As a young girl, Kristin Smith was fascinated by her grandfather’s stories of working on a railroad in South Africa. So it was only natural that, when asked by her school to create a Heritage Fair history project, the Winnipeg student jumped at the chance to explore the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the nineteenth century.
Thanks to the high quality of her project, Smith was asked to take part in a new national contest called Young Citizens. Tasked with converting her Heritage Fair project into a short history video, the twelve-year-old quickly dove into storyboarding, writing a script, and travelling hours outside of her home city to film scenes for her project.
That was nine years ago. Today, Smith is an undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba, where she is studying psychology and religion.
As the Young Citizens program marks its tenth anniversary in 2021, Smith looks back fondly on her life-changing experience as one of six inaugural Young Citizens contest winners.
“It was a pivotal moment in understanding who I am as a person,” she said. “There are lighthearted moments as well as moments of more profound growth with the Young Citizens program. It allowed me to step into my strengths instead of hide them.”
The Young Citizens program, organized by Canada’s History Society, is open to students aged ten to eighteen who participate in provincial heritage fairs. For Smith, the Young Citizens program was her first experience with serious historical research: digging into primary and secondary sources and learning about the importance of analyzing history from a variety of perspectives. During her research, she learned about the challenges of constructing the CPR rail line through the Rocky Mountains as well as about the mistreatment of Chinese labourers who worked to build it between 1881 and 1885.
Smith’s video was reviewed by a panel of judges and then was part of a national popular vote. Smith and her fellow Young Citizens travelled to Ottawa to receive their awards and also attended the 2012 Governor General’s History Awards.
It was while Smith was in Ottawa, at a gala dinner celebrating the award winners, that she understood what it meant to be a Young Citizen: “I realized, I’m twelve years old, and I’m among all these really spectacular thinkers.”
Smith still cherishes that moment. Looking back, she said the Young Citizens program taught her to “continue pursuing excellence.”
Today, as the vice-president (advocacy) at the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, she represents more than twenty-five thousand undergraduates and promotes a safe and equitable university experience for all students. She hopes to attend law school and to continue serving her community after she graduates in the spring of 2022.
Smith said the Young Citizens program will always hold a special place in her heart. As the program enters its tenth year, she encourages other students to embrace this opportunity as a chance to deepen their understandings both of themselves and of Canada. “Plus,” she added with a smile, “it’s just cool. There’s no other way to put it.”
Creating Young Citizens
Since 2011, Young Citizens has been the national program for Heritage Fairs. Participating students convert their research projects into short videos that are posted online for a cross-Canada popular vote and evaluation by a panel of judges. Canada’s History Society, which organizes Young Citizens, is proud to note that more than 1,100 students have participated in the program since its inception. The Society looks forward to welcoming more students into this national community of young storytellers.
Learn more about Young Citizens.