Canada's 'kid' lawmakers poised to shake-up staid Parliament

Canada's recent election brought a crop of young lawmakers – including college students – to Parliament as members of the opposition New Democratic Party.

By , Correspondent

At 20 years old and just halfway through college, history and cultural studies student Laurin Liu has little in common with the middle-aged white men who dominate Canadian politics. But since her election in May as one of Canada's youngest-ever lawmakers, Ms. Liu has become a symbol of both the problems and opportunities facing her party – the socialist-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) – in its new role as Official Opposition in the national Parliament.

Liu is part of an NDP caucus that is younger, more diverse, and less experienced than has ever been seen in the House of Commons. It includes six university students, a 19-year-old who voted for the first time on the day he was elected, union leaders, an actor, the artistic director of Canada's oldest black theater, an anthropologist, and a large proportion of candidates who never expected to win. Two-thirds have no experience in national politics.

After the election, Liu said in a giggly YouTube video that she heard of her victory via text message. "My friend sent me a text message saying 'you won' and there were like a ton of exclamation marks following that and it was all in caps."

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Cartoonists have had a field day with the group since the elections, depicting them as nursery school children, with party leader Jack Layton as a bemused schoolmarm. While the party has been Canada's social conscience for decades, this is the first time it takes on the important job of holding Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government to account.

Denis Pilon, a political scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, says that such diversity, along with the enthusiasm of youth, could help infuse Parliament with fresh ideas and reinvigorate the Canadian political scene, which in the last few years has been criticized as uninspired and morose.

Peculiarities in the Canadian system helped propel the NDP's set of political newbies into their new role as lawmakers. Unlike in the United States, Canadians are allowed to run for national office as soon as they are old enough to vote, at age 18. Political parties try to field candidates in every constituency, even where they have little or no party structure, because they receive a federal government subsidy for every vote they get.

The NDP's big gains this year were in French-speaking Quebec, where it now holds 80 percent of the parliamentary seats. The party has always been considered a marginal force in Quebec and did not expect to win more than a few constituencies there. But this year, Quebeckers were drawn to the NDP largely due to the affable Mr. Layton, a charismatic politician who grew up in Quebec.

That support, however, will put plenty of pressure on the inexperienced NDP. It will have the daunting task of trying to persuade French-speaking Quebec to abandon its decades-long push to separate from Canada. Mr. Pilon says that if Layton's party does well, it could mean the end of the separatist push. "But if the NDP fails, it's not just a failure for the party. It could be a failure for the country if it makes Quebeckers feel like, 'Well, we tried it and we're not getting the results that we want. Maybe we should strike out and become our own country.' "

In order to get his league of newcomers ready for Canada's 41st Parliament, which met for the first time in early June, Layton held a two-week "boot camp" before the session to teach them exactly what lawmakers do. While many of the fresh NDP crop have been kept from public view (despite Canadian journalists' best efforts), Liu has been one of the most visible.

The McGill University student attended a media conference the day after the elections with three other new members of Parliament who also attend McGill. Liu, who started a campus NDP club at her high school, said she was assigned her constituency in suburban Montreal because there were no other candidates. She's spent little time in the area she'll represent.

The caucus also includes Pierre-Luc Dusseault, a first-year applied politics student at l'Université de Sherbrooke. At 19, he is the youngest person in Canadian history to become an MP. Mr. Dusseault said that until his victory, he planned to spend the summer working for about $9 an hour at a golf course. Now, he'll earn roughly $161,000 a year.

And 26-year-old bartender Ruth Ellen Brosseau earned national attention as the NDP's "Vegas girl," for vacationing in Las Vegas when she could have been drumming up votes. Ms. Brosseau speaks little French, although 90 percent of her constituents are Francophone. She also said she had never visited her constituency just north of Montreal, although she had heard that "it's a lovely area."

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