At the time
this article was written Shawn Graham represented Kent in the New Brunswick
Legislative Assembly. He was studying for an MBA at the University of New
Brunswick. This is a revised version of a paper presented to the 23rd Canadian
Regional Seminar of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held in Halifax
in October 2000
After the New Brunswick
general election of June 1999, the youngest MLA was 23-year-old Kirk MacDonald.
In total there were four MLAs under the age of thirty and ten MLAs under the
age of forty (including four cabinet ministers). This article looks at how the
influx of youth has diversified the face of politics in New Brunswick
When I was elected in a
by-election on October 19, 1998, I was at thirty years old, the youngest MLA in
the New Brunswick Legislature. Also elected at that time were 33-year-old Brad
Green (now Justice Minister) and 33-year-old Bernard Lord (now Premier).
Following our swearing-in the Telegraph- Journal ran a front page photo
with the caption “New Kids on the Block”. The public could hardly have imagined
what was in store nine months later.
“Thirty-somethings” have been a
part of the political landscape for generations but anyone under thirty was
newsworthy. My own father was elected in 1967 at the age of twenty-five and for
over thirty years maintained the distinction of being the youngest person
elected to the provincial legislature in New Brunswick.
In 1995, 26-year-old Carolle de
Ste. Croix made news when she was elected to represent the riding of
Dalhousie-Restigouche East. She made news again in 1996 when she became the
first MLA in New Brunswick history to give birth during her term in office – a
baby in the anteroom was certainly a sign of changing times!
What undercurrents lie beneath
this wave of youth in the New Brunswick Legislature? How does age affect one’s
role as an elected official? Is it part of a growing trend? What can we do to
ensure that more young people become politically involved?
I am not a political scientist
nor a sociologist. I can only speak from my own experience where politics has
been a way of life – not simply an academic concept. A couple of factors have
contributed significantly to the number of younger people in this session of
New Brunswick’s Legislature.
First, it is the natural ebb and
flow of politics. The pendulum swings and a wave of new members unseat the
“establishment”. If they are fortunate and serve the people well, this group of
“upstarts” will govern until they, too, become the “establishment”. Then, the
pendulum swings again and a new generation forms the government.
There is also a highly practical
matter behind the changing demographics of our Legislative Assembly. A
generation ago it was virtually impossible to serve as an MLA unless you were
independently wealthy or had another source of income. The role of MLA was not
intended to be a full-time position and the salary reflected this.
During the 1960s it was
recognized that changes must be made that would open the doors to the
Legislature for a more diverse cross-section of the population and would allow
MLAs to focus full-time on their work. Throughout the next 20 years significant
increases were made in the salary level and expense allowances of Members of
the Legislative Assembly.
Following these changes, the
opportunity to hold office became a reality for a number of people who would
previously have been excluded. This has made for a broader representation that better
reflects the reality of our society. This diversity has expressed itself not
only in matters of age and gender but in the variety of backgrounds from which
our MLAs come – from farmers to truck drivers to university students.
There have also been changes in
the routes taken into the Legislature. In the past it was customary to “pay
your dues” on a local level – municipal government, school boards, civic groups
– before making the jump to provincial politics. While it is still common to
have some previous experience in public service, the process seems to have been
accelerated. One result of these conditions is that people barely out of
university can find themselves sitting in the Legislative Assembly.
Being an elected representative
has unique challenges and pressures no matter what your age. There are,
however, some special considerations when you come to the Legislature at an
earlier age than most.
This has to do with more than
knowing the standing rules or completing a thorough study of Beauchesne
or Erskine May. The challenges faced by young Members are more
fundamental than educating oneself on points of privilege or refraining from
The youthful enthusiasm and
wide-eyed idealism that were such assets on the campaign trail can become
liabilities once you are elected. To prevent that, you must temper your youth
with a sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness beyond your chronological
years. You must possess a sense of self, a code of conduct, and a set of values
with which you can best live, and by which you can best represent your
You must know for what you will
stand and for what you will not. Your principles will be the touchstone, the
constant in the onslaught of demands. Even in the midst of the daily grind –
whether you are trying to help senior citizens with their pension, trying to
help a family who has fallen on hard times or trying to save jobs in your
community – your decisions will be made much easier if you know what you
believe in and where you are headed.
When you are in your mid
twenties or early thirties you simply have not had a lot of time to gain
experience – you have great ideas but you do not have years of experience to
draw from. This is not a personal shortcoming, merely a result of logistics. So
as a young representative it becomes imperative to pay attention to those who
have had time to learn.
Younger members are always
treading a fine line. On one hand they must respect those MLAs who have served
for more years but they must never be submissive to those members. The
constituents have elected each member of the Legislature, regardless of age or
gender or occupation or title, and so all have an equal right to be confident
in their beliefs and courageous in their convictions.
At a time when many of our peers are concentrating on more
personal issues – like building a career, settling down or starting a family –
my Legislative colleagues and I are contributing to decisions that affect the
I have spoken about the influx
of younger members in New Brunswick’s legislature but four “20-somethings” do
not a revolution make. There remains a broader belief that young people today
are apathetic to politics in general. Is this the reality or is this a myth?
I have been giving a lot of
thought to this question since the death of former Prime Minister Pierre
Trudeau. There was an outpouring of emotion not only from the generations who
recalled Trudeaumania, but also from the children of those generations. The question
that constantly arose was “Why”. These teenagers, university students and young
professionals were too young to remember much of Trudeau’s time in power, too
old to have studied him as a great distant figure in history.
