We continue Katrina Kairys’s series on getting to know Canadian politics from the ground up, by volunteering during the 2015 federal election campaign. Previous installments can be read here.
By Katrina Kairys
“Do we happen to have a sledge hammer? Nope? I guess I’ll have to go grab one tonight.” I give Mira a confused look. “Oh. We’ve got to put up more campaign signs tonight. It gets the job done.”
At only 21, Mira Ahmad is quite possibly the youngest campaign manager in the country. Nicole Cummings and Dan Turner, her co-workers on the campaign of Liberal Rachel Bendayan in the Montreal riding of Outremont, also haven’t yet reached 25, but they aren’t letting that stop them; all three have been all-in right from the start.
Having spent the last few weeks chronicling my own experiences of the rat race that is election season, I asked each of them to tell me about their own.
Nicole, a native of Montreal, splits her time between the campaign, a full-time course load at Concordia, and a part-time job at Costco. This girl is no slouch. When I ask what spurred her to get involved, she tells me that back in February a classmate of hers asked if she had free time to volunteer. “What free time?” I laugh.
A student of political science, Nicole explains, “I wanted to see if and how what I learned in class applied to the real world.” She began going door-to-door, loved it, and wanted to get more involved. So, despite being so young and not knowing anyone, Nicole attended training sessions and party events for months before the election kick-off.
“There was a speed-dating type of event where we got to see different aspects of what would become Rachel’s campaign,” she recalls. Nicole was also able to delve into electioneering essentials: fieldwork, data collection, and communications. “I was very interested in learning about canvassing and the Liberalist data program. You have to be very organized. So it was the job for me.”
With her new skill set in hand, Nicole began coordinating volunteers, a task which involves a lot of forethought. “With a campaign you have to plan even the smallest things at least weeks in advance,” she says. One unexpected challenge has been the competition for volunteers. It turns out that, while Liberal candidates may not be fighting one another over seats, they do fight over volunteers. The classmate who introduced Nicole to Rachel is now helping Marc Garneau’s campaign. Another friend with whom Nicole started volunteering now spends his time in a West Island riding.
“I’ve stayed with Rachel’s campaign because it’s very important for youth to see that a young woman can do what she is doing,” she says.
Nicole was mostly non-partisan when she began to volunteer, but that changed after meeting Justin Trudeau. In June she attended “Cocktail du Chef,” an event hosted by the Liberals in Papineau, Trudeau’s riding, which gathered together Liberal candidates from across Quebec.
“When Justin walked into the room, the mood immediately changed. I don’t even know how to describe it. All of a sudden the room filled with energy.” Nicole noticed how he instantly connected with people, taking the time to meet and talk to everyone.
Asked if she would work on a campaign again, Nicole replies with an enthusiastic, “Yes.” She adds, “There is so much more involved in a campaign than I ever thought there was. It requires so much time, dedication and support, but yes, I definitely would.” She’s less certain whether she would ever be a candidate herself. Nicole has seen first-hand what a whirlwind the past year has been for Rachel.
“I’ve seen the campaign calendar and I don’t know how she sleeps.”
Next, I sat down to talk with Mira, who recently and unexpectedly became campaign manager. Because it is a highly demanding job that requires a large commitment, and where working overtime is the norm, campaign managers have been known to come and go — something Rachel’s team faced just a few weeks ago. Since then, she has taken the reins along with Dan.
Mira took time off from her job as an executive assistant at the Jean Sauve Foundation to put more hours into the campaign. She also juggles five courses in communications at Concordia University. But right now, she’s majoring in Bendayan. Working with the Young Liberals over the last few years, she has met candidates from all over the country. “Rachel is one of the first candidates I met — nearly two years ago,” she says. “She’s brilliant, and she’s my role model.”
Mira’s phone buzzes, as it often does. She is first-in-command of Rachel’s busy schedule. “Texting is mostly how I communicate with Rachel and the team,” she says. “I’m also constantly making phone calls and emailing. But I rely heavily on back-and-forth texting to get things done.”
Mira also oversees Rachel’s social media accounts. Two team members run Rachel’s Facebook page and another is in charge of her Instagram account, but Rachel gives the final okay for all social media posts before they go live.
“Rachel runs her own Twitter account because of the necessity of in-the-moment updates,” Mira adds. And while Rachel is no micro-manager, she likes to be involved in the process as much as possible. “We make decisions as a team, but Rachel is always kept in the loop. There is no decision Dan and I would make without running it by Rachel. And vice versa.”
