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From campus to caucus

A reflection on ‘The McGill Four’ and the NDP’s new youth wing

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We had little warning. As the “Orange Wave” surged over us, it reshaped the landscape of Canadian politics in ways that few, perhaps none, had expected. Later, we agreed that only Jack Layton could have imagined it. But, on Election Night 2011, the political winds blew in a storm of shock and surprise: with the Bloc decimated, the Liberals pushed to the fringe, and, most importantly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first majority government. Two of the nation’s most prominent politicians, Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe, not only led their respective parties to catastrophic results at the polls, but sank with their ships, and lost their own seats in the House of Commons. In the aftermath, both quickly resigned, leaving two of Canada’s most historically significant parties without official leadership, without direction, and without prospects. One brief, seismic moment – and Canada’s political trajectory took a radical new tack. Quebec traded in its secessionist aspirations for more genuine social-progressive representation (or maybe just for Jack). It really was a sea change. But, on the morning of May 3rd, the relevant question, was who’s still riding the wave?

The NDP surge in Quebec was astonishing, but what really sealed the province’s endorsement of “Orange” politics was the election of some of Canada’s youngest Members of Parliament to date, all of them New Democrats. Especially telling was the widespread acknowledgment – on the parts of both the electorate and the elected – that the NDP had done relatively little, if any, campaigning in many of the ridings it won. Quebec had gone in for ideology. Perhaps it had simply tired of the Bloc’s ineffective federal representation, and opted for the only comfortable alternative. Whatever the reason, the upshot was the election of a fresh cohort of eager, yet politically inexperienced, NDP MPs. Several were students, or on the brink of graduation. As such, these newcomers stood as testaments to an evident truth: they’d achieved victory neither on personal merit, nor because of the persuasiveness of their own campaigns (if they had run one at all). And few had any personal connection to their new riding.

Four of them were undergrads at McGill.

The “McGill Four,” as the national media labeled them, are Laurin Liu, Charmaine Borg, Mylène Freeman, and Matthew Dubé. (A fifth McGill student, doctoral candidate Jamie Nicholls, also earned a seat on the Hill.) Liu and Borg have yet to complete their undergraduate degrees, but, Freeman and Dubé dove straight from graduation into public office. In other words, until last May, they were all just like us. Or so we like to think.

Like many, I was captivated by the story’s sensationalism. Major media seemed in turns dubious and exultant at the prospect of youth in – really in – politics. Of course, students and political activism is hardly an unusual blend, but students and political representation – especially at the federal level – is more than a little jarring. This is an attitude the ‘McGill Four’ believe Canadians need to overcome.

In writing this piece, I often encountered that attitude. It ran something along these lines: “The election of such young MPs was a fluke. Quebec voted for Jack Layton, or, at a stretch, for the NDP. But they did not vote for the ‘McGill Four.’ I’m all for giving them a chance, but let’s not go so far as to say they earned their seats in the House. Their victories are simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”

Charmaine Borg, who was taking political science and Latin American studies, is in a better position than most to address the impression that young MPs like her are unprepared or undeserving.

Borg won the Terrebonne–Blainville riding, just north of Montreal, without firing a shot. She ran no campaign to speak of. A local newspaper, Le Train D’Union, spent weeks trying to reach her for an interview, to no avail. They ran a story about it, under the headline, “Avez-vous vu Charmaine Borg?” – “Have you seen Charmaine Borg?” Finally, the NDP press secretary in Quebec explained that Borg couldn’t do an interview because she didn’t have a cell phone.

After the story ran, the paper finally got a call through to her. But, Borg said she was busy and would have to call them back later. In an updated version of the story online, they concluded, “We’re still waiting.”

During and after the election, the NDP faced media scrutiny for a seeming lack of candidate accessibility – a perception they have since made a large effort to change. But Borg’s aloofness during the campaign did nothing to allay the suspicion that the party was hiding their candidates from view. When I spoke to her, Borg expressed her fervent disagreement with that characterization: “If anything, there was a lack of handling. I certainly wouldn’t say I was shielded.”

I played a similar game of phone-tag with the Borg camp over the course of reporting this story. Eventually, I was able to get a phone interview with her. She explained her absence during the campaign as the result of being tied up in the campaign of Thomas Mulcair, the Outremont MP who, prior to the election, was the NDP’s sole representative in Quebec.

As Borg explains, “It was pretty much all hands on deck for [Mulcair]. We wanted to make sure he kept his seat, because if not we [wouldn’t] have anything in Quebec…We put all of our resources there.” In other words, considering the NDP’s numbers historically in other ridings, they couldn’t realistically expect to win. So their efforts were better devoted to a campaign with a fighting chance.

