Published by the Toronto Star
This idea is one of the foundations of liberal democracy, or at least this is what every political science textbook will tell you.
In practice, however, our democratic Parliament in Canada has often been, and it still is, far from an “exact portrait . . . of the people at large.”
Originally, only people who held a certain amount of property could vote. This condition was abolished with the achievement of universal male suffrage. And it was only in 1917 when half of the electorate, women, were also given the right to vote. They had to wait two more years to be able to run for federal office and it was only in 1921 that the first woman MP was elected to the House of Commons. (Quebec didn’t recognize women’s right to vote until 1940.)
Racial exclusions against the voting rights of Chinese and Indo-Canadians were lifted only in 1947. The same happened for Japanese-Canadians in 1948.
Further extensions of suffrage continued in 1960, when First Nations’ right to vote became unconditional; 1970, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18; 1982, with the adoption of the Charter, which guaranteed all adult citizens the right to vote; 2000, when it became easier for people with no fixed address to vote; and 2002, when prisoners gained the full right to vote.
Today, our Parliament is far closer to being an “exact portrait” in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We have elected MPs from widely diverse ethnic backgrounds, from African Canadians to turbaned Sikh Canadians (the first in the Western World) and several openly gay MPs. And even though we rank 52nd when it comes to female representation in political office, we have just elected a Parliament in which a quarter of the members are female — a record.
Can we then say that we are close to having an “exact portrait” of the Canadian nation on Parliament Hill?
Far from being “one of us,” Members of Parliament often are lawyers, businesspeople, journalists or experts of one kind or other. Even when they are not, they often adopt lifestyles so widely different from the rest of us that too often they lose their common touch. In short, perhaps to the dismay of Adams, legislatures in Canada, as in other liberal democracies, are in no way an “exact portrait . . . of the people at large.”
That the New Democratic Party has fought to challenge this status quo should come as no surprise. After all, when Tommy Douglas founded its predecessor, the CCF, the political fable of “Mouseland” was his guiding principle. He thought mice should stop electing “a government made up of big, fat cats” and fight for a government of themselves, by themselves, for themselves. His was to be the party of “mice,” the party of the common folk.
The battle Douglas began has just reached a whole new stage. For the first time, the party of common folk has emerged as the official opposition. Why then should it come as a surprise that a large part of its new caucus is comprised not of political players but of youth, students, waitresses and single parents?
Ruth Ellen Brosseau might not be a political expert but as a single mother and a waitress, she has shared the hardships and aspirations of millions like her that no lawyer or “small business person” could claim.
The fact that Eve Peclet took part in a reality TV show demonstrates that her aspirations more closely resemble those of average Canadians than those of your usual MP.
Nineteen-year-old Pierre-Luc Dusseault and 20-year-old Laurin Liu know the plight of millions of students who have to take low-paid summer jobs to sustain their studies.
The enthusiasm that motivated Alexandrine Latendresse to teach French to kids in Moscow and the confidence and courage that led Charmaine Borg and Matthew Dube to manage NDP clubs in Quebec in hard times for the party are needed much more than the cynicism of professional politicians.
The mainstream media have raised a hue and cry in targeting the humble origins of all these new NDP Members of Parliament. After all the earlier fuss about low voter turnout, especially among youth, pundits now seem unhappy that young people actually have been elected to Parliament.
Our new MPs in Quebec are under attack every day because of their age, their “inexperience” and their humble origins. Often the $157,731 salary of a MP is mentioned in a condescending way as if they were not talking about our elected representatives but some kid who has just hit the jackpot in a casino!
Young New Democrats in Ontario and around the country welcome this new swath of MPs who are much more of an “exact portrait” of us and the working people of this country.
It is our fervent hope that after the hours of bureaucratic “preparation” they are currently undergoing they will not forget the sense of purpose and guiding principles that led them to join the NDP.
Arash Azizi, 23, is a spokesperson for Toronto Young New Democrats and a delegate to two past conventions of the Ontario New Democratic Youth. He was the volunteer coordinator for the NDP’s campaign in Toronto-Centre, a primarily youth-run effort that doubled the NDP vote.