Surfing the orange wave

Laurin Liu was working as a volunteer on election night, serving as a scrutineer in NDP MP Thomas Mulcair’s Outremont riding, when she glanced at a text message sent by a friend. “It said, ‘You won’ in all caps, with lots of exclamation marks,” Liu recalls. And with that, the second-year McGill history and cultural studies student discovered that she had just been elected to represent the people of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles in the House of Commons.

Newly-elected NDP MP Laurin Liu at a post-election news conference in Montreal, with fellow MP Pierre Nantel and NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair, LLB'77 (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

“It’s been a whirlwind for me,” says Liu. Though she agreed to serve as a NDP candidate in the election, she didn’t actually expect to win. But then, no one anticipated the enormity of the NDP’s victory in Quebec—not even the NDP itself. “Obviously, this is going to be a really big lifestyle change,” says Liu.

In all, four McGill undergraduates, all of them recent members of the NDP-McGill student club, are heading to Ottawa as part of the “orange wave” that swept through most of Quebec, helping to fuel the NDP’s best-ever performance in a federal election, one that resulted in 59 Quebec candidates getting elected. Liu will be joined in Parliament by political science students Charmaine Borg and Matthew Dubé and by newly minted political science graduate Mylène Freeman, BA’11, who have been dubbed “the McGill Four” in press accounts of their unexpected victories.

It’s the McGill Five if you count Jamie Nicholls, a doctoral student in the School of Urban Planning. Hélène LeBlanc, BSc(AgEnvSc)’08, and José Nunez-Melo,CertTransp’99, are among the other first-time NDP MPs in Quebec. Much of the credit for the NDP’s breakthrough in the province, of course, goes to a pair of McGill grads—NDP leader Jack Layton, BA’71 (now leader of the opposition), and Mulcair, LLB’77, the NDP’s deputy leader and the party’s chief Quebec lieutenant.

Layton’s good-natured, energetic performances on the campaign trail (despite a recent bout with prostate cancer and recent hip surgery) made a big impression on Quebecers.

“This was supposed to be the election that turned off Quebeckers,” noted McGill political science professor Antonia Maioni during a CTV interview, “but ‘Jack Mania’ has actually enlivened the debate.”

Joe Oliver, BA’61, BCL’64, Canada’s new minister of natural resources

Not all of the newly-elected McGillians are affiliated with the NDP. Joe Oliver, BA'61, BCL'64, the rookie MP for the Eglinton-Lawrence riding in Ontario, will serve in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet as Canada's minister of natural resources. Oliver is a former executive director of the Ontario Securities Commission. During his student days, he was editor-in-chief of the McGill Law Journal.

Other Conservatives who became first-time MPs include former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan Chris Alexander, BA’89, and former federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation John Williamson, BA’93. Pundits were speculating that both men could be future cabinet ministers.

Liberals Irwin Cotler, BA’61, BCL’64, John McCallum, PhD’77, Francis Scarpaleggia, BA'79, and Justin Trudeau, BA94, were all re-elected.

For her part, the trilingual Liu (English, French and Cantonese) is used to being busy. Aside from her course work and her NDP-McGill involvement, she has also been a staff writer for the McGill Daily and was a recently elected board member for CKUT, a community radio station based at McGill.

She’ll soon be moving to her riding, to better represent her constituents. “There are a lot of seasoned members in caucus and there is a lot of mentoring that goes on inside the party,” says Liu. “Some of the best advice I’ve gotten so far came from [NDP Manitoba MP] Niki Ashton. She talked about how important it is to keep your ears open [to constituents’ concerns] and to be as accessible as you possibly can be.”

With some friendly prompting from her mom, one of the first items on Liu’s to-do list is to meet with her academic adviser. She might have a lot on her plate for the next four years or so, but Liu still wants to finish her McGill degree.

“It isn’t unprecedented,” she insists. “There are MPs who have worked on business or law degrees while they were in Parliament.”

Daniel McCabe, BA'89