A quick look at the Terrebonne–Blainville election returns from the past decade bears out Borg’s initial skepticism. The woman who lost to Borg, Diane Bourgeois, had won the previous four elections for the Bloc. No NDP candidate in that time span had come in better than fourth place; in 2000, the NDP candidate won 2 per cent of the vote, and finished in fifth, behind a candidate from the Natural Law party. In May, Borg won 49.3 per cent of the vote, crushing the incumbent Bourgeois by nearly 20 per cent.

To understand how the Four came to stand in the election, I asked them to explain the nomination process. Liu, Borg, and Dubé were all frank in their replies. Normally, a candidate’s selection is done by a riding association. But, in the case of many ridings, the NDP had such a weak base that these groups were either dormant or nonexistent. So, it fell to the party to seek potential candidates. “I’ve been known in the party as someone who’s been very present and very involved,” Borg told me. “So they essentially approached me and asked if I wanted to run. And I agreed.”

When I suggest there might be something incongruous about her running in Terrebonne-Blainville, a place to which, going into the campaign, she had no personal connection, she gets testy: “You can’t be guilty at all. I mean, you’re giving people the opportunity to vote for the NDP. If there was no candidate, then people couldn’t vote for the NDP, and we wouldn’t have a New Democratic representative, which, you know, 50 per cent of those who voted wanted. So.” She has a point.

As we continue talking, Borg mounts a persuasive argument for the value of youth on Parliament Hill.

“I think we have to change that whole outlook that a politician has to be a lawyer, or a CEO of a company for forty years,” she said. “Myself, I’ve been in the labour environment, and started a drama program for at-risk youth when I was younger. I’ve always had an interest in community involvement. And I’m noticing in my peers – people who come from all kinds of backgrounds – those are the people who know what it’s like in real life.”

I ask Borg about what Jack Layton’s commitment to youth meant to her. In a soft, almost nostalgic tone, she reminisces about her party’s former leader: “He believed greatly in our generation. Before we knew about his second sickness, he wrote an email to us – to the ‘McGill Four.’ We had done an interview, and he was really proud of it,” she recalls. Imitating Layton’s voice, Borg recallls his words: “I had tears of joy, because I’m so happy that I know our party is going in the right direction, and that you’re going to lead [it].”

As I learned – by sitting down with three quarters of the pack, so to speak – there is a very important sense in which each of these McGill students earned the right to represent. As the election proved, the NDP is a major contender in Canadian politics, and too serious a party to consider fielding candidates it felt were unqualified. With this in mind, its willingness to showcase young talent (or, put more charitably, to assign youth real responsibility) is heartening.

In Ottawa, Matthew Dubé’s office is located in the Justice Building, opposite the austere Supreme Court. After passing through security, I’m whisked through wide, paneled corridors – lined with MPs’ offices – to the interior of his new workplace. Empty bookshelves stood along the walls, and his desk was broad and imposing. It looked like office space that had been recently vacated, or not quite moved in to.

He’s generous with his time. Finally, late for a meeting, he rushes away. His assistant walks me downstairs, and sees me out. Their professionalism is impressive.

A longtime NDP supporter, Dubé had not bothered to become a member because he was focused on school. One day, he saw a poster on campus advertising a talk by Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair, organized by the NDP campus club. He went on a whim, and loved it. Club members approached him about getting involved. “Absolutely,” he replied. “Definitely something that would interest me.” Those members, Liu and Freeman, are now his fellow MPs. Within a year, Dubé had run for, and won, positions of both co-president in the campus club and president of the youth wing of the NDP’s Quebec section.

When the party asked Dubé, who was completing his BA in political science and history, to stand for election, they took pains to impress upon him the gravity of their offer. “There wasn’t much drama to [my] decision,” he says. “Maybe it’s a young, idealistic way of looking at it, but I just kind of threw myself in. And, contrary to what might have been said, you’re always aware – and they warn you (as if it’s a bad thing) – they do discuss with you the possibility that, regardless of how remote it may seem, when you present yourself as a candidate, the intention is to win. The possibility is always there… They really wanted to make sure folks were aware of that.”

The discussion turns to his campaign, and, without prompting, he addresses the question on the tip of my tongue. “There was criticism at some points with regard to how active certain campaigns were,” he says. “I know for my part – I won’t speak for others – but [the Chambly-Borduas riding] is where I’m from, first of all, which I think dispels one of the myths that everyone was from somewhere else. It’s where I live.”

