Shoulder blades jut from his back like wannabe wings; his elbows hinge in 90-degree angles, and he overwhelms the room with endorphins. He robo-hugs a constituent here, explodes in hysterics there, whips off a speech ending with “God Bless Grimsby,” and takes elongated strides off stage like a flamingo. When he sits down, there happens to be a chair beneath him, but he could just as likely be holding a squat.
Sam Oosterhoff, 19, is an unusual politician indeed. In one of Ontario’s most conservative provincial ridings, Niagara West-Glanbrook, Oosterhoff (rhymes with “toaster cough”) won a much-watched by-election in November, becoming the province’s youngest MPP ever. Four months later, after one of his campaign staff challenged him for the candidacy for the 2018 election, the Progressive Conservatives are holding a vote in the town of Grimsby, where 1,200 members have crammed a farm-fair barn complex and the rain-soaked soil seems to presage an Oosterhoff landslide. Pro-life, home-schooled and fresh off a farm, the teenage MPP is a phenomenon reflecting the sentiments of social Conservatives across Canada, who see their representatives slipping left and demand somebody—anybody—different.
“Sam! Sam! Sam!” the audience chants after he wins the nomination. They swarm him and the Oosterhoff clan—his parents and four of their eight children, his great uncle and aunt and a cousin. As he bounces between selfies, his grandmother, Nell, asks his brother Aaron: “You think he’s a little hyper?” Sam confirms: “Boing!”
At the top of his world, Oosterhoof harbours a hint of cockiness. He will gladly tell you he was raised with no TV or Netflix but “definitely thousands” of books. “He’ll use words that nobody else knows—for example, ‘discombobulated,’” says his cousin, Brad, “just because he knows them.” Oosterhoff says he read 48 books last year, and another 12 since January, and that he’s currently metabolizing a tome connecting C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Second World War, each of which he studied in childhood. Machiavelli was also covered, of course. But no television? He smiles and points at himself, up and down, as if the advantage of pop-culture virginity should be plain to the eye: “I mean, come on. It worked.”
The Oosterhoffs, a Reformed Church family with deep roots in Niagara, don’t have roots in politics. Sam’s siblings include an electrician/quail-egg farmer and a professor of the history of philosophy at Cambridge University. “Public office is kind of scary,” says his father, Carl, who farms wheat, corn and, this year, soybeans. “We’re worried because he’s our kid.” Sam first told his family about his political plans by e-mail from Ottawa, where he was working as a legislative assistant. “Are you serious?” asked Carl. “We threw a bunch of pros and cons. Did we oppose him [doing it?] No, we did not oppose him. We just wanted him to look at all the angles.”
But Sam felt a calling. Four nights a week, he lives in an apartment in Toronto, taking political science courses at Brock University on Monday nights (he skipped class the night before the vote). “He’s got the drive, the power, the know-how. And he’s tall,” says Ken Frid, a retired Sears furniture salesman and local supporter. “I watch him on [TV] when I’m not watching Trump, who we love.” When the Liberals presented a bill that would better enable same-sex couples to adopt children, Oosterhoff didn’t show up to vote, and denounced the legislation as “disrespectful to mothers and fathers.” “He’s against gender-bending,” says voter Andy Hoiting. “It’s not Godly. It’s an abomination. He’s my countryman.”
Oosterhoff has kept his opinions off the radar in recent months, after his stance against pro-LGBT legislation was a major “oops” for a party seeking broad support. PC Leader Patrick Brown reversed his own position opposing gay marriage and a sex-ed curriculum that favours tolerance for the LGBT community. But at home, Oosterhoff lives in a bubble of Biblical faith. According to Aaron, a 27-year-old father of three (his wife holding baby Fiona, who wears a bonnet passed down through the family), “Christianity informs everything he does.”
At age 12, Oosterhoff began his first pro-life petition, targeting neighbouring farmers. “Anything from conception to death, he’s pro-human,” says 26-year-old supporter Maria del Duca. “With that pro-life comes so many other beautiful things.” On a backpacking trip through Europe with his cousin, the highlight wasn’t swigging beer in Munich or crawling the red-light district in Amsterdam but attending a choral concert at a British chapel. “It’s all in the Lord’s hands,” he says before the vote.
On this night, alas, the Lord has neglected to provide a podium, and Oosterhoff hasn’t memorized his speech, so he must frequently glance at a script in his unwrinkled hands. His youthfulness comes out in other ways; his volunteers give out Jujubes at the door, while family members tell stories of him shooting paintballs from a tree fort, or assailing raccoons with BB guns. Says Aaron: “He does a great job of representing Generation Screwed.”
Oosterhoff harnesses spry volunteers—his 24-year-old helper, Greg Borris, literally tap dances in his street shoes for a moment—but his support is not age-specific. “We have already seen the old guys,” says Armanjit Josan, a Sikh horticulturalist who grows English cucumbers in a greenhouse in Grimsby. After former MPPs failed to stop the Liberals from raising hydro rates and erecting wind turbines in the region, Conservatives want the refreshingness of Oosterhoff, who is physically shaped like an exclamation mark.
“Experience matters,” is the slogan of his challenger, Tony Quirk, whose primary platform is a life of at least one score years. Quirk, 46, runs a business that builds suction cyclones and other equipment to control farm pollution—a self-proclaimed “glorified vacuum salesman.” He helped run the teenager’s campaign last fall, but since Oosterhoff only won 30 per cent of the vote in the last nomination, Quirk wondered, “is there a path to victory for me?”
So he called a vote. “You might think, ‘wait a minute Tony, we just had an election,’” he admits to the audience on Tuesday. But if the Conservatives want to get serious and form government in 2018, he says, “we’re going to actually have to put someone in with experience, and unfortunately, no one else stepped forward.” His speech emphasizes maturity: “I raised my family in Grimsby, where I live with my beautiful wife, Trish, and my lovely children, Kathryn and Finnegan.” Quirk also supports same-sex marriage, acknowledging: “I don’t meet the ideological purity test for social Conservatives.”
To critics, Oosterhoff represents a time warp. “To get dragged down by these so-cons, it’s everything the party doesn’t need,” says Jordan Williams of LGBTory, a conservative group representing LGBT interests at the meeting on Tuesday. “It’s frightening, especially when you see what’s going on down south. We have a chance to shape this party … then we have these children of the corn. We want to prove that everyone’s welcome, and [Sam] is the opposite. Will he march with us in Toronto? No.”
But Oosterhoff marches out of the hall at the end of the night with a 903 to 313 win. He’ll need to be in Toronto in the morning for meetings, and after a late-night victory party at his farmhouse, he might not have time to read. “Actually I will,” he decides. “I always read the Bible.”