The Accidental Citizen?

Deciding to Run: The outsider paradox

Perhaps more powerful than their stated motivations was the way so many of the MPs described himself or herself as an outsider. This was not an explicit question in our interview, but nevertheless emerged as a proactively-volunteered self-description the MPs expressed in a variety of ways. Sometimes it played out in their decision to pursue politics, and sometimes it was made as part of a broader point.

This is the opposite of what a traditional public perception of politicians as consummate insiders would have suggested.

There were many variations of this outsider sentiment. Sometimes it was a matter of personal identity. Most women were aware that, despite their advancement in some fields, politics remained, and remains, a male-dominated profession. “I had no role models. There was no black woman who was in the Parliament of Canada, and no black woman was at Queen’s Park or any other place I could look at,” said one. One Aboriginal MP was conscious of discrimination, including recalling the days when members of the First Nations did not have the same freedoms as other Canadians, including the right to vote and to travel freely. “My mom, she’s 75 and she remembers when she wasn’t allowed to leave the reserve. She needed a pass. So you are battling that history.”

For immigrants, moving to a new country is often such an integral part of their life experience that it becomes an important motivator for action. “The majority can’t [appreciate] the struggle that a minority feels,” one MP said. Another recalled, “I remember walking up the steps to go into the Centre Block and thinking, ‘Okay Daddy, so what’s the daughter of a lousy immigrant tailor doing here?’ My Dad had just died about six months before and you know, he would have loved to see this.”

The size and regional makeup of Canada meant that the MPs from many parts of the country – Quebec, Alberta, Newfoundland, the northern communities – expressed feeling a world apart from the capital, as well as dissatisfaction with the way in which their constituency was represented. “I wanted Ottawa to know where [my remote riding] was,” said one MP. “It was about as far away from Ottawa as you can get.”

For those from the Reform Party, this sentiment was expressed with particular passion. “People were upset with the Liberals, the Conservatives – everybody was mad at them – and the NDP. They just weren’t satisfying Canadians. So we said, ‘Let’s get a candidate and we’ll go [to Ottawa] and make sure the best candidate [speaks for] our ideals,’” said one MP. Another described it this way: “[Politics] all seemed to me a very inside club. Here was an outside group saying, ‘The system isn’t working for Western Canada.’ But instead of saying, ‘We’re opting out,’ we’re going to opt in. We’re going to opt in to change the system itself.”

Others articulated this outsider sentiment by describing how their political philosophy, outlook on life or perspective on a policy issue wasn’t adequately reflected in the system. “I was acutely aware of what the damage was to our next generation of our deficits accumulating at $40 billion per year,” said one former MP. “I have some [strong] views on the future of the country, national unity and the role of the government in Canada,” said another, defiantly.

Sometimes it was a reflection of their education, socio-economic background or career choice. “It couldn’t have happened to a guy who fit the role less. Since when is the busboy supposed to become an MP?” asked one. Another remembered receiving a call from a national newspaper reporter. “They actually said, ‘What is a cook going to bring to Ottawa? How do you think you’re qualified for this position?’” The MP answered, “Well, maybe what we need is some more diversity. It’s called the House of Commons for a reason. It’s for Canadians of all walks of life, having a say and their views represented. I don’t think only lawyers and accountants have the ability to do that.”

Even those with prior political experience expressed this outsider sentiment. “I’ve always been driven by trying to represent the people who elect me. That’s what motivated me: to represent them as best I could in Ottawa and be the voice for the small guy. I always put my riding and my province first, sometimes to my own peril,” said one former provincial politician.

The Accidental Citizen?