OCT 20, 2015

Beyond Rhetoric:

Investigating McGill's Student Political Clubs

By Christopher Lutes

The federal election is finally over after the longest campaign period in modern Canadian history. Over the past 11 weeks, the three political parties with the strongest chances of forming government—Conservative Party of Canada, Liberal Party of Canada, and the New Democratic Party(NDP)—have been hard at work trying to win the hearts and minds of undecided voters. But by now, the NDP and Conservative party leaders have gone home disappointed. Their months of hard work—while not in vain—certainly did not pan out the way they might have hoped. 

On campus, the story is similar, but on a smaller scale. Each major  political party has a corresponding student group at McGill, run semi-autonomously by student leaders. These leaders; Alexei Simakov of the Conservative Association at McGill University (CAMU), Greta Hoaken of Liberal McGill, and Malaya Powers and Jacob Schweda of the McGill University chapter of the NDP, have campaigned tirelessly in and around the McGill community. These parties had to contend with a demographic that is statistically less likely to vote, and an issue space full of topics that aren’t always directly applicable to young Canadians, such as universal childcare or changes to income tax. 

Creating further barriers is a campus discourse that tends to create tension, making it difficult for political moderates and undecided voters to ask questions or have their voices heard without being shouted down by either end of the political spectrum. Political polarization is a real issue on campus, but it’s also one that the parties cannot address without conflicting with the strong notion of party centralization in Canada. While these student parties are guilty of making the campus conversation more rigid along party lines to a certain extent, the individuals behind the parties share a common goal: the desire to reduce voter apathy and create a meaningful discourse to enhance youth voting in general.

Photo of Conservative McGill members on polling day. Courtesy of Chris Lutes/The McGill Tribune (either one from tomorrow morning, or facebook)

Conservative McGill

The Conservative Party has probably the hardest job changing people’s minds on McGill’s campus, where left-leaning discourse seems to take precedence. Simakov, the leader of CAMU, finds himself out of step with this discourse. A self-professed libertarian, he differs from the popular conversation on campus. 

“I believe [...] that we have a government that’s willing to do less because it gives the opportunity for Canadians to do more,” Simakov said. 

Simakov espouses a lot of ideology that’s reactionary to certain elements, like his upbringing in interventionist Russia, from where he emigrated at a young age. After arriving in Canada at the age of eight, Simakov began campaigning in the eighth grade. He joined the Young Liberals of Canada, but left because he became fed up with their take on human nature.

“I saw a mentality of coddling, of superiority complex of most amongst the Liberals I worked with, and the belief that, yes, the people are great, but they need a bit of our help, and they need a bit of our leadership, and a bit of our support to make sure they can get through their lives’,” Simakov said. “I didn’t believe that.” 

While both the Liberals and NDP are able to position themselves as parties that represent youth issues, the federal Conservative party doesn’t give student Conservative groups the same kind of rhetorical ammunition. Basing off of the idea that young people tend to vote for left-leaning parties, encouraging young people to vote is less advantageous to the Conservative Party than others.

Caption: Simakov poses with ex-Conservative cabinet minister, Peter McKay (Courtesy of the Conservative Association at McGill University)

While Simakov acknowledges that part of the problem is that young people feel that voting is futile, he says that voting apathy among youth is not entirely a bad thing.

“Part of that is the success of the Canadian political process [is] where young people […] feel comfortable enough that we will have a stable political future with or without our involvement,” Simakov said. 

Still, CAMU engages in standard campaigning: Rallying, knocking on doors, putting up flyers. 

“We understand right now that we’re not getting most of these voters, but in 10 to 20 years, we will,” he explained. 

Simakov believes that there’s a silent majority of politically-moderate students on campus whose minds can be changed by presenting an alternative to the people who he sees as imposing their dialogue on everyone else’s. 

Hoaken (fifth from left) and Liberal McGill pose with their leader, Justin Trudeau (courtesy of Liberal McGill)

Liberal McGill

Unlike Simakov, Hoaken stayed with the Liberal Party, and her first foray into politics was a baptism by fire. After participating in a mock court of the Louis Riel trial in school, she started to become interested in politics and began volunteering with her local member of Parliament (MP), the Liberal Party’s Joe Volpe, in Eglinton-Lawrence during the 2011 election. 

