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Young NDP MPs head to Parliament Hill after summer crash course

Charmaine Borg had a tough summer job. She knocked on doors near Montreal and introduced herself – a 20-year-old who looks youthful enough to be selling Girl Guide cookies – as the riding's new Member of Parliament.

Normally, candidates for office go door-to-door before they're elected. But Ms. Borg was part of the orange tide of New Democrats from Quebec who rolled into Ottawa against all expectations, so she did the groundwork post-victory. Having barely campaigned in the riding before election day, she shook hands and greeted voters after the fact.

"It was my dream come true. I also aged 10 years in one day," Ms. Borg says about her win in May. "It's a lot of responsibility."

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It's been a bit of a shock-and-awe initiation for members of the NDP caucus in Quebec, who head into the fall session in Ottawa on Monday. Of the 59 members from Quebec, about a third were under 30, and several were students suddenly catapulted from campus life straight to a $157,000-a-year salary as an MP.

Since then, they had to overcome their not-quite-ready-for-prime time image and demonstrate they should be taken seriously. The task isn't easy when you've become steady fodder for jibes and satires, like the Rick Mercer skit on the CBC featuring an "NDP Rookie Support Line" for MPs away from Mom and Dad for the first time. ("For when sudden election means missing frosh week at McGill.")

At 19, Pierre-Luc Dusseault made history in May by becoming Canada's youngest-ever MP; instead of working at a golf course this summer as he'd planned, his first full-time job was representative for Sherbrooke.

"The biggest challenge is building my credibility, because people know how old I am," said Mr. Dusseault, now 20, who says his university courses in applied politics helped him make the transition to Parliament. Since his election, he has met community groups and recently held an open house at his constituency office. "I need to prove that age doesn't make the person."

The rookies also had to grapple with an unprecedented setback – the death of leader Jack Layton, followed in short order by the turmoil of a leadership succession. With Mr. Layton's passing, they lost not only the man who got them elected in Quebec, but in many cases, their own political mentor.

"For me the NDP has always been Jack," said Ms. Borg, who set aside her undergraduate degree in political science and Latin American studies at McGill University to become an MP. "I could have stayed a long time mourning. But I feel now it's time to move on, or I wouldn't be serving my constituents properly."

Even before Mr. Layton's death, she met constituents in her suburban riding of Terrebonne-Blainville north of Montreal, bought a car (a Prius hybrid), got an apartment in the riding, learned to use her first BlackBerry, hired office staff and combed the House of Commons parliamentary procedure book.

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One day recently, accompanied by a newly hired aide, she spent an hour discussing concerns with a local mayor, Jean-Marc Robitaille of Terrebonne, a former Tory MP under Brian Mulroney who is old enough to be Ms. Borg's father. (A receptionist at city hall greeted Ms. Borg by addressing her as tu a form typically reserved for the young or the familiar, not an MP). Then Ms. Borg toured a homeless shelter and visited a drop-in community centre, gobbling down lunch in the car.

Ms. Borg and other colleagues have also been paired with veteran NDP caucus members who can provide guidance. Since the party had only a single MP from Quebec entering the election, Thomas Mulcair, the mentors hail from outside the province.

For now, the New Democrats from Quebec are trying to disprove skeptics who might see Canada's Official Opposition as a one-term wonder that owes its success to the popularity of Mr. Layton. Luckily for the rookies, Quebec voters seem to regard the first-timers sympathetically, like a niece or nephew who's new on the job. Michelle Leclair Alary, a pensioner sitting in a shopping mall in Ms. Borg's riding, said the newly minted MP may have an edge over political veterans.

"I feel we have to give these youngsters a chance. After all, when you're young you're like a sponge, you can absorb everything," said the 74-year-old. "I just hope they don't become contaminated."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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