By Julie Mutis
The Liberal Party of Ontario began to recruit Carlie Forsythe just as she was finishing up her degree in project management at Fanshawe College. A family friend and member of the Liberal party had noticed Forsythe’s experience in student leadership and governance and flagged her as a great candidate for the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London in the 2018 provincial election.
At Fanshawe, Forsythe was the president of the student union, a member of the college board of governors and the chair of multiple other boards. But on the campaign trail, it wasn’t her leadership skills that caught the eye of voters.
Instead, the 30-year-old found that her youthful appearance was the only thing that constituents were interested in. Forsythe said that this prompted many people to question her experience and ability to lead before they knew anything else about her.
“They were cutting me down just for looking young,” said Forsythe, who finished a distant third behind the incumbent Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek. “Not necessarily for being queer, not necessarily for being female, but because of my age.”
Forsythe’s experience is not unique. Political veterans and newcomers alike acknowledge that young candidates routinely face institutional and societal barriers when they participate in party politics.
“People perceive that young people don’t have experience,” said Peggy Nash, a former member of Parliament and distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University. They think that “young people don’t have the fundraising ability, they don’t have the policy depth, they don’t have the confidence and maybe they don’t have the life experience.”
Despite these barriers, Nash, who sat on candidate search boards for the NDP, said that diversity of age in government is important for policy-making. “We need better political representation of young people in politics and a diversity of young people.”
Nash said that in comparison to places like the United States, money isn’t as great an obstacle for young candidates who make grassroots organizing work for them.
“You don’t need millions,” said Nash. “If you get a young person who inspires young people, is an activist and knows how to organize … it changes people’s perceptions about who can be a leader.”
Nash said that older candidates can be more appealing to political parties as they can tap into social and professional networks for votes, campaign funds and volunteers.
“Parties want to elect someone they think can win,” she said. “I think the danger is that sometimes people think the best candidate is someone who … looks like the traditional model of leadership.”
Nash said that this “ideal candidate” model discourages young people from running in the first place. She said that young people face even more hurdles to pursuing office based on their gender, sexuality or race.
In 2011, 20-year-old McGill student Laurin Liu was elected as an NDP member of Parliament. Liu said that despite being the co-president of the Quebec NDP youth wing and the president of McGill University’s NDP club, she never saw herself as an elected official.
“I didn’t have many people in Canadian politics to look up to, who looked like me and have the same life experiences as me,” said Liu, who is of Chinese background. She said that when she was asked to run in the Montreal area riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, she agreed because she was sure she would lose.
“There is a mythology around what it takes to be an elected person that really needs to be criticized and dismantled,” she said.
Neil Thomlinson, a professor in Ryerson’s politics and governance department, said another factor putting young people off of running for office is the perception that party politics is unfair and corrupt.
Listen to Neil Thomlinson on why diversity of age is challenging but important in party politics
Thomlinson said that this has led to a rise in extra-political activism, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, as an alternative to party politics. He said that while this is an important part of democracy, change is nearly impossible without elected officials who represent your views.
“If you want to organize in this way and raise awareness, great, but the only way to make a real difference is to elect people who will agree with you,” said Thomlinson.