“We lost, pretty badly as you remember,” said Hoaken. “But I think that’s a very interesting time to get involved in politics, not when you’re winning and you’re getting to call the shots, but when you really have to step back and say, ‘Why am I in this? What do I believe in?’” 

These questions have resonated through the party over the years since the last election reflected the crisis of confidence that the Liberals have experienced over their shifts in leadership since Paul Martin’s departure. The arrival of Justin Trudeau as an alternative to the older, academic-type leaders of the past, seems to have reinvigorated popular youth support. 

“I think it’s very much the time of youth now in the Liberal Party,” Hoaken said. “It’s the time of outsiders.” 

Liberal McGill, about to embark on a sunday canvas (Courtesy of Liberal McGill)

As far as actual student engagement is concerned, Hoaken’s first objective is just to get people to vote.

“I want them to vote Liberal,” she said. “I would very much like that, but I would rather that everyone on this campus really think about their vote, and vote according to their conscience, their thoughts, and their beliefs.” 

Hoaken’s role as the Liberal campus party leader is a strange mixture of partisan and nonpartisan promotion. Liberal McGill accomplishes the former with pub nights, candidate meet-and-greets, and canvassing in the McGill community—events that are intended to show that the Liberal Party has a place for them. 

Underpinning these ideas of inclusiveness is the less tangible concept of fairness, which Hoaken repeatedly brings up. For her, it’s a way of reconciling the left-leaning and right-leaning branches of the party under the umbrella of equality in the sense that people contribute what they’re able to, and can receive social assistance to lift them up. There’s a genuine desire to help people underneath her measured, focused demeanour—not quite transcending the rhetoric of her party, but giving it a human face. 

Jacob Schweda (crouching left), Malaya Powers (seated left) and NDP McGill supporters canvass at the Roddick Gates(courtesy of NDP McGill)

NDP McGill

In the wake of the second coming of Liberal popularity, the NDP has the most to lose in this election. Beating the Liberals in the 2011 federal election to form the official opposition for the first time ever came as a surprise to many. Powers and Schweda, co-presidents of NDP McGill, are working to help the NDP not only keep their place as the primary alternative to the Conservative Party, but potentially form government for the first time in history.

Powers’ introduction to politics started in the same place where a lot of political careers are forged—at the dinner table. 

“I come from a very political family,” Powers said. “There wasn’t much choice to not get involved, or else I’d miss out on dinnertime conversations. I was going door to door with my parents at a young age. I went off on my own and started volunteering and campaigning at the age of 12, and ever since, I’ve been pretty involved in the party.” 

Schweda, a law student, had his political awakening when Prime Minister Harper prorogued parliament in 2010, and chose the NDP both because the party closely resembled his values, and also had a chance at forming government. 

Throughout this last campaign, the NDP tried to keep the chance to form official opposition alive, and perhaps because of this, they were on the defensive for much of the last leg of the campaign. In many ways, their campus counterpart has followed suit. 

For example, NDP McGill’s performance at the Political Science Students Association (PSSA) debate, which Schweda participated in, was full of pithy jabs against both the Conservatives and Liberals, often drawing cheers from the crowd. Their Twitter feed contains criticisms of both parties for transgressions in the past and present, but was noticeably thin on actually promoting what the NDP will do if elected. 

Still, both Schweda and Powers managed to articulate the issues that many young people have with the political process. 

“It’s kind of a catch-22, right?” Schweda said. “Young people don’t vote as much, so our priorities aren’t reflected as much in federal politics, so we don’t vote as much. The cycle continues, unfortunately.”

Powers added that the gap between students’ lives and policy is a lack of connection between youth and government.

“There’s a huge disconnect [in] how students see that government policies affect their day-to-day lives, so a goal of ours is to recreate that connection [with] how politics are actually affecting so many aspects of their life,” Powers said.

Both are uncomfortable with referring to low voter turnout as apathy; or opting instead, for disillusionment.

“Once you start talking to [individuals, they] have really solid ideas about what issues are important to them,” Schweda said. “They know what’s going wrong in the country, they know what they want to change; so it’s just a question on approaching them and translating that into voting and getting involved in partisan politics.”