To prove his local roots, he tells me a story. Recently, at a meeting in the city hall of one of the towns he represents, one of the mayor’s administrators pulled him aside. “You know, I went to high school with your dad,” the man teased.

But Dubé goes on to explain that, when it came to campaigning, he simply did not have the resources to fund things like extensive signage. “You have to work with what you have,” he insists. So, he collaborated with other South Shore candidates, did door-to-door canvassing by bike, and gave a couple of local interviews.

What did he do when he found out he had won? “The day after it happened, we were getting organized, returning phone calls, and trying to get everything up and running.”
“Being surprised and being prepared are two different things,” he added.

Still, for Dubé, adjusting to life as an MP has been a daunting challenge. He has to juggle countless new responsibilities: selecting staff, setting up two offices (on the Hill and in the riding), becoming familiar with parliamentary procedure, helping constituents access federal services, preparing for debate…the list goes on. But, he says, “help came from all sides, if we were ready to use it and seek it out.” For one, there was the assistance of “phenomenal, non-partisan” staff in the House of Commons.

It hasn’t all been a grind, though. Dubé recalls an emotional moment this past summer, in which a constituent thanked him for the work he had done on her behalf. After indicating that she’d felt his absence during the election, she went on to express how grateful she was his team had managed to resolve her issue, and how impressed she was at his first four months in office. (I asked what the woman’s issue was, but he said he wanted to maintain the confidentiality of his constituents). “You know what?” she said. “I voted for Jack Layton last time, but next election, I’ll be willing to vote for you.”

Laurin Liu’s constituency office, in the riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, sits humbly on a main street in St. Eustache, just north of the river and Laval’s southern tip. Getting there by bus from Montmorency takes about an hour and a half from my apartment in the Plateau. The office shares a street with grim, brick apartment buildings, a gas station, and a strip mall. The surroundings are bland, but her staff is jovial. (One of her staffers is Myriam Zaidi, last year’s SSMU VP External). They offer me weak coffee, and, when I leave, an anxious-looking local man is ready to replace my abandoned seat.

During the interview, Liu displayed an impressive engagement with both the history and culture of her new home in St. Eustache. She tells me about the traces of cannon ball fire on the side of the local church, and recommends the flour from North America’s oldest functioning mill. “It’s really important that an MP is accessible and present,” she says, and points to the fact that during the summer she’s done at least six hours of door-to-door canvassing per week.

And Liu credits “the huge sense of collegiality” within the NDP for keeping the new, young MPs (each of whom was assigned a mentor) reassured. Liu’s mentor is Halifax MP Megan Leslie – a fitting choice, as Leslie was voted “Best Rookie” in a poll of her peers conducted by Maclean’s magazine in early 2009.

As Liu, expressing her frustration with media skepticism, reported: “We always bemoan the fact that youth aren’t involved in politics. But when they get elected to Parliament, we complain about it. It doesn’t make sense.”

In a strangely instinctive way, the election of students encapsulates so much of what we both love and despise in a democracy. It reinforces our treasured belief that anything is possible, for anyone. It’s a case of odds overcome, of new people seizing new opportunities, even of marginalized views finding public expression. We want youth to represent vigour and optimism in politics, because those are the qualities we appreciate in youth. And yet, there’s also the voice – the cynic – telling us that what matters is concrete experience. Youth doesn’t mean fresh perspectives, but a lack of perspective. How much naivete can we allow in our politics? This is the business of running the country, after all. The flipside (perhaps the perversion) of the notion that anything is possible – particularly when coupled with the knowledge that these people were elected not on their own account but solely on that of their party – is a jealous self-righteousness. It could have been anyone. It could have been you. And then there’s the financial aspect: MPs earn an eye-popping $157, 000 per annum salary. A voice asks, “are they really worth that?”

But it’s important to remember that these new MPs have come a long way – possibly longer than they know. Another, now-distant, May election saw a very different result for aspiring McGill politicos. In 1979,  McGill students David Winch and David Rowley stood in Quebec as candidates for the NDP.

Both lost, Winch to one Pierre Trudeau. The Daily covered the story – “NDP launches Big Mac Attack.” The headline referred to the broke students’ use of a McDonald’s as campaign headquarters. Discussing his loss, Rowley stated, “I wasn’t disillusioned, because I didn’t have any illusions in the first place.” Winch, after discovering that fifteen dollars remained in the campaign fund, had a simple declaration: “Maybe we’ll go out for Chinese food.” Who says history repeats itself?