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Rookie MP at 20, Laurin Liu now fights to hold NDP ground in Quebec

Lauren Liu (C), one of the McGill students elected to parliament last election, talks with Sebastien Lapierre as she door knocks with with volunteer Solange Maheu (R) in Rosemere, Quebec on August 2, 2015.

Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and

When Laurin Liu was elected to Parliament at the age of 20, she didn't know how to drive.

Soon she became known here, in the Montreal suburb at the heart of her constituency, for riding a bicycle to appointments around town. Locals called her "the bike MP."

"It was great," she said recently, putting a characteristically cheerful spin on the situation. "People would see me and wave from their cars."

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At that stage of her political career, gaining a reputation was worth whatever embarrassment it might entail. One of the four McGill undergraduates swept into the House of Commons more or less accidentally by Quebec's Orange Wave in 2011, she was all but unknown in Saint-Eustache.

A so-called pylon candidate, Ms. Liu put her name on the ballot as a formality; she was not expected to be remotely competitive against a Bloc Québécois juggernaut that had dominated Montreal's north shore for more than a decade. On polling day, while she was volunteering for Thomas Mulcair's re-election campaign, a friend texted her the results from Rivière-des-Mille-Îles.

Ms. Liu had won the seat by nearly 11,000 votes.

She now drives a used Toyota Corolla, a little anxiously, and with the not-always-sufficient navigational help of a GPS. But if the car protests a little when accelerating onto the highway, and if it has hand cranks to roll down the windows, it still counts as evidence of her remarkable maturation.

The youngest woman ever elected to Parliament is now a crucial part of the NDP's strategy to hold Quebec. While the party needs to dramatically expand its footprint in Ontario and British Columbia if it has any hope of dispatching the Harper Conservatives, keeping the support of la belle province is an equally tough trick.

The NDP's support here, while broader than that of the other parties combined, is also unusually shallow. Of the party's 54 Quebec MPs, 53 are rookies. Their job in October will be to prove that 2011 wasn't, as many have charged, a feu de paille – a flash in the pan.

Saint-Eustache is impeccably Québécois. The town hall used to be a convent. The church has dimples in its walls from British cannonballs fired during the 1837 rebellion. Fleurs-de-lys pennants hang from the lampposts downtown. A typical Eustachois is, roughly: 65, white, Catholic, francophone and separatist.

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A Chinese-Canadian anglophone born in Calgary, Ms. Liu cuts a striking figure in town. Her noticeable anglo accent adds to that air of incongruity. Although she went to a French community college in Montreal, and is now much more comfortable in her second language than she was four years ago, she gives herself away as an outsider the moment she says bonjour.

Ms. Liu's reception, generally warm, has sometimes been marred by ugly remarks about age and race. At a community event one night early in her tenure, a former Bloc MP for the riding, Gilles Perron, repeatedly referred to Ms. Liu as la petite Chinoise. (She insists the incident was "in no way representative of my general experience." Mr. Perron could not be reached for comment.)

But despite all the superficial differences between them, many of her constituents seem to have embraced their young MP. She was greeted enthusiastically in the streets of Saint-Eustache on the first day of electioneering last Sunday – "Bonne chance," exclaimed one woman, holding up two firmly crossed fingers – and has the foursquare support of local groups such as the Lions Club.

She has earned this improbable foothold by heeding Jack Layton's advice to the crop of novice parliamentarians he almost single-handedly created: Spend lots of time in your riding.

Although she had held a senior post in the NDP's provincial youth wing and had volunteered on a couple of campaigns, Ms. Liu's first weeks as an MP were "mayhem," she said. She remembers her feeling of disorientation while posing for the party's first caucus photo, which now hangs in her constituency office. "I was looking around like, 'Who are these people?'" She made it through those early days on "adrenalin" and a kind of desperate, headlong work ethic.

"We did have a burden of proof, in the sense that no one really knew who I was," she said. "The first summer in 2011, I obviously did not take a vacation."

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Ms. Liu has now settled into the grinding rhythm of life as an MP. In Ottawa, she's served as deputy critic for science and technology, international trade and the environment. She and Toronto MP Andrew Cash tabled a private member's bill to extend workplace protections to interns. And on weekends, or while Parliament is in recess, she returns to Saint-Eustache, where she has a cozy second-storey walk-up in the historic centre of town. (Her bike lies disused in the mud room.)

Those days in the riding are spent on the mostly unglamorous work of canvassing for support door-to-door and showing her face at community events: things such as meeting with a group of women who sterilize cats, or buying Olivia Newton John records from a Knights of Columbus yard sale, to take a couple of recent examples. And there's the workaday business, much of which falls to her local staff, of answering constituent mail, helping residents with passport applications and intervening in tax-return disputes.