As these young people spoke with
journalists or posted their messages on the Internet, it became clear that
their generation felt a connection with the late Prime Minister that was based
less on what he did during his time in office and more on who he was. The death
of a Prime Minister 16 years out of power became a lightening rod for the
frustration of a generation.
I started to wonder if the
reported apathy of youth might, in fact, be an illusion? There is a big
difference between apathy and frustration. What if our young people want to be
politically active but have no idea how to begin? What if they have great ideas
but have not been given the tools to express them? How do we ensure that our
young people are being given a strong political foundation? And what would that
The best and brightest political
figures seem to plant themselves in the centre of a spectrum between pure
instinct and pure theory. Aristotle, who was right about a great many things,
once stated that “man is a political animal” but this does not preclude the
need to educate our young people on how to express their political views or the
best avenues for public service. We cannot simply assume that one day,
preferably around a person’s 18th birthday, he or she will wake up
understanding politics and the role of the individual in a participatory
need to arm our young people with the compassion to spot injustices and the
courage to change them.
At the same time merely teaching
political theory to children and young people does not give them a complete
political education. Theory works well on paper, in an ideal world, but these
young people will one day be charged with governing a world that is flawed – a
world where you have to try to adapt the theory to the reality and not the other
Somehow we must instill in our
young people values and principles as well as theory. We must prepare them not
only to administer, but to govern. We, as elected officials, have a pivotal
role to play. We must set the example. To use our work today to inspire the
government of tomorrow may be one of the highest and most noble legacies we can
Political mentors are the great
constant over time, nations and party lines. I would challenge you to find a
person holding public office today who cannot tell you of at least one person
who inspired them to pursue this calling.
Admittedly I started my
political apprenticeship a bit earlier than most. My father was elected to the
Legislative Assembly the year before I was born and remained the representative
for Kent for the next three decades.
Politics was so ingrained in my
life that I probably did not realize that I was receiving a political
education. When you are the child of a politician all you really know is that
your mother or father has to travel a lot, that the phone rings at really
strange hours and that sometimes people in the newspapers have not-so-nice
things to say about your dad or mom. Other than that you are a pretty ordinary
I do not think any child
realizes until they reach adulthood how much they were formed by their parents
values and ideals.
As an adult I had the rare
opportunity to work side by side with my father as his executive assistant. The
experience of those years has been invaluable in helping me cope with the day-to-day
life of an MLA. I learned my way around the civil service. I learned how to get
a road chip-sealed and how to help a constituent find work. But more than
anything I learned the qualities of a good elected representative.
After I had made the decision to
pursue elected office, I stopped by my father’s house every morning of the
campaign. I wanted to be elected and serve on my own terms, with my own way of
doing things, but I also realized I would be foolish to turn my back on my
greatest role model and my greatest source of information.
Now, two years later, I do not
profess to be a political expert but I do believe that the same values that
were instilled in me by my father are values we should be instilling in all our
These values will serve them
well – whether they plan to pursue elected office, whether they want to serve
the public in some other capacity or whether they want to make an educated
choice when they exercise their democratic rights in a voting booth.
I am not referring to partisan
beliefs – not left, not right, not centre. These are the values that transcend
time, political lines and geographic boundaries.
First, young people must learn
compassion. In our home we knew it was not enough to take care of our family
and ourselves. It was understood that we were part of a larger community and
that we had a duty to make a positive contribution to that community. We
understood that not everyone was as fortunate as we had been and it was
expected that we would reach out to those who needed it most.
It has been forty years since
John F. Kennedy uttered his famous rallying cry for the youth of his nation.
This call needs to be reaffirmed in every generation and in every nation.
We must instill in our young
people the courage to ask questions, to test the waters, to form new ideas.
Some people may say that success as a politician lies in having all the right
answers; I believe a great part of it lies in asking all the right questions.
Our young people have to be given the freedom to look at the world around them
and ask why things are the way they are and like Robert Kennedy, (and George
Bernard Shaw before him) they have to be at liberty to ask “Why not?”
It is only through questioning
that we can really determine and take ownership of what we believe in. And it
is only through taking ownership of what we believe in that we can have the
confidence to stand up for our convictions.
When it comes to standing on
those convictions, young people must have access to the tools to express their
ideas effectively. By “effectively” I mean through words, not violence
(physical or verbal), through ideological discussion, not personal attacks
(despite what we might see in any given question period).
We live in a time where people
are bombarded by information – our schools must teach students analytical
thinking in order to process the opinions of others, and strong communication
skills in order to express their own. They must learn that there is a
difference between co-operation and surrender. We need to teach young people
the old Scottish proverb that is better to bend than break.
Integrity goes hand in hand with
courage and confidence. Young people must be encouraged to act in ways that are
consistent with their personal convictions. The only way to teach integrity is
by example. Talking to young people about integrity does not mean a thing if
they cannot see the presence of such integrity in their own elected officials.
I recognize that not every young
person will answer a call to enter public service but a strong democracy relies
not only on the strength of its leaders, but also on the strength of its
citizens. The best way to ensure an effective and progressive government is for
the voters to have an understanding of what good government looks like.
As elected officials we have the
opportunity to set an example of good government – not only for our young
people but for people of all ages. I challenge you to reflect on the role you
can play, the actions you can take to break down the frustration that seems to
be plaguing our youth. I hope as each of you return to your own corner of the
nation you will think about the political newcomer you once were, who it was
that inspired you and how you can pass on this inspiration to someone else.