Skip to main content

Let’s be real: None of the candidates vying to be prime minister are hurting for money. Each party leader earns a salary of more than $200,000, more than twice the 2015 Canadian median household income of $70,336. Yet, Andrew Scheer keeps taking pains to show that his financial past was “a different experience from Justin Trudeau,” which is how he put it to Maclean’s in February.

The question was whether the Conservative Party of Canada Leader regularly mentions that he grew up taking the bus and didn’t get parental help with tuition, to convey some sort of hard-knock childhood. No, he told Maclean’s, he had a “good life” with “nice things.” He just needs us all to know that he had a more modest youth than the Liberal Leader, a genuine elite and official millionaire.

Mr. Scheer reminded us, again, in an op-ed last week in which he described himself as "a kid who grew up in a townhouse, in a family that didn’t own a car, whose mother lived with her eight siblings in a two-bedroom house on a dirt road...” That last bit seems excessive and invokes a family history of poverty, not living “middle class,” as Mr. Scheer argued when the online public objected to his self-depiction as deprived, now or ever.

The Maclean’s story, for example, pegs his parents’ combined salary at about $120,000 and notes that he’s earned six figures since becoming an MP at age 25, tidbits shared this week with the mocking hashtag #ScheerWasSoPoor. That’s a tacky framing, one that also substitutes lightweight sniping about which leader is least rich for a real conversation about class – and money – in Canadian politics.

“Only a politician would … think they have some kind of bragging rights about having to always take the bus when they were growing up, like that’s a hardship,” said Kathy Dobson, whose terrific memoir Punching and Kicking details growing up poor in 1970s Montreal. The long-time journalist is now teaching at Carleton University and working on a PhD about how rarely truly low-income people get to tell their own stories.

In an e-mail, Ms. Dobson said that political boasting about diverse caucuses never mentions people raised on welfare, such as herself, or former employees of Tim Hortons or Walmart. “I want to be able to vote for a prime minister who knows what it means to have no choice but to send your child to school without boots in the winter,” she wrote.

One reason she’s never had that chance is that running for office is expensive. Federal Conservative candidates spent, on average, $90,665 in 2015, while Liberals came in at $71,660 and New Democrats at $54,404. While candidates can only personally contribute $5,000, some people are more likely to know potential big donors than others.

Campaigning is an unpaid, overtime job. It requires savings to live on, and, for parents, reliable, affordable childcare. Perhaps if more former shift-work nurses sat in the House of Commons, we’d finally have universal daycare. Instead, it’s supposedly exciting that 88 women were elected in 2015, compared with 250 men.

In the United States, discussions about wealth taxes and other serious solutions to addressing financial inequality are hot topics among the Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination. Those ideas are gaining traction in large part because of the 2018 midterm elections, when many voters did have a chance to choose representatives with different class backgrounds than the usual suspects.

The best known is likely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who beat a 10-term incumbent to become the youngest-ever Congresswoman. In the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, it’s both thrilling and exhausting to watch her go from long days campaigning to late nights lifting heavy buckets of ice at her paying job, as a bartender.

AOC, as she’s known, is a force – but if it takes superhuman stamina for an atypical candidate to succeed, then no wonder so few of them do. When wealthy politicians compete to seem real this election campaign, let’s ask how they’ll get more real people into politics.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe