Is there a political gene? And if so, is it dominant? Observers of the current election, watching Justin Trudeau working a crowd, may be forgiven for wondering. In my case, the questions come even closer to home. Last week, I took my twelve-year-old son Nathaniel to the mass rally for Trudeau held at the Powerade Centre in Brampton, Ontario. As readers of this blog will know, Nathaniel has been canvassing for our local Liberal candidate, Rob Oliphant, since the writs dropped. Welcomed generously into the Oliphant campaign, he has been working with unflagging enthusiasm and focus and has become an extremely persuasive door-step advocate. When a fellow member of Team Oliphant recently approached a voter, she was assured that there was nothing left for her to say: “Nathaniel’s already been here.” Rob himself calls Nathaniel his “secret weapon” and there is nothing childish about either Nathaniel’s passion or his knowledge. He monitors the polls as assiduously as any party strategist and can deliver policy talking points with the conviction of true understanding.
It was no surprise, then, that Nathaniel was eager to attend what was being billed as the largest rally of the campaign, a throwback to the kind of event that is rarely held in this age of social media roll outs and staged photo ops. He didn’t need to ask me twice. And it wasn’t professional interest that took me to Brampton. It was memory. Fifty years ago, I begged my father, a life-long Liberal, to take me to hear Lester Pearson speak before a crowd of 15, 000 people in Maple Leaf Gardens. He did so gladly.
In many ways, the two events could not have been more different. This was 1963 and the mainly male crowd was formally dressed in suits, ties, and even hats. There was no jumbo screen, no flashing lights, no rock music to pump up the crowd. And Pearson was a less than magnetic presence: a rather pedestrian public speaker with a slight lisp. But I remember vividly the enthusiasm with which he spoke about his election platform and the so-called “Sixty Days of Decision.” His program included the establishment of a Canada Pension Plan, a universal health care system, and a new Canadian flag – that same iconic flag that was being waved with unabashed fervour by the crowd in Brampton. I left my first major political rally with a strong sense of the importance (and excitement) of elections, but more than that I left with a belief in the importance of political engagement, of caring who governs us and how. I walked away from Maple Leaf Gardens understanding for the first time that the public sphere belongs to us all and we are all actors in it. These are beliefs that have animated my professional and personal lives ever since, and they are ones I hope and think Nathaniel shares too. But perhaps I should let him speak for himself.
“Lots of people ask me why I care so much about the election when I’m still too young to vote. I wanted to canvass because any election will determine the future of the country I grow up in. When I knock on people’s doors, I want them to remember they’re deciding my future.
“Going to the rally was amazing because I could see thousands of people being part of the political process. And I was hoping I might be able to shake Justin Trudeau’s hand.
“That didn’t happen, but thanks to Rob Oliphant, my dad and I were invited to a policy announcement event the next week. I was the only kid there and Marco Mendocino, the candidate for Eglinton Lawrence brought me to stand with him and the other candidates, right near to Mr. Trudeau. After he finished speaking, Marco and his fellow candidate Yasmin Ratansi, from Don Valley East, made sure to tell Mr. Trudeau that there was someone who really wanted to meet him. Justin shook my hand, asked my name, and thanked me for my hard work.
“You can be sure I’ll be telling my children this story when I take them to their first political rally. I’ll tell them it’s their country, and their future, and they’re never too young to care.”