Q: Who is the leader of the Bloc Québécois? A: Grilles de Creppe.
Q: Who is the leader of the NDP? A: John Lennon.
Every year, I give my first-year journalism students a test on Canadian government and politics. I expect them to know the key players -- federal party leaders, prominent cabinet ministers, the premiers -- and how this country's parliamentary system works.
At the start of each year, it's obvious that only a handful of students arrives at college with any knowledge of this subject. For most 18- and 19-year-olds just months removed from an Ontario high school, it's alien terrain, as evidenced by the one who wrote Paul Martian is the prime minister.
These kids were born in the early years of Brian Mulroney's time as prime minister. And, while Mr. Mulroney is a vaguely familiar apparition, John Turner and Kim Campbell are absolute phantoms, Trudeau is some ancient pop star, Pearson is an airport and Diefenbaker is as archaic as the Studebaker. Jean Chrétien and now Paul Martin, or Martian, are the only leaders they've ever known. References to Gilles Duceppe, Stephen Harper or Peter MacKay produce blank stares.
Start explaining the government versus the opposition, or the cabinet versus a shadow cabinet, and you might as well be speaking Swahili. While most students eventually learn the language of politics, others are hopelessly lost in translation. Thus: "The shadow cabinet is members who attend the House of Commons but do not have seats. They hear in on meetings but cannot comment."
"A shadow cabinet is the cabinet that may be used as backup in case of emergency." Some students are clearly taking journalism because they want to be on TV -- doing anything, it doesn't matter -- or become entertainment writers, so they can get into clubs and concerts for free. In five years of teaching this course, I cannot recall one whose ambition was a place in the parliamentary press gallery.
Each year, a collective groan greets news that they're going to have to read Eugene Forsey's 67-page essay, How Canadians Govern Themselves, and watch tapes of Question Period, though many are later fascinated, and appalled, by the daily shout-fest.
This semester, few seemed impressed when I suggested that a federal election was coming, and that it might be a good idea for them to vote, and to know whom they were voting for.
The 50-question test followed weeks of political writing assignments and drills on names -- Adrienne Clarkson, Anne McLellan, Ralph Goodale, Bernard Lord, Ralph Klein -- and numbers: 301 seats
in the House of Commons; the Liberals won 100 of 103 seats in Ontario in the last election.
In my three classes, with a total of 85 students, the average test score was 78 per cent. Not bad.
But since kids write the darndest things, here are some of this year's more memorable answers: The Progressive Conservatives and Alliance merged to form "the Conservation Party of Canada," and "the leader of the Official Oppositive" asks the first question in Question Period.
"The official opposition members are elected into the party. They are the premiers that make it up." The premier of British Columbia is "Glen Campbell." The premier of Saskatchewan is "Lauren Calvert." Two students, presumably working in concert, offered that John Efford, the Minister of Natural Resources, was "minister of natural defense." (The spell-check teaches American spelling.)
The good news is that some young people in Ontario now know the names of at least three premiers: Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador; Pat Binns of PEI and Gary Doer of Manitoba. I believe most remembered these three because they're easiest to spell, and because they associate the name Doer (they giggled when they heard it) with sex.
Many also learned that they can't vote for Gilles Duceppe -- or Grilles de Creppe -- because the Bloc doesn't run candidates outside Quebec.
The NDP may take heart. Jack Layton can count on at least one extra vote, the one for John Lennon. Ken Becker teaches journalism at Humber College in Toronto.