The Accidental Citizen -

The Accidental Citizen

A series of exit interviews with former MPs


One of the most eagerly anticipated exercises in Canadian civics research has been released. Entitled The Accidental Citizen, it’s a report on a series of exit interviews with former MPs, and was conducted by Michael MacMillan and Alison Loat at Samara. Alison was on The Current this morning, you can stream or podcast it from the CBC site if you missed it.

You can download the report or  join the debate on the Samara site. Here’s the link.

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The Accidental Citizen

  1. First question; why should we take former MPs at their word?

    The interviews showed that outgoing MPs see themselves as outsiders and never considered political careers untill asked. Isn't this exactly what every candidate tells us during elections, whether it's true or not?

    • Thanks for your comments and interest in this report. I'll respond to your first question first!

      That question is one that applies to anyone who does interviews, polls or human research of any kind. You're right – any one interview is just one side to any story and that there are many interpretations of reality.

      Our role is this is one of a documentarian, reporting how the MPs described their feelings and what they believed. We assume that, like all of our memories, theirs may be coloured by the passage of time and affected by how they chose to interpret their own lives and experiences. So we interviewed 65 MPs, often in their homes or in their communities, with the goal of telling a broader story of why they came to politics and what they did while we were there.

      We were also careful to follow generally accepted qualitative interviewing methodology, which you can read about here:

      • Thanks for replying. I guess it's not fair to blame you for the limits of qualitative research; however there are some conclusions you draw that just cry out for quantitative analysis.

        For example, you note that most of the MPs in your sample group weren't lawyers — but how does this compare to the share of sitting or historical MPs who were lawyers? Similarly, doesn't the well-known under-representation of women and visible minorities in the House of Commons fly in the face of the "anyone can run for office" conclusion?

        • Happy to reply. I love this stuff.

          I think it'd be great to do more quant analysis, and will admit that I hope this provokes some young, enterprising academics to do just that!! A lot of academics helped us along the way, and several commented that this is a real help as so much research is surveys now, which lacks the same context and depth of perspective that this approach gives and is much less engaging as a teaching tool for students (this is why we've included so many of the quotes on our website). So you're right – a combination would be ideal.

          A few comments on their jobs in the past. Interestingly, until a change to the Canada Elections Act in 1972, each candidate had their profession listed. Post-'72, that was replaced by their party affiliation (which also gave leaders the purview to appoint candidates). That change made it much harder to track job info – and even then, it doesn't take into account the fact that many MPs had multiple jobs before coming into politics, and not all related to their training (e.g., some did law degrees but never practiced).

          In our report, we handled this by listing off the variety of roles people help, but this is just a sample and not the entire list:

          Also, there is some info on people's jobs in past Parliaments here, but it's incomplete (not their percentages don't come close to 100%) and missing some major career categories:

          If you have some spare time and want to do some research, let me know! :)

        • On the "anyone can run". This is true in that, unlike other countries, you don't have to have gone to certain schools, and you don't need huge amounts of money. That doesn't mean anyone can win. And it doesn't mean that those who choose to run, and who win, are necessarily representative of the Canadian population.

    • On your second question, the outsider. The reason we titled this "The Accidental Citizen?" – with the question mark – is because we think a few of the narratives warrant some reflection.

      On both "the ask" and "the outsider" – two very dominant themes in the interviews – I think these say more about our political culture than anything else. Whether they were asked or not, whether they felt like outsiders or not…. we'll never know for sure, but it is how so many of the MPs told their stories. I'll quote from our report on this point, because I think it may ultimately be at the heart of all this:

      "In essence, from this narrative a clear paradox emerges. It is ironic that those who consistently describe themselves as outsiders have, in fact, been intimately involved in the lives of their communities. More than anything, this is perhaps best viewed as an observation on our political culture. Perhaps our politics attract the underdogs or people from outside the mainstream, or maybe it's more that we, as citizens, feel more comfortable defining ourselves that way.

      This paradox may also highlight the fact that politics has become something for which it's inappropriate and even uncouth to acknowledge interest or ambition, even after the fact. If that is, in fact, the case, it's no wonder that people don't consider public life, or claim to stumble into it so accidentally."

      You can read the report here:

      Or if you're just interested in these paradoxes, you click here:

      • My bad on this one, great to see that you have flagged how the MPs feel the need to portray themselves as outsiders. I would have phrased it more cynically, but you made the point.

  2. It would be interesting to have the Samara data analysed as a function of the MP's role in parliament. I have just clicked through the bios of the current cabinet. About 2/3 of the current cabinet would be classed as being in the "political class" either by starting a political career early or by following a stereotypical career path to politics. More than half of cabinet started their political career early (much younder than 47) (I haven't looked, but I would suspect a review of the Liberal shadow cabinet would yield similar numbers.

    Combined with the Samara's findings, this suggests a narrow political class elite ruling over a more diverse parliament. It is perhaps part of the answer why for generations Prime Ministers have treated ordinary MP's with distain. It is no wonder that most MP's consider themselves outsiders; they are.

    • Hi Stewart,

      Thanks for your post – some really interesting thoughts there. Our next report is going to look at how the MPs transitioned to Parliament, and how they spent their time. So there may very well be a different story about who becomes a cabinet minister or a prime minister from the story of who becomes an MP. In our group, about one-third served in Cabinet at one stage or another. If you send me a note (, I'll be sure to add you to the distribution list for that one.

      I also think there is an important question to be asked about whether the "citizens' Parliament" we've had historically is changing as politics becomes more professionalized. I have one research-based article on that from the UK that suggests, on the margins, that may be the case (and it also wonders if that may be the cause of increasing partisanship in politics). I haven't seen anything like that in Canada. We have also done the same statistical background research on the 40th Parliament that we're starting to look at, which I'll post bits of it's interesting over the coming months.

      On the "outsider" bit – this was one of the more striking narratives, and as I mention in my response to thirsty_mind above, may say more about our political culture as anything else.

      John Godfrey had an interesting observation on how the internet is making it much easier for backbench MPs to exert influence, particularly compared to cabinet ministers, on The Current this morning:….

  3. Second concern: selection bias. Of course it seems like "anyone can run for office", when you only talk to people who have succeeded in elections and never consider those who lost.

  4. I'd like to see a course on public affairs as mandatory prior to being allowed to run for office. In theory, anyway. If you do not know Canada's GDP, or the difference between pay equity and employment equity, or our immigration rate, if you believe that the government can create real, sustainable jobs by throwing tax dollars around, if you do not know sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, then you should not be allowed to run for office.

    In practice, such a course would probably be a feminist/radical gay indoctrination course that would flunk anyone who opposed Marxist/Frankfurt School thought and would actually make things worse.

    Andrew, you recently stated you think the quality of public office seekers is lacking. At the federal level they seem to me to be of pretty high quality, at least on paper; perhaps you can elaborate in a future post.

    • Will put it on the list of things I need to put more thought and research into. Alison's report has certainly given me — and everyone else around here — lots to think about.

    • If you do not know Canada's GDP… etc…

      Baby steps Bonko. Let's first ensure that all of our elected representatives know what GDP stands for!

      • Perhaps a better and more pertinent place to start would be a correct understanding of the Canadian parliamentary system.

  5. This has been the most polite and functional comment wall I have ever read (so far anyways).

    • Alison's a professional.

      • That is unusual for Macleans