-born student and advocate Caleb Piché-LaRocque was diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, a condition that limits his central vision, in 2018.
Although the diagnosis definitely “put a twist on” his life path, he did not let this life-changing health issue affect his ambitions.
The 20-year-old student is entering his thirrd year in Business Administration and Economics at Laurentian University this fall, and he sits on CNIB’s National Youth Council. He has also been selected to sit on the Ontario government’s Premier’s Council on Equality of Opportunity.
“I would say that (the diagnosis) was for the best. My attitude and views on certain issues really changed. I started putting more emphasis on mental health and overall well-being for everyone,” he said.
“I strive to support my peers and family as best I can, and I have started volunteering in many programs and council. This has been a very rewarding experience.”
The provincial government announced the creation of the new advisory group on June 4.
The Premier’s Council’s purpose is to provide advice on how young people can overcome social and economic barriers and achieve success, and to advise the government on long-term actions that can be taken to support youth during the COVID-19 outbreak.
On Aug. 28, 20 young Canadians and community leaders were selected to serve on the council.
Membership is intergenerational and cross-sector, and includes youth 18 to 29, and adults with expertise from community organizations, not-for-profit businesses, education, and government services.
The first council meeting took place virtually over two days last month. Piché-LaRocque said that he was blown away by the team, and he believes they have the skills and knowledge to tackle any issue.
“During my time on the Premier’s Council on Equality of Opportunity, I hope to be able to create a line of communication between my community, as well as our neighbouring communities, with the decision-makers in government,” he said.
“The best person to tell us what the community needs is the community itself. I will work to give a voice to marginalized groups and erase systemic barriers.
“With the community and its residents’ perspective and information, we will provide advice to government aimed at improving economic outcomes for youth by building a skilled, future-oriented workforce, decreasing youth unemployment rates, and growing innovation, entrepreneurship and talent within Ontario.”
For most of his life, Piché-LaRocque lived what he called the classic Canadian dream. He played house league hockey in Sudbury and finished his last season with the Coniston Flames.
Today, he still enjoys playing hockey with his friends outdoors, but most of his time is spent on his studies and his advocacy work.
CNIB’s National Youth Council advises the organization on relevant issues that affect youth with visual disabilities.
As a member of the council, Piché-LaRocque participates in advocacy projects, including the Accessible Gym Project, which aims to make gyms more accessible to the blind community.
“Recently, myself and another member, Danica Frappier, are working to create a financial program for all. This program would aim at empowering our community to make better and more educated financial decisions in our daily life,” he said.
It was through the National Youth Council that Piché-LaRocque first heard about the creation of the Premier’s council.
“Any time I can try and generate positive change for my community, I jump at the opportunity. I applied for the council online, filling out some short questions, and I finally got an interview,” he said.
“I was so nervous, but from the looks of it, I did well. This is a big opportunity and I am very grateful to be able to participate.”
One of the council’s first orders of business will be to gather feedback on the Black Youth Action Plan (BYAP) from Ontario’s black community.
The BYAP, which was announced in February 2017, aims to increase opportunities for black children, youth, and families by investing in culturally focused parenting initiatives and mentorship programs, supporting access to higher education and skills development and more.
The council is inviting current program partners, business owners and executives, community groups, organized labour, employment services and training agencies, chambers of commerce, business associations, places of worship, civic institutions, and more to provide feedback about the plan.
Through this, and other initiatives, Piché-LaRocque wants to do his part to lower barriers and generate opportunities for marginalized youth.
“I have lived some instances where I felt my opportunities were limited due to my visual impairments. I also bring a different view to the table being from Northern Ontario through my personal lived experiences,” he said.
“The beautiful thing about this council is the wide-range of views and values the Premier’s office was able to bring together. With my deep understanding of certain economic and business concepts, I have a unique ability of analyzing situations in a different way than other members do. My disability allows me to connect and understand the struggle marginalized individuals often face.”
He also pointed out that marginalized groups have been particularly affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Marginalized groups have a higher unemployment rates than white, born and raised Canadians. This is unacceptable, and I want to create a more inclusive Ontario for our youth. I hope in a few decades, I can look back and proudly say I was able to create a more prosperous and inclusive Canada.”
Piché-LaRocque hopes that participating in the Premier’s council, he will also be able to give Sudbury a voice.
If anyone in Northern Ontario wants to connect with him, he is happy to chat. He can be reached at Caleb.Piche-Larocque@CNIB.ca or on Twitter (@Calebp.l) or LinkedIn.
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star