OTTAWA – As he goes from door to door wooing byelection voters in southwestern Ontario, Erin O’Toole talks about a lot of different issues, with one pointed exception: his 12 years as a member of the Canadian Forces.
O’Toole, the Conservative hopeful in the riding of Durham, is fiercely proud of his time in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Navy, which included Sea King helicopter missions after the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111.
It’s just that he doesn’t want to be seen as using his military service or work with veterans as a springboard to a political career.
“When you leave the military, you feel a sense of guilt because your friends are still there, they are still serving,” said O’Toole, who traded the life of a soldier for law school in 2000.
His desire to be in public life comes from somewhere else, he suggested.
That reluctance to highlight a military resume, while seemingly common in Canada, is at odds with politicians in the United States, where time in the armed forces is often seen as a prerequisite of sorts for running for office.
That could be changing — this year marked the first presidential election since 1932 where neither the Democrats or Republicans had a veteran running for president or vice president.
But for whatever reason, Canada has seen a far smaller proportion of ex-soldiers choosing to throw their berets into the political ring.
Over the history of the House of Commons, only 18 per cent of the 4,202 MPs ever elected have military duty on their resume, according to statistics on the parliamentary website.
Among them was George Baker, elected as a Tory in 1911 as the Canadian government decided to join the British effort in the First World War. He then joined the military and was the commander of the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles when he was killed in action at Ypres in July 1915.
The majority of MPs who have military records come from the First and Second World Wars, when collectively about 2 million Canadians served in the forces.
As the number of Canadians serving has dwindled, so too has the number of politicians drawn from their ranks, said military historian Christian Leuprecht.
“In the U.S., the military has a strong linkage with society — 1 in 8 Americans will serve at some point in their lifetime,” he said via email from a conference in Spain.
“In Canada, it’s closer to 1 in 100. It just doesn’t have the same cache as it does in the U.S.”
Of the 43 men who have served as U.S. president, only 11 have zero military experience on their resume. By contrast, of the 22 Canadian prime ministers, 15 have never done military duty.
The last prime minister to see active duty was Lester Pearson, who was both a member of the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War and then a pilot in Britain.
Thirteen current MPs list some military service in their official backgrounds: two are Liberals, five are New Democrats and six are Conservatives.
Only one is a veteran of Canada’s most recent conflict, the war in Afghanistan.
Tory MP Corneliu Chisu did one rotation in Kandahar as an engineer, responsible for setting up the Canadian compound and bases in the province. He also served in Bosnia.
He said he believes his military record helped him get elected, because he came across as a different kind of candidate. Not only is he an immigrant — he was born in Romania — but one who served in the military, to boot.
“Members of the public, they get used to politicians who are running for office, but what have they done in their lives?” he said.
While Chisu and O’Toole both cited the continuing desire for public service at the heart of the decision to move from military to political life, many other soldiers are turned off by politics, suggested Audrey Prenzel, a Canadian career transition expert specializing in former military members.
She said she’s never worked with anyone who has expressed an interest, and when she asks, she’s often met with laughter.
“They like to get stuff done, they like to ask and answer questions directly and get direct straight-shooting answers,” she said.
“So in terms of corporate culture, it just doesn’t seem to be a fit.”
Chisu said he does find it frustrating sometimes to listen to other politicians talk about the military and veterans when they have little real experience with either. But he uses his knowledge to try and shape the debate, where he can.
“You have to know how to ask the right questions,” he said.
New Democrat MP Christine Moore served as a medical assistant with the 52nd Field Ambulance reserve unit in Sherbrooke for three years. Her military training has been useful as she adapts to life as an MP, she said.
“We have an advantage thanks to the discipline and teamwork and leadership training,” she said. “Politics is also a crazy life, not as physical as military life, but you are away from your family and always on the go.”
Leuprecht said that the peripatetic nature of military life often leaves soldiers without the community connections necessary for starting a political career.
For O’Toole, those connections have partially been found through other veterans.
His father represents Durham in the Ontario legislature and his family has longtime roots in the area. But he’s been surprised at the number of other former soldiers who’ve turned up to help him campaign.
He said he believes it’s possible that the war in Afghanistan will produce a new crop of political leaders, as groups supporting veterans and helping them move into their civilian lives are far more available than they used to be.
“I hope to see more of them,” O’Toole said. “Maybe I’m on the starting cusp of a bit of a trend. Maybe not.”