Elections Give Canada's New Democratic Party A First

Canada's parliament resumes work Thursday after national elections gave the majority to the ruling Conservative Party. And for the first time in its history, the socialist-leaning New Democratic Party will take on the role of "official opposition."

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The Canadian parliament will have some fresh faces when it reconvenes tomorrow. Really fresh. One is still a teenager, among several college students elected in last month's election. Plus, there's the new lawmaker who's a bartender and had never visited her constituency until she was elected to represent it. All belong to the New Democratic Party, the socialist-leaning group that is now the official opposition to the ruling Conservative Party. Anita Elash reports on what has turned out to be a shake up in Canadian politics.

ANITA ELASH: The New Democratic Party's strong showing was a big surprise across Canada. But no one was more surprised than the winners themselves.

Laurin Liu, a twenty-year-old history and cultural studies student, spent very little time in her Montreal constituency during the campaign. She said in a video posted on the internet that she heard about her victory the usual way.

Ms. LAURIN LIU (Member of Canadian parliament, New Democratic Party): So I actually found out through text message. My friend sent me a text message saying you won and there were like a ton of exclamation marks following that and it was all in caps.

ELASH: Liu is a lot younger than your average Canadian lawmaker. And youth is one of the trademarks of the new 103-member NDP caucus. The caucus includes six university students, a 19-year-old who cast his first ballot on the same night he was elected and a lot of people with almost no political experience.

Twenty-six-year old bartender Ruth Ellen Brosseau vacationed in Las Vegas when she could have been drumming up votes. She said she had never been to her constituency just north of Montreal, although she had heard that it's a lovely area.

Ms. RUTH ELLEN BROSSEAU (Member of Canadian Parliament, New Democratic Party): (Foreign language spoken)

ELASH: She finally turned up about a week after the election. Most of her constituents are Francophone, but Brosseau doesn't speak French. When a TV journalist tried to ask her a few questions, her handlers answered. Brosseau could only say see you later.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. BROSSEAU: (Foreign language spoken)

ELASH: Editorial cartoonists have had a field day with the NDP's young members of parliament. They've portrayed them as nursery school children with party leader Jack Layton as a frustrated school marm.

But political scientist Dennis Pilon says a lot will be riding on their shoulders when the government gets back to work. Quebeckers have traditionally voted for the Bloc Quebecois - a party that promotes Quebec's separation from Canada. And Pilon says that if Layton's party does well, it could mean the end of the separatist movement.

Mr. DENNIS PILON (Political Science, University of Victoria, British Columbia): But if the NDP fails it's not just a failure for the NDP, it could be a failure for the country. If it makes Quebeckers feel, well, that's it, we tried it and we're not getting the results that we want, maybe we should strike out and become our own country.

ELASH: Pilon says one of the big challenges facing NDP leader Layton will be keeping his young, probably rebellious charges in line with party policy.

Twenty-year-old Laurin Liu argues on the internet that sending more young people to parliament is an opportunity.

Ms. LIU: You know, young people bring a lot of energy into politics and we always bemoan the fact that youth aren't involved in politics, and then when we're elected to parliament, you know, we complain about it. And that just doesn't make sense.

ELASH: The new MPs have had intensive training over the last two weeks. They've been in Ottawa learning everything from parliamentary procedures to exactly what a member of parliament does.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Toronto.

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