A changing of the guard at the NDP

A new crop of young NDP MPs are out to show they can deliver for their constituents
NDP MP Matthew Dubé on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 19, 2011. Photo by Blair Gable for Maclean’s Magazine
Change of guard
Photo by Blair Gable

At ten to eight on a Wednesday morning, he is aboard one of Parliament Hill’s small green buses, on his way to the first meeting of the day, the weekly gathering of the NDP’s Quebec MPs. He is wearing a suit and he’s carrying a coffee and a Danish. Around him there are other men. Men in suits on the way to meetings of their own. Only they are all twice his age.

After this meeting there’s another meeting—the weekly gathering of the official Opposition caucus. Then a walk back to his office, down the Hill to the Justice Building beside the Supreme Court. Then back up the Hill for lunch with a reporter in Centre Block’s ornate restaurant. Then a meeting of the all-party arts caucus. Then question period. Then a meeting of the standing committee on public accounts to hear testimony from the interim auditor general. Then dinner at the NDP’s weekly pub night. Then a meeting of the Canada-Europe Parliamentary Association. Then back to the pub, where he won’t look particularly out of place among the hordes of young staff who quietly keep Ottawa running.

This is what it is to be young and elected.

At a poised 23, Matthew Dubé is actually the eldest of the four McGill undergrads who became MPs when the NDP became the choice of 4.5 million Canadians last spring. A day short of his 23rd birthday when he received 42.7 per cent of the vote in Chambly-Borduas, he is merely the 12th-youngest individual ever elected to the House of Commons. His fellow students, Charmaine Borg, Laurin Liu and Mylène Freeman, are respectively the fourth-, fifth- and seventh-youngest. None of them were supposed to win—and maybe they barely, if at all, campaigned to win—but they did. And in doing so they became semi-famous—dubbed the McGill Four—as curiosities or absurdities or symbols or some combination thereof.

Their newness is still obvious. Security guards, at least in Borg’s case, still stop and ask for identification. The walls of their offices are, so far, sparsely decorated. Their faces are comparatively less weathered. Their laughter, nervous and otherwise, maybe bursts forth more readily. But if to look down on the House of Commons in the early days of the 41st Parliament was to wonder if participants in a visiting student parliament had become mixed in with the real one, the effect is somewhat less jarring a few months in. In part, perhaps, because however they got here and whoever they are, they—and Ottawa—have had to get on with the business of representative democracy.

“I was definitely ready and willing if that occasion arose,” Dubé says of his election. “I always tell people in the riding, the one political promise I’ll make you as your MP is to give 110 per cent. And, you know, in a lot of things in life the work will often get results.”

He first became interested in politics after the attacks of 9/11. He was 13 at the time. “You’re sort of in a mode where you’re old enough to be aware of what’s happening, but too young to really understand. And I wanted to understand,” he says. His allegiance to the NDP, he says, dates to 2004. He served as president of the Young New Democrats of Quebec and co-president of McGill’s NDP club. Shortly before being elected, he completed a bachelor’s degree in political science and history. During the campaign he was still studying, and his campaign, he says, didn’t have enough money for lawn signs. He rode his bike to do some door-to-door canvassing.

Now he enthuses about the work. He quibbles with the suggestion that he has something to prove—“I don’t like to say ‘prove’ something because that starts us pretty low”—but he thinks he’s showing people that he can do this job, and perhaps changing Ottawa in the process. “A lot of people think that there’s young MPs now, so the change is going to come automatically,” he says. “I think that’s oversimplifying because of the role we can play as part of a larger group. And part of that change comes from just the openness of people that are with other parties, in the riding even. People are used to dealing with older MPs, let’s say, and I think that their attitudes change from dealing with us and realizing what we can do.”

How Dubé, Borg, Liu and Freeman got here is a matter of math. In the first place, of course, they each received the most votes in the ridings in which their names were on the ballot. Beyond that, there is the arithmetic that informs a national campaign. To be taken seriously as a national presence, a federal party is expected to field candidates in all (or very nearly all) 308 ridings. But how many of those ridings a party can reasonably hope to win varies wildly. Of the 75 ridings in Quebec, for instance, the NDP was focused primarily on three when the spring campaign began. If their poll numbers improved, they thought they might have a shot at six. That left 69 ridings in which NDP candidates had to be fielded without any particular likelihood of winning. In the four ridings won by Dubé, Borg, Liu and Freeman, no NDP candidate had finished better than fourth in either of the previous two elections.

Precious resources are not wasted where there is presumably no hope of victory, but party supporters, no matter how few and far-flung, need an outlet for their vote. And parties, at least under the per-vote subsidy that is now being phased out, stood to gain financially from every vote received. Party members, organizers and officials end up standing for election. Enthusiastic students from campus associations and youth wings find their way onto a few ballots. Unless something remarkable happens, it’s unlikely anything will ever come of it. But something remarkable is what happened—the NDP winning 59 seats where, just a few years ago, one was considered a profound breakthrough.

