AU learner one of the youngest elected officials in Canadian history
Justin Morrison, 18, says AU’s flexibility helps him balance councillor role with his studies
Many university learners find a part-time job to put a bit of money in their pocket while they study for a university degree.
Some, like Justin Morrison, get part-time jobs that set them apart. He has taken on a role as an elected official and become a community leader while he studies. And in his case, the 18-year-old is one the youngest elected officials to have ever served at any level of government in Canada.
Morrison was appointed as a municipal councillor in January 2022 in Huron East, a rural municipality in Ontario that includes the community of Brussels, where he lives with his family. He said he first became interested in municipal issues over the summer, when he would spend a lot of time walking around his community while taking breaks from his schoolwork.
“While doing that, I noticed problems or other issues that I found within the municipality,” he said.
For example, he found a street that randomly had a metal rebar pole sticking out of it, and very dated and worn-down sidewalks. He was also unclear about which level of government was responsible for maintaining a nearby conservation area. So he started thinking about how he could make a difference.
Morrison one of three applicants
The leadership role became available following the resignation of the councillor elected to that position in the previous municipal election. With the encouragement of friends and family, Morrison put his name forward.
Instead of holding a byelection, Huron East council opted to solicit applications and appoint a councillor until the next municipal election scheduled for Oct. 24, 2022. Morrison was one of three applicants.
“Once the opportunity came up for a 10-month appointment instead of a four-year term, I thought that was the best opportunity I could get,” he said.
The rest of his council and community members at large have, so far, shared his enthusiasm at being appointed to the role. He has heard congratulations and positive feedback from family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours.
“The flexibility at AU was really big for me. That’s what makes this possible.”– Justin Morrison, AU learner
Young elected official
Dr. Mark Crawford, a professor of political science at AU, said having someone so young serving in the capacity of an elected official is fairly rare, but not unheard of.
There are several examples of relatively young elected officials in Canada. These include Perrin Beatty and Sean O’Sullivan, who were 22 and 20, respectively, when elected as members of Parliament in 1972.
More recent examples include several young NDP MPs elected in Québec in 2011 as part of the so-called “Orange Wave” that saw Jack Layton’s NDP form the official opposition.
It is becoming more common for younger candidates to be elected to positions at all levels of government, including municipal. Crawford pointed to La Ronge, Sask., and Burns Lake, B.C., as examples. They elected 21-year-old mayors in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
He also noted the changes seen around the world over the past two years, and particularly in the area of higher education, have likely inspired more interest in civic politics from young adults.
“If Justin Morrison had been enrolled in a full-time on-campus degree, he might well be involved in student council but would have been less likely to be involved in civic politics—something that was stimulated by his need to take some exercise in his neighbourhood during the pandemic.”
Pursuing an IT career
Before the councillor opportunity came along, Morrison had already begun working on a Bachelor of Science in Computing and Information Systems in July 2021, when he was still just 17. He had graduated high school the previous month—although he said he had finished all his course work online several months before that.
“By the time July came around, I was just ready to jump into it. I didn’t have any job or volunteer commitments,” he said. “Instead of spending the time basically doing nothing, I thought I might as well jump ahead with university.”
Morrison said the atypical timelines of his high school and university experiences so far reflect his preference of online asynchronous learning, rather than having the structure of a similar program in a traditional school. AU’s flexibility is what has allowed him to serve his rural community while also pursuing a university degree in that same community.
“The flexibility at AU was really big for me,” he said. “That’s what makes this possible.”