By Kelly Skjerven
Suze Morrison was making small talk with an older man in an airport in early February when he asked her where she was from in Toronto. After she told him, he asked who the MPP was for her riding of Toronto Centre.
“Oh, well, I am,” said the 31-year-old, who worked for non-profit and health-care organizations before winning the seat for the NPD in last year’s provincial election. She laughed as she recalled in an interview how the incident caught the man off guard.
The NDP member for Toronto Centre was elected in last summer’s provincial election in the riding held for almost seven years by Liberal MPP Glen Murray, who resigned in September 2017.
Morrison is among more than a dozen elected members under the age of 35 in the Queen’s Park legislature. They are changing the tone of the debate, Morrison says.
“We’re more likely to be talking from a place of lived experiences as the government enacts policies that can disproportionately affect young people,” she said. “I think it makes for more passionate debate and more authenticity.”
Morrison says she and her younger counterparts are having an effect on provincial politics because they bring different experiences to the legislature. She cited recent cuts made to OSAP as a case in point.
“Many of us in the legislature, by nature of being younger folks that have been elected, are still carrying a substantial amount of student debt ourselves,” Morrison said.
Sam Oosterhoff, the 21-year-old Conservative who represents Niagara West, said that his age gives him the advantage of being more energetic than other MPPs. He says he can work “harder” and “longer” compared to his older colleagues.
That said, he admits that looking like a 21-year-old has its disadvantages when it comes to meeting voters. Oosterhoff said during previous campaigns he was often mistaken for a staffer rather than the candidate himself.
He said the first few times he went knocking on constituents’ doors and people realized he was the candidate, they would laugh and ask him if he was still in school.
Dan Horner, a criminology professor at Ryerson, said our political culture may be more likely to value candidates who have more career experience, as opposed to younger candidates.
Older candidates will often pitch to voters about their years of experience in a career, and voters will take that as a sign that the candidate is “serious and knowledgeable,” Horner said.
“All that sort of ends up stacking up against younger candidates who can bring incredible energy, and can change the parameters of debate,” Horner said.
Morrison and Oosterhoff bring different experiences to their role as elected members at Queen’s Park.
Oosterhoff said he’d worked on other campaigns and wanted to become directly involved in politics.
Morrison said she grew up in a single parent household with a mother who suffers from chronic health conditions including heart disease, lung disease and an acquired brain injury. Her mother also uses a wheelchair, which often led to accessibility issues. Morrison recalls a time when she had to take a day off and go with her mom to the University of Toronto campus because her mother had to submit OSAP forms to registrar’s office. The building was inaccessible for wheelchairs.
Morrison waited in line for a clerk, who met her mother outside in the dead of winter to deal with the confidential paperwork.
Morrison says it was this lived experience, along with others, that motivated her to consider running for MPP.
Morrison and her husband were also witnesses to a shooting in Regent Park the summer before the election.
The trauma of that experience, and the death of Toronto city councillor Pam McConnell, who died from a lung condition, ultimately led Morrison to her decision to run for MPP.
“I remember sitting on my balcony with my husband thinking about how much of a loss it was that the city was going to have lost such a strong progressive voice in Pam,” Morrison said.
She recalls McConnell being a longtime advocate for ending poverty and eliminating violence.
As a young woman, Morrison said she too is often mistaken for a staffer when she goes knocking on constituents’ doors. Moreover, she said she is still sometimes mistaken for a staffer, even at Queen’s Park.
These situations can be hard to navigate, Morrison said.
“You really do have to take up that space in a different way because people don’t automatically assume that you’re a politician that belongs in that building,” she said.
Young politicians are also having an impact at other levels of government.
Ashley Noble, a trustee for the Durham District School Board, was only 19 years old when she started campaigning to be a school trustee one year ago. Noble is the youngest ever female trustee to be elected on a school board within Canada, an experience she describes as “shell-shocking.”
Noble became politically active at a young age when her and her friends started advocating for more inclusive language and safe spaces for the the LGBT community, a community they’re a part of.
More recently, as Noble neared her high school graduation, she started advocating for affordable education.
“That was something that people around me were being affected by with rising tuition costs,” Noble said.
Before being elected as a trustee, Noble hosted town halls and invited elected members in the community such as MPs and school trustees, along with young people who could voice their concerns to officials.
She said it was a good opportunity for students to not only voice their concerns, but ensure that elected members were hearing them.
“I would definitely host another youth town hall, it was a good experience,” Noble said.
More: Arjun Sahota, 21, is the chair of the Toronto Youth Cabinet and special assistant to city councillor Jennifer McKelvie. He also ran for a school trustee position when he was 18, where he faced doubt from other candidates about his age. In this audio clip, Sahota speaks about a time when someone asked how old he was during a debate.