With a lot of young people taking a special interest in this year’s federal election — or at least we hope they are — we begin this special series of reports from one recent university grad who decided to get involved at the campaign level. Watch for Katrina’s updates over the weeks to come.
You may associate the word “election” with checking a box on a ballot and then heading home to watch the results as they are tallied and broadcast across the country, feet up on footstool. To others, though, it’s a word that entails over a year’s worth of hard work. Politicians, party candidates, and volunteers are up to their ears in to-do lists the minute it’s uttered on Parliament Hill.
It takes an unfathomable amount of work to run a campaign. I know this because I have had the opportunity to experience it first-hand.
Mind you, I’m still a novice. Back in April of this year I didn’t even know what a riding nomination was. My knowledge of elections barely surpassed what I had learned in civics class. That month in Montreal I met Rachel Bendayan, the Liberal candidate for Outremont. She was young, passionate, and made politics feel more accessible to me. I learned from her that it was no longer dominated by an Old Boys’ Club, and that women and young Canadians were getting increasingly involved. I told her that I wanted to learn more about national politics because I really did feel out of the loop.
Rachel told me that she initially got involved in politics by volunteering for the Liberal Party over 12 years ago. Her background in international affairs and law degree from McGill University allowed her to serve as National Legal and Constitutional Advisor to the Liberal Party. Her interest in politics continued to grow and shortly after, she became Vice President of the party’s Outremont riding association.
As she told me her story, I wondered how I could be of use. I did not have a law degree, I did not keep up with foreign affairs, and I had not one political science class to my name. Rachel gave me a reassuring smile and mentioned that there are many paths Canadians can take to get more involved. Political parties need everyone from social media managers to phone bank volunteers. Help is needed both behind-the-scenes and out in the community.
I decided that instead of just reading about the election or hearing about proposed budgets on the six o’clock news, I would put myself in the middle of it. After finishing my degree at McGill and moving back to Toronto in June, I decided to volunteer closer to home, in Parkdale-High Park.
I headed to the campaign office at the corner of Dundas and Bloor, not knowing what to expect. I came in with so many questions. How were they gathering public opinion? Whose opinion really was it? What is first-past-the-post? How can a prime minister just choose the election date? In a matter of weeks, I would learn this and much more.
The election was still months away, but the party was already in full-swing campaign mode. I had already missed months of meetings and preparation that began back in January. As I walked into the office, Candidate Arif Virani greeted me with a big smile, a thank you, and pointed me to a table of coffee and snacks for the canvassers (courtesy, in part, one volunteer who preferred to stay away from the action and bake mouth-watering cheesy bread for the campaign instead).
As I munched away, I surveyed the scene and saw students, retirees, 40-something mothers, and 20-something dads. It was quite an eclectic group. Remembering that I was there to work and not eat, I decided to introduce myself to others. I met a student from Ottawa and a mother of two who lived just down the street from me. To my surprise, several people didn’t even live in the riding, and I learned that it was quite common for committed Liberals to travel across the city to volunteer for a riding that needed their help more than others.
Since grassroots mobilization is integral to election campaigning, I began with training for door-to-door canvassing, or, in Liberal-speak, the “Weekend of Action.” Before I even received a lanyard or a pin, I was registered on MiniVAN, an application in which volunteers record data from their canvassing lists. No need for clipboards or paper file folders; an iPhone was enough to send me on my way. I was to be a data-collecting machine, with a friendly face, and knowledge of the party’s platforms.
I cannot tell you how nervous I was before knocking on the first door. Introducing myself to strangers is usually a non-issue, but this time I was not in class or at an event — I was on people’s doorsteps. The only time I had ever been at a neighbour’s front door before that was October 31st, with a great big smile on my face and hopes for a Mars bar.
I had been assigned to canvass certain specific streets, and planned my route accordingly. I knocked on the first door, and then 10 more, and, before I knew it, I had talked to over 30 households. I met nine-year olds and 90-year olds. Moms and dads. Families of two and families of 12. Some just smiled and took a pamphlet, while others shared quite personal stories with me.
With each conversation, the process became less intimidating and more eye-opening. I had always supposed that national politics were far removed from the life of my neighbourhood — that “local” was a term reserved for municipal politics only. But while I was there to speak on Arif’s behalf, I also informed people that they could contact him directly at his office or speak with him in person at the upcoming Canada Day barbeque. I began to understand how candidates seek to represent those in their constituency at the national level by first getting to know them at the local level.
During election time, egos, agendas, and competition fill the air, but, ultimately, elections are about everyday citizens. Yes, polls are informative, and stock-full of data, but sometimes the people behind the numbers get lost. My first Weekend of Action, on the other hand, made me feel connected to others, and confident that I could communicate the party’s message to citizens who were thinking more about their Sunday gardening than the upcoming election, as well as those who were eager to voice their political opinions.
I also learned that I had many roles to play that day. I introduced the candidate’s name and provided information about him, I learned what issues were most important to the citizens, and believe it or not, I informed some unaware Canadians that an election was brewing for October of this year. While television ads, posters, and pamphlets have the power to influence voters, face-to-face contact will always be central to successful campaigns. I didn’t expect people to change their minds and formulate opinions on the spot, but I gave them something to think about, and they introduced me to perspectives I’d never even considered.
At best, I reminded them about their right to vote, a right that is slowly beginning to have increased meaning to me as I learn more about voters’ concerns and more about the candidates that seek to represent them. And it would continue to become more meaningful yet when I headed to another campaign office in Montreal. Stay tuned for more about the experiences of a Canadian girl with a right to vote, and a lot to learn.
Born and raised in Toronto, Katrina Kairys is a recent graduate of McGill University where she majored in psychology and world religions. She has a growing interest in Canadian politics and legal studies, and a passion to get more Canadian youth interested in their country and those that lead it.
Katrina’s campaign journal, Part 2: En Outremont