It was 2014 and Jen Martel was fed up.
A lifeguard who was involved in her union and planning to go on to medical school, Martel was unhappy with the Conservative government’s policies, especially on the environment.
So Martel, then just 24 years old, did something few others have chosen to do in Abbotsford recent years: she ran for a major political party – the NDP – knowing she had a slim chance of winning.
“I thought that in the rest of my life, I don’t want other people to fix my problems for me, so if I’m having these issues I am so passionate about, why won’t I stand up myself?” she said. “How can I expect other people to run if I’m not willing to do it myself?”
But many people do expect others to run.
In the same election in which Martel ran, the Liberal Party was unable to find a local candidate. They instead had to turn to Peter Njenga, an out-of-town accountant who, it would be revealed during the campaign, had previously written a series of bizarre Facebook posts.
And during last spring’s provincial election campaign, the BC NDP couldn’t find suitable local candidates in two Abbotsford ridings. Instead, they parachuted in a pair from Metro Vancouver. In both elections, the out-of-town candidates did little local campaigning, and missed multiple all-candidates meetings.
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Canada’s brand of representative democracy is based upon the idea that candidates for office will engage with the citizenry in an attempt to win their vote and persuade them of the righteousness of their cause.
It’s an essential characteristic that has been showing its cracks recently in Abbotsford. Why?
For Sharon Herbert, the question comes down to one of electability.
Herbert, the chair of the federal Liberal party’s Abbotsford electoral district riding association, said the demands of a campaign are such that many people want to think they can win before putting their lives on hold.
“What we find in talking with potential candidates is it’s a huge commitment to make,” she said. “It’s a big change to your life. Even just to run as a candidate, folks have to consider taking a leave from their job … To make that kind of a commitment, a candidate has to feel they can win.”
Still, there are candidates who have run for the Liberals, NDP and the Green Party knowing defeat is all but guaranteed.
The Greens in particular have consistently recruited local candidates despite pulling in just a thin slice of the total vote count.
John Vissers of the Green Party said his party’s clear policies have helped. He added that candidates “are willing to stand knowing it’s very unlikely they will get elected, but also knowing their contribution to the election issues and debates will … influence policy and discussion even if they don’t get elected.”
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For Martel, the campaign necessitated some grueling days. She says she would start her job at 5 a.m., finish up around or after noon, then head out on the campaign trail.
But while it seems preferable for candidates to have a deep knowledge of the voters they hope to represent, the past has shown that voters might not care all too much.
When voters finally went to the polls in 2015, Martel garnered less than half the votes of Njenga, who rode a nationwide Liberal wave to a strong showing and narrowed longtime Conservative MP Ed Fast’s margin of victory to 16 percentage points – the slimmest during Fast’s time running federally. Similarly, the two NDP parachute candidates in 2017 improved on their parties’ showing from 2013.
Martel said seeing her Liberal opponent do well despite his lack of local activity was eye-opening, but doesn’t mean that campaigning was futile.
“It was, but at the same time there are stories and ridings that don’t follow that general trend.”
Waves of support for parties elsewhere – most notably for the NDP in Quebec 2011 – have been enough to elect inexperienced candidates to office in ridings far from their homes. Still, local candidates spend weeks and months campaigning because it does sometimes make a difference: as last spring’s vote shows, a close election can be swung by just a handful of votes.
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Whatever the actual political effects, those involved in politics say legitimate competition is vital for democracy – which leaves the question of what can be done to encourage more people to put their names forward.
Running for office isn’t easy. Fast describes politics as “blood sport,” and says running takes “a lot of gumption” for people. Social media compounds the scrutiny and, often, the criticism.
That blood-sport nature doesn’t mean opposing candidates have to become enemies; Martel hailed Fast for his demeanour and for offering positive feedback when they would cross paths.
“It was very positive,” she said. “You don’t get that in other ridings, necessarily … but I would like to see that in all ridings. We both have the same goal. We both care about the people in this country, the people in this province. The way we show we care and our views may differ, but for the most part it does come from a place of caring.”
Beyond that, there are structural challenges in Canada. Relatively small numbers of people hold memberships in the country’s political parties, diminishing the natural talent pool from which to draw candidates and making active recruitment of both activists and candidates vital.
Herbert said the Liberals have been trying to reach out to students at UFV to encourage involvement in the party. Meanwhile, conversations occur in the background between party insiders and those they think might like to run for office.
More mentoring of potential candidates by those who have run before would be helpful, Martel said. And to reach those who never get involved, Martel said there needs to be more continuous education about politics and political options.
“Once the election starts, it’s too late.”
She said having more townhalls and other meetings held on political issues would also help.
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Two and a half years after her campaign, Martel has moved on, and is pursuing a master’s degree at a Swedish university.
She says she had considered running in last spring’s election, but didn’t want to enter the fray having already committed to going abroad in the fall.
But looking back, she says she would encourage others to get involved.
“It was a lot of work, but I loved every moment of it,” she said. “It was really great to see all different sides to it.”