, Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and Masters candidate of Economic Development and Innovation at University of Waterloo. Her research involves studying credit unions and co-operative businesses as potential tools for strengthening and diversifying local economies, and is currently engaged in a project investigating co-operative solutions to the small business succession issue in Ontario and Canada.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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