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Journey to Running in a Federal Election: Reflections on the Candidate Experience

Since Confederation, only a select few have held the title of Member of Parliament (MP), representing their constituents in Canada’s House of Commons. Our ability to elect our MPs is a core element of representative democracy.

Elected officials and those who support them occupy a critical role in the way Canada is governed and functions. The decisions they make, their actions and inactions, impact the country’s course and daily lives.

Any elected official, however, was once a candidate. The path to becoming and supporting a candidate is not one that is well-understood. In light of the intense scrutiny that goes hand-in-hand with being a politician, what compels someone to pursue this as a career? From a technical perspective, what do you have to do to become a candidate? What do you do to support a candidate? We see candidates participating in public debates on TV and interviews in the news, but what is the experience really like?

With confidence in Parliament on the decline, it is interesting to unpack the motivations, challenges and opportunities involved in embarking on the journey of candidacy and to supporting a candidate in their race. This conversation is an important one. At the end of the day, those that we elect make the decisions that inform our present and future. Would you like to be one of them? Would you support a candidate? Shedding light on the motivations, challenges and opportunities of presenting oneself as a candidate, winning, losing and supporting a candidate, can get to the often forgotten ground-game of democracy, where it all begins.

In collaboration with Elections Canada’s Inspire Democracy initiative, the IFSD’s iVote-jeVote campaign hosted a panel discussion at the University of Ottawa with former candidates, elected officials and political strategists to explore their experience in federal politics. From left to right: Elizabeth May (Leader of the Green Party and MP), Ian Wayne (Former Director of Policy and Issues Management, NDP), Jenni Byrne (Former political strategist for the Conservative Party), Hon. Allan Rock (Former Cabinet Minister and MP, Liberal Party), John Akpata (Former candidate of the Marijuana Party), Michele Austin (Head of Government, Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter Canada) and Helaina Gaspard (Director, Governance and Institutions at the IFSD).

Over the past few months, we at the IFSD have had the pleasure of hosting former candidates, elected officials, and political strategists to hear what they had to say about their experiences in the real-world of politics and democratic engagement. So, what did we learn?

The inspiration to run or support a candidate

“Most people will tell you it is to serve their community, and it may sound like a cliché answer, but that is the truthful answer”

- Hon. Yasir Naqvi, former MPP and Provincial Cabinet Minister

Those entering politics shared a common desire to serve their community and Canadians, and to be on the front lines of making positive change, although what sparked their desire was unique. For some, it was a large part of their childhood, recalling conversations about politics around the dinner table or canvassing for the party their family supported. Others saw a particular injustice that they felt needed to be rectified, such as discrimination against LGBTQ people, inequality, a lack of attention to the threats of climate change, or unfair drug policy.

Whether inspired by a political leader, concerned about Canada’s course, or the issues to be passed on to future generations, candidates shared motivations that were inextricably tied to their own personal journey. For them, becoming involved in politics was the best and most effective way to encourage positive change.

Becoming a candidate: obstacles and opportunities

“I didn’t have a clue what one had to do, and I had to learn from scratch”

- Hon. Hedy Fry, MP for Vancouver Centre and former Parliamentary Secretary

After making the decision to become a candidate, how do you start putting your plan into action? Figuring out the next step can be one of the biggest obstacles to becoming a candidate. We learned that this journey often starts by becoming active in the local riding association of the political party you support. This way, you gain exposure to the inner-workings of a campaign, and an opportunity to become a candidate is more likely to present itself. Whether you throw your hat into the ring or if you’re asked to run by members of a political party, rallying the support of friends, family and your community was important to build momentum into the nomination process, and hopefully into candidacy.

There’s much to contemplate when you’re considering candidacy. One of the toughest decisions to make was whether or not you would quit your job. For many, especially women, this was a persistent barrier in entering politics. In 2015, less than one-third of candidates were women, and only 27% of sitting MPs are women.

Experiences, challenges and rewards of being a candidate

“Being a candidate is exhausting but exhilarating. It is one of the hardest things you will ever do in your life but it's incredibly worthwhile, even if you're not successful”

- Stephanie Kusie, MP for Calgary Midnapore

Campaigning is a full-time job. It’s taxing both physically and mentally, and the biggest challenge is the amount of time it consumes. Candidates can expect long days that last well into the evening, knocking on thousands of doors in their riding, and making countless phone calls requesting donations and support. Campaigning means developing relationships and trust with the people you want to represent. Running to represent a constituency is not a decision that can be taken lightly, as a great deal of sacrifice is involved, especially when it comes to the time you have to spend away from your family and your home. Marriages and relationships can suffer, and you can be separated from your children for long periods of time. Campaigning requires substantial resources and can be difficult financially, and even more so if you have to quit your job or take an unpaid leave to run. While campaigning – and potentially holding office – you become a public figure, and as a result need to develop a very thick skin to overcome the personal challenge of being constantly scrutinized. Candidates must recognize that they take this all on, with an uncertain outcome for their risk and hard work.

Determination and support are keys to campaigning. Having the drive to press on whatever the polls are suggesting, can’t be done alone. A network of encouraging people and critically, a supportive family, are essential to a candidate’s sustainability.

Surrounding yourself with a solid team that understands policy issues and that knows the inner-workings of a campaign, can alleviate operational stresses. A team you can trust and one from which you’ll take advice makes a difference in the professionalism and execution of a campaign.

There are many challenges to campaigning, but it’s not without reward (even if you lose the race). Lifelong friendships with your team members and volunteers are forged from the intensity of a campaign. It can be both inspiring and humbling to recognize the countless hours that people donate to help get you elected. Meeting your neighbours in a meaningful way, understanding what’s important to them, gaining their support, and being a spokesperson for the issues your community may be facing is an unforgettable and empowering experience.

Advice for anyone considering running for office

  1. Know why you’re running. Dig deep and ask yourself, what is your reason for running? If you are running for the sake of running or to achieve a level of status or power, it’s unlikely you will be successful.
  2. Think about when and where you’re running. On the logistical side of things, think about the riding in which you’ll run. Veterans advise you run in the community in which you live, and give yourself plenty of time to prepare.
  3. Be yourself. People can quickly see through a person who is not authentic.
  4. Do your homework. No matter how tired you are, keep up with current events; and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer to something.
  5. You have to really want it. Really sit down and consider if this is something you are prepared to fully commit to, because it will impact every aspect of your life
  6. Consider what happens if you win. Running as a candidate is one thing – becoming an MP is another. Make sure you are ready for what comes next if you win.
  7. Raise a lot of money. You must become comfortable asking for money, and it’s important to have a strategy to raise the required funds.
  8. Join a political party. Determine what your political leanings are and figure out if this is something for you before taking the plunge.
  9. Focus on your own run. What other people are doing is out of your control, so don’t focus on what they’re doing, focus on what you can do.

Operating in a world of power, politics and incentives, is it rare that elected officials make decisions in a way that we all agree with. Sometimes we love them, and sometimes we hate them. Sometimes we lose interest altogether. Whatever your opinion on politicians may be, at the end of the day, the people we elect and those who support them ultimately shape the direction in which we are headed as a country. In light of the sacrifices it takes become involved, there is something to be said for those who have the passion to stand up and take the candidate’s journey. Want to hear more about what candidates had to say about their experience? Check out our video series, done in collaboration with Elections Canada.

We would like to extend a special thank you to all of the participants who agreed to take part in this project, and to our collaborators at Elections Canada.