Canvassing with a Precocious Twelve-Year Old

My son Nathaniel has been getting increasingly interested in politics in the last year. He and I decided to volunteer for the campaign of Rob Oliphant, the Liberal candidate in Don Valley West. We accompanied Rob going door to door after the official opening of his volunteer office a few weeks ago. Watching Rob was a great lesson in the retail politics of connecting with voters by finding out their concerns and offering to help if possible, identifying their ethnic backgrounds, and gently asking which issues mattered to them and how they were likely to vote. Rob is a former MP, a long-time resident of the constituency, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of its neighbourhoods and residents.

After an hour or so of watching Rob, he gave Nathaniel and me brochures and sent us out on our own. Nathaniel quickly worked up his door step pitch “Hi, I’m canvassing for Rob Oliphant, your Liberal candidate in the federal election.” Nathaniel and I have been at it for a few weeks now and spoken to a hundred voters or more, so I have some observations to report. Most voters, particularly women, are impressed and charmed to meet a presentable twelve-year old boy (whose voice is still in the soprano range, with a bit of upspeak) on their front step. Whether or not they are Liberal, this almost always elicits a smile and a compliment.

If Rob is canvassing with us, Nathaniel is a great opener, and Rob can take the conversation from there. If Nathaniel and I are canvassing, as is the case most of the time, Nathaniel has been trying to take the second step in canvassing, namely asking the voter a question that can begin a conversation. Early last Thursday evening, the obvious opening line was “do you know about the leaders’ debate on television tonight?”

In other situations, he asks which way the voter is leaning, which issues concern her, and so on. Here it’s a bit more challenging. Some adults are more open than others to discussing politics with a young person. Some voters believe that because they are adults they should know more than a child, and may be embarrassed to admit that they don’t. Or they may be unwilling to engage a child as an equal in a conversation about an adult matter. As a society, we’ve decided to restrict voting to those over the age of 18. But there is no restriction on children engaging in political discourse. That’s what Nathaniel is doing. He’s quickly learning all sorts of things about our political history and the party platforms in this election. And he’s learning retail politics by doing it. More and more, I’m trying to stand back so he can carry the conversation on his own, provided the voter is willing to engage. And I’m deeply proud of how he’s doing.

A word about the picture. We were at Justin Trudeau’s rally in Toronto Friday morning after the debate. When Nathaniel went to shake Justin’s hand as he was leaving, Justin recognized that when a kid wants to shake his hand, there’s a parent who wants to take a photo. So he posed with Nathaniel. And he also knows it’s important to bend over so he’s on eye level with the kid. That’s a great example of Justin connecting with Canadians.

I’ll be doing more posts about policy issues and narrative in the coming weeks, but this week I’m starting with the election campaign as Nathaniel is experiencing it.

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