And so here they now are. Three years ago, Freeman spent a day following Olivia Chow around as part of a program that sent young women to Ottawa to shadow female MPs and senators. “She’s just a workaholic and loves it. And she’s excellent at it. But speaking to her and hearing her reasons for it and motivations . . . That was a lot of the driving force behind when I did get asked to be a candidate. Being like, yeah, I could do this. Not only do I want to, but I could.”

Each returning NDP MP was assigned a few new MPs to counsel, and Freeman, Borg and Liu are now mentored by Megan Leslie, who, at 38 years of age and with three years of parliamentary experience, finds herself cast as the wise veteran. (Leslie’s also kept in touch with Dubé.) Leslie recalls attempting to check in on Liu this summer only to hear from Liu that she couldn’t talk because she was out canvassing. Liu now fondly recalls a family barbecue in her riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles. “At one point, people started lining up to see me and the lineup to see me was longer than the lineup for the barbecue,” she says. “I guess people wanted to talk to me, surprisingly, more than they wanted hamburgers.”

Leslie notes their seriousness and praises their instincts, and they all do seem acutely conscious of their responsibilities to their constituents. Freeman concedes she wasn’t sure the reaction in her riding of Argenteuil-Papineau-Mirabel would be welcoming. “I thought they were all going to start throwing eggs at me because I hadn’t campaigned,” she says. “It was the complete opposite.” Now she talks about Ottawa as a “bubble.” “I’m fully aware that this is not life, right?” she says of the capital. “And then we go home at the end of the week and we hear about life, right?”

They are part of a larger group of young MPs—more than 18 under the age of 30, all of them New Democrats—that is conscious of the opportunity to represent their generation. But they are not solely spokespersons for those with student debt. Liu is the NDP’s deputy environment critic. Freeman is interested in gender equality. Dubé is preparing a private member’s bill concerning the regulation of shale gas (an issue of concern in his riding). Until a recent shuffle of committee assignments, Borg was preparing to help lead the NDP’s fight against the government’s “lawful access” legislation. They all regularly stand in the House and question cabinet ministers and speak to legislation, collectively covering everything from human smuggling to poverty to government services for seniors. “I think it’s really important to think about the fact that I’m speaking for so many other Canadians,” Liu says. “At that point, you just sort of rise above it. It’s sort of like an out of body experience.”

Borg’s Thursday morning begins at 7 a.m. with breakfast at the Parliamentary Restaurant and a lecture from a visiting professor about the integration of the children of immigrants. Then back to the office. Then to a meeting of the standing committee on justice. Then question period. Then a meeting of the standing committee on the status of women where she’ll sit beside Freeman and hear testimony about elder abuse.

Borg is the middle child in a family of seven children. When she was 15, growing up in Keswick, Ont., Borg and four friends started a theatre group for at-risk youth. In Grade 11, she successfully petitioned her school board to change the policy at her French school—her mother is a francophone, her father an anglophone—that enforced heavy penalties for grammatical mistakes on tests. The NDP appealed to her because their policies seemed aimed at families like hers. “We had problems making ends meet,” she says. “I have parents who worked really hard their whole lives and I didn’t understand why they weren’t getting a break, and why so many families in my community were struggling.”

After high school, she spent a year working as an associate manager at a Jacob outlet in Montreal to make money to pay for school. At McGill, she studied political science and Latin American studies and worked with a local union. She got involved with the campus New Democrats, becoming co-president with Dubé, and volunteered with local campaigns. If she hadn’t been elected to Parliament, she was going to go on an exchange to Mexico.

She says older MPs tease her for going home so early on nights out. Asked about Hy’s, she claims never to have heard of the semi-legendary hangout for political players. She’d never owned a BlackBerry before becoming an MP and is admittedly a bit of a Luddite. “There’s some older MPs who are geniuses, who probably tweet 20 times a day,” she says, “and I’m still figuring out how to hashtag things.”

When winning became a distinct possibility for her, she was the subject of some critical “Have you seen Charmaine?” coverage in a local paper. She chose to keep working for Thomas Mulcair’s campaign in Outremont and she doesn’t agree with those who would suggest she doesn’t deserve what she won. “I worked two jobs when I was in university, I maintained a good average and I still found time to volunteer and go door to door, go organize events for the NDP; I participated in debates at university for the NDP,” she says. “I was someone who was out there working really hard for this goal, for this vision of Canada.”

And so here she is, the elected member for Terrebonne-Blainville. She enthuses about helping her constituents and about debating the future of the country. This is something she’s wanted to do “forever” and she loves the job, she says. “I know that we’re being watched a lot, they’re kind of expecting us to mess up,” she says. “I know that myself and my colleagues are extremely talented, we care a lot about what we’re doing. And I don’t think we are going to mess up. I think that we can prove to Canada that youth do have a place in politics. We changed the House of Commons in this last election, but that it can stay that . . . That an MP doesn’t have to be 50 years old anymore. I mean, if you think about it, the root of it is the House of Commons. The ‘Commons’ is commoners. It’s people like myself. It’s people who worked in a union; it’s people who maybe just worked in a grocery store. Because they’re commoners. So it’s not just lawyers, it’s not just CEOs and that’s never what it should be.”