Limitations of full discourse on campus

While these student party leaders are well aware of their partisan responsibilities, behind the rhetoric of these hot-button issues that dominate the election scene, are individuals more passionate about fundamental ideas. Their ideals seemed to go beyond media narratives, evoking ideologies that everybody has strong feelings about, such as fairness, freedom, and safety. 

Yet, party discipline, the informal requirement of politicians to vote on legislation based on how the party has dictated, is a reality in Canadian politics. On a federal and provincial level, it stifles the freedom of politicians to vote on bills based on how they or their constituents feel about them. On a campus level, it stifles open discussion of issues beyond partisan lines—students, and especially leaders, in these groups are in some ways restricted from openly professing their opinions on political matters because it could make the party look bad.

Behind every party are individuals who must reconcile their personal beliefs with the dictations of the party apparatus that they choose to support. 

“That’s part of being in a political party, it’s where you fit best, not where you fit exactly,” Hoaken said. 

Thus, each of the student leaders at McGill already sound like professional politicians at pivoting answers to questions to suit their parties, and making apparent flaws in their platforms seem like assets. Lively debates and policy discussions occur behind closed doors, but the party members emerge from those meetings with a public stance that’s exactly the same as the federal party’s. Nobody wants to sabotage a party through dissent. 

When asked to provide a specific policy point of their party that they disagreed with, none of the student leaders had anything to critical to say. While that is understandable, it also speaks to a broader discussion about how campus parties function in a time where young people’s careers are seemingly decided on earlier and earlier. This is especially salient in the context of McGill, which saw three members of NDP McGill get elected as MPs during the orange wave of NDP support in the 2011 election. When something like that happens once, the stakes are raised for the parties that continue in their wake, and everything becomes more codified and professional. 

This context of rigid professionalism makes moments where spontaneity becomes all the more exciting. For instance, during the PSSA debate, one of the NDP debaters expressed her regret that the Conservatives had to defend something they didn’t believe such as  saying that wearing the niqab should be banned during citizenship ceremonies. 

Surprisingly, Jessica Lyver, one of the Conservative debaters reacted in a surprising way by thanking one of the NDP debater for her comment.  It might not seem like much, but the moment was striking in the genuine humanity that managed to cut through the posturing of the rest of the debate. Still, such a small comment was monumental in that an authentic, unedited feeling was able to penetrate the structure of the debate. The audience responded accordingly with a mixture of applause and incredulity; shocked at the idea that someone would dare to break party discipline and speak their mind. 

With the fresh finish of election period, people’s attention start to move away from the rhetoric of campus parties, and the future becomes more clear for everybody. The winning federal party will get to govern and have the power that entails, while the losers are left to examine what went wrong, and how they can improve next time around. Each party had their hands tied by the agenda they had to stick to, limiting party debate to private caucus meetings, and thus contributing to the cycle of secrecy and voter disillusionment. 

Making the wrong decision of where to focus resources can cost a party the election on a federal level, and can make students lose their interest in a particular party on campus. But even in the wake of defeat, their journey over the past months were not in vain. While the impact that the parties have made on individual students are not easily measurable, they have undoubtedly raised the amount of political discourse on campus with nuanced policy discussion and debate. It’s hard to gauge how effective any individual party was—the factors that influence people to vote a certain way are more complicated than that. But even if the sum total of their efforts was encouraging a single person to vote, it would have been worth it. 

Each of these student parties have the aspirational goal of winning people’s hearts and minds by creating a strong ideological connection. Their altruistic belief that their way of governing is best because they think that they’re capable of helping the greatest number of people. In their efforts to enact positive change, winning the power that would allow them to do that becomes the focus. As a result, party leaders stay careful and steer away from any possible controversy, but end up alienating those looking for the people behind the party. 

However, there is still hope. The Reform Act, a private member’s bill that made it through the House of Commons and Senate, might change things. By giving caucus the ability to vote out their leader, the bill limits the ability of parties to make their MPs vote a certain way in parliament, and offers a potential way out of the trap of party discipline. Maybe the next session of parliament, which will see the Liberal Party take power, could usher in a new era of free expression in politics. This change could flow downward, potentially loosening the grip of that parties have on their members, changing norms on campus and beyond.