Ms. Liu's Montreal student days can now seem like a distant memory. "In terms of the loft parties, that's not really my scene any more," she admitted. When asked, a little facetiously, about the nightlife in Saint-Eustache, Ms. Liu paused to think. "Well, there are the cabanes à sucres!" she said, managing to keep a straight face.

Indeed, few Eustachois are as intent on extolling their town's virtues as she is. To spend an afternoon with Ms. Liu in her riding is to receive an impromptu lesson in obscure local trivia. Did you know, she will ask, that a nearby vintner has the largest red wine vineyard in Quebec; that the town boasts one of the province's two remaining drive-in movie theatres; or that the local river is home to not one but two species of turtle?

By settling down in a sleepy suburban town with an aged population, Ms. Liu has developed the mien of a much older woman. "When I started doing volunteer work for her, I thought she was 35," said Solange Maheu, a local NDP supporter.

Ms. Maheu's opinions are of more than academic interest – voters like her are the party's best hope for keeping its Quebec stronghold. A political agnostic, she had no particular affinity for the NDP before last election, but fell in love with Jack Layton during his storied 2011 appearance on Tout le monde en parle, the Radio-Canada interview show. "I adored him," she said.

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She now volunteers on Ms. Liu's campaign. And the NDP has good reason to believe it can count on more people like Ms. Maheu to rally behind the party come election day. An average of opinion polls made by political scientist Éric Grenier shows the New Democrats ahead in Quebec by a wide margin, with 36-per-cent support compared with 23 per cent for the Liberals.

Ms. Liu also claims to have skirted the fundraising doldrums plaguing other members of the party's freshman class – her campaign has between $30,000 and $40,000 on hand, she said, though she didn't know the exact figure.

While Thomas Mulcair may lack the smiling charisma of Mr. Layton, he was raised in Laval, across the river from Saint-Eustache, and served as a cabinet minister in the provincial government – strong Quebec bona fides.

This does not mean Ms. Liu's re-election is foreordained. Both the Liberals and the Bloc seem to be mounting serious campaigns in Rivière-des-Mille-Îles. Former Parti Québécois leader Bernard Landry spoke at the April campaign launch for the local Bloc candidate, a gym teacher named Félix Pinel.

"Next time we need a blue wave," Mr. Landry said. "Our compatriots let themselves be taken in, thinking they would elect 'un bon Jack' and finding themselves with a 'mean Tom.'"

A recent day of canvassing with Ms. Liu suggests that voters on the north shore are a long way from making up their minds about who to vote for.

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On Sunday, she and a group of volunteers met in the kitchen of a supporter in the middle-class suburb of Rosemère, which was added to her riding when the electoral map was redrawn in 2013.

The group was broken into twos and each pair was given a clipboard full of addresses, with instructions to put down a number next to each home indicating how likely they were to vote NDP: 1 meant enthusiastic supporter, 2 meant probable supporter, 3 meant undecided and 4 meant definite non-supporter.

"Take nothing for granted," Ms. Liu told her team. "We're ready for change." (Especially in French, Ms. Liu is most comfortable with the stilted language of the campaign trail.)

On a drowsy summer day, along an affluent street, Ms. Liu got mostly 3's. "I haven't made my choice yet," and "I'm going to take time to look at the different platforms, which I haven't done yet," and "I'm looking at my options."

"People are just getting back from their vacation," Ms. Liu reasoned.

But her largely indifferent reception may have suggested a more telling dynamic, not just for her, but for the NDP's whole slate of Quebec MPs. The province's voters, it is often noted, are fickle and unpredictable – or passionate and clear-eyed, depending on who is employing the adjectives. Either way, they are definitely not loyal.

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Consider the election of Ms. Liu herself. The Bloc had taken her riding by huge margins in each of the previous five elections. The NDP had never placed better than fourth. In 2011, the NDP didn't even try to win the seat: Elections Canada returns show that Ms. Liu's campaign spent no money that year – not a cent – while Luc Desnoyers of the Bloc spent more than $50,000.

And yet the voters of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles stampeded into the NDP fold, giving the party a more than 20-point edge over the Bloc.

A victory that abrupt runs the risk of reversing itself: a wave sucking back out to sea after crashing on the beach. On the shady side of the Rosemère street that Ms. Liu was canvassing on Sunday, a woman named Annie Choquette provided what may be the wisest election forecast available in Quebec, when asked who she would be supporting.

"We'll see," she said.

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