Unexpectedly Elected

A Year and a Half Later, Young MPs Are Doing Us Proud

  • Graphic Guillaume Choinière

For years, the mainstream media complained about the low rate of youth participation in elections.

And yet, when several young people participated in the 2011 Canadian federal election, they were mostly met with scorn and contempt, derided in the media and mocked on the message boards. Their crime?

They got elected Members of Parliament.

In the lead-up to the election, the New Democratic Party hadn’t expected to win many seats in Quebec. In many ridings, it chose “placeholder” candidates to represent the party—candidates who were used as fillers, so that the party could say it was running candidates in every riding across the country.

Then the tables turned, and Quebecers suddenly fell in love with the NDP and its charismatic leader, Jack Layton, who was beating the odds on the campaign trail despite a recent bout with cancer and a broken hip.

On voting day, an orange wave swept the province and a whole cadre of young, rookie MPs were unexpectedly elected as part of that wave.

Originally criticized as being inexperienced by the media, in the year-and-a-half since the election, these MPs have shown themselves to be good and hard-working representatives of their ridings.

Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who was elected at the age of 27 in the riding of Berthier-Maskinongé, gained national notoriety when it was revealed she had gone to Las Vegas during the campaign, earning her the nickname “MP Vegas.”

The media also revealed that she was very nearly a unilingual anglophone, which was worrisome to many in her riding, which is 98 per cent francophone.

In fact, Brosseau said she could already speak French before the election, but admitted that her command of the language was very rusty at the time of the campaign. Since then, she has been taking French lessons, and also went on Tout le monde en parle, an enormously popular Radio-Canada talk show.

In an interview with CBC Radio host Bernard St-Laurent, the single mother and former campus bar manager said she has also consulted her constituents on the Conservatives’ changes to Old Age Security and held information sessions about federal tax credits.

The CBC has also reported that she is trying to get the federal government to help pay for repairs to her constituents’ homes. The mineral pyrite can produce cracks in foundation walls and has caused considerable damage to some homes in her riding.

The youngest MP in Canadian history, Pierre-Luc Dusseault, is also hard at work on Parliament Hill. Dusseault was a few days shy of his twentieth birthday when he was elected in the riding of Sherbrooke.

Only a year into his studies in applied politics at the Université de Sherbrooke at the time, Dusseault—who was president of the NDP campus club at the university—had been planning to work at a golf course during the summer.

Just a few days after the election, Dusseault became a national news story when he commented on Quebec independence.

“Sovereignty will be done in Quebec,” he told Toronto radio host John Oakley. “Quebecers will decide if they want to be a country.”

The headline that accompanied the story in The National Post soon thereafter? “NDP inexperience shows in latest gaffes.” Dusseault quickly clarified that he was a federalist who nevertheless respected the views of sovereigntists.

Since then, he has made a name for himself as Chair of the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, and Alex Atamanenko, the NDP MP for British Columbia Southern Interior, also praised him.

“[Dusseault] has shown that age is no barrier to success with his confident Chairing of the Ethics committee,” Atamenko wrote in The Castlegar Source.

Much of McGill University’s NDP campus club was also swept into power in the 2011 federal election. Four McGill students or recent graduates became MPs, including Laurin Liu, who was elected at the age of 20 in the Rivière-des-Mille-Îles riding.

Liu, who became the youngest female MP to be elected, recently told The Hill Times that she would like to work to improve Parliament’s gender imbalance.

“I’m in the Natural Resources Committee. Out of those 12 MPs, I’m still the only female, and you would think that in 2012 that wouldn’t be the case,” she said.

If the mainstream press can be thanked for anything, it’s lowering people’s expectations of these young MPs so much that almost anything they achieve for their constituents during their term will be seen as a major accomplishment.

Over the years, as more and more power has been centralized in the Prime Minister’s office, expectations of MPs have dropped further and further.

And maybe those low expectations are justified. Take, for example, former independent MP André Arthur, who was first elected in the riding of Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier in 2006 at the ripe age of 62.

While collecting a $150,000 salary as an MP, he continued to moonlight as a tour bus driver and a radio show host. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame was an on-air tirade against Haitian and Arab cab drivers that sparked a class-action defamation suit.

Although the Supreme Court ruled that his remarks were legal, it also called them “racist and contemptuous.”

Quite frankly, I’d rather have an articulate, compassionate and energetic 20-year-old as my MP than somebody like that.

All too often, young people seem to think that positive social change can’t be brought about through electoral politics. Many youth movements, from environmental groups to student associations, seem to have renounced electoral politics altogether as a way to bring about change.

That’s rather disappointing, because there is no better place to change the country and the world than from the seat of power itself. These young MPs are actually influencing the legislative process, not only by showing up to vote on bills, but also by actively participating in various parliamentary committees.

It’s incredibly encouraging to see that young people can be just as effective representatives in Parliament as 50- to 60-year-old career politicians who are largely out of touch with the needs of Canada’s youth.

Today, young people are grappling with high youth unemployment, mounting student debt and unaffordable housing prices that are making it harder and harder to climb the social ladder.

To address the needs of a diverse population, there should be MPs of every age in Parliament. In particular, younger MPs have proven that they can bring a fresh perspective to the federal political scene. If their record so far is anything to go on, let’s hope that 2015 sees the election of more young MPs.

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