The campaign has been a huge learning experience for Mira, and she tells me that she has improved her eye for detail, as mistakes in the literature are absolute no-no’s.
“Press releases and ads must be fact-checked and edited multiple times,” says Mira. “We need to make sure that what we say is in line with what the party says, and that we are following all the electoral laws.”
If Mira could have given her pre-campaign self one piece of advice, it would have been to ask for more help. “It’s important not to assume things and jump to conclusions. There are so many people on the team who can answer questions and provide a wealth of information.”
“I sprint out of the office at 5 P.M. and get to the campaign office by 5:30,” says Dan. Working from his laptop allows him to juggle the two positions, but sometimes he’s forced to pick one over the other. “There are times when I’m in a conference call with a client at work and someone from the campaign is trying to get a hold of me and I can’t do anything about it.”
Dan first volunteered for the Liberals in his home province of B.C., and looked for ways to remain involved after moving to Montreal. Impressed by Rachel when he heard her speak at the national convention, he introduced himself and offered to help with her campaign.
“Being a candidate is tough and you have to put everything on the line. Especially when you’re up against a party’s leader for a seat. [Bendayan’s NDP opponent is Thomas Mulcair.] You have to give Rachel a ton of credit for doing what she’s doing,” he says.
Campaign preparation started back in February for Dan, so it’s been a long haul. But the election kick-off brought a welcome change of pace. “Now that the election is on people’s minds, a new populace is paying attention. Things are faster, bigger, and more intense,” Dan says with a smile. “You have increased resources to do more and it slowly becomes a well-oiled machine.”
Still, trying to find organization in a sea of disorganization is not easy. “There are so many egos, too many bosses, unclear lines of command. It’s not what you see on TV.” A lot of players are involved. The national campaign has branches in each province, and on top of that, each province has different commissions and agencies that are eager to exert their control.
Higher-ups provide guidance. “A field organizer from the LPCQ is responsible for disseminating information from the national office to each riding and is there to answer questions and provide resources,” Dan says. Additionally, they can turn to their official agent, Dan Hoffman, when they need assistance with budgeting and legalities. “The one clear thing is that you know where your world ends. It remains simpler when you’re only concerned with what goes on in your riding.”
Being a first-time campaigner, Dan has sought advice from some old pros, including past Montreal Councilman Jean Fortier, who has helped him with get-out-the vote (GOTV) strategizing. “My favourite part about the job is finding out ways to reach the most voters,” Dan says. “There are surprisingly a lot of physical barriers to voting, which I find rather odd. If you’re going to have to walk six blocks to go vote and then cross a freeway, you’re probably not going to do it.” Sometimes, under pressure of time, that means canvassing is focused on neighbourhoods where the residents are more likely to vote and letting others go, all in the interests of optimizing the Liberal turnout.
Bendayan, though, largely stays out of the managing process. “There needs to be a clear division of roles,” Dan says. “The candidate doesn’t have time to do backroom planning when he or she has eight events to go to in a day. So I tell Rachel, ‘I’ll do the managing stuff and you do the candidate stuff.’”
While Dan probably couldn’t have asked for a better candidate to be working with, I ask him to describe his perfect candidate.
“Someone who never gets tired and never questions me,” says Dan.
“Okay? So Superman?” I say.
“In a perfect world, yes,” Dan laughs.
Despite losing sleep and his social life, the little victories keep him going. “Getting 10 volunteers to come out or making a thousand phone calls as a team is really rewarding. I love meeting the volunteers and finding out their reasons for joining,” he explains.
What is he going to do when the madness is over? “First things first, I’ll definitely take a vacation, and . . . learn how to build a bike. My friend has a bike shop and I’ve always wanted try that.”
For Nicole, Rachel, and Dan, the campaign has opened a door into the world of politics — a realm often closed off and alien to younger generations. “I like the energy and excitement of politics and it may be something I continue to do, to the detriment of my health and social life,” Dan jokes.
Every vote cast for Rachel in this election will have been earned, in part, by the blood, sweat, and tears of these three 20-somethings, who rose up to the challenge when they knew it wouldn’t be an easy fight. They’ll be packing up the Bendayan campaign office on October 20th, but it may not be long until they’ll be opening offices of their own. I’d keep an eye out for them, if I were you.
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 6: And on the 72nd day . . .