The move from academic to politician can be a difficult transition – it’s a bit like being in a Three-Minute Thesis Competition over and over again, said Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the new Liberal Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre. Prior to his win, Dr. Ouellette, who holds a PhD in anthropology and Master of Music degree, both from Université Laval, had been program director for the Aboriginal Focus Programs at the University of Manitoba. Now he’s adjusting to a life of talking in soundbites.
“[In academia] I go and give a speech and there’s time for ideas to develop. When I’m talking to media now, they want the short quote,” he said. “That’s been a huge learning curve going from an academic to becoming a politician. I guess I’m a politician now. Wow, I can’t believe that.”
Jean-Yves Duclos is making a similar career change. The former director of the department of economics at Université Laval and president-elect of the Canadian Economics Association was not only elected MP for Quebec, he was also appointed Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. The day after he was named to the cabinet position, Dr. Duclos was before the media announcing the reinstatement of the mandatory long-form census, a move widely cheered by academics.
Data compiled by Universities Canada shows that Drs. Duclos and Ouellette are in good academic company in the 42nd Parliament. Some 227 of 338 MPs in the House of Commons have a bachelor’s degree (compared to 184 in the last government of 304 MPs); about 97 of these MPs went on to complete a master’s degree and 14 hold PhDs (compared to 62 and 13 in the previous Parliament). The new cabinet includes 14 MPs holding master’s degrees and five with PhDs like Dr. Duclos.
While Drs. Ouellette and Duclos are new on the scene, several returning MPs have already made the jump from higher education to federal politics:
- Kirsty Duncan, the new Minister of Science and Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Etobicoke North, is a medical geographer who taught meteorology, climatology and climate change at the University of Windsor from 1993 to 2000. She was also an adjunct professor teaching medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University. She served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore. She has been an MP since 2008.
- Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Liberal MP for the Montreal riding of Saint-Laurent–Cartierville since 1996, was a professor of political science at Université de Moncton and Université de Montréal. He has been Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, and has held several cabinet positions.
- John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and Liberal MP for the Ontario riding of Thornhill–Markham, was dean of arts at McGill University and in 1993 fundraised $10 million to found the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. He was later chief economist for RBC before entering politics in 2000. He has led several ministries including National Defence, Veterans Affairs, Natural Resources and National Revenue since joining federal politics in 2000.
- Michelle Rempel, a Conservative MP for Calgary Nose Hill, was director of the University of Calgary’s institutional programs division and worked in the technology commercialization division of the University of Manitoba before entering politics in 2011. She served as Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification in the previous government.
- Alice Wong has been the Conservative MP for Richmond in B.C. since 2008. She holds a PhD in instruction and curriculum from the University of British Columbia and worked as the manager of international programs at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. In the previous government she was Minister of State for Seniors.
- Kennedy Stewart, NDP MP for the Vancouver-area riding of Burnaby–Douglas since 2011, is an associate professor on leave from the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University.
David Lametti, a law professor at McGill University who earned a doctorate in law at Oxford University, is another academic-turned-rookie politician. A former associate dean, academic, of McGill’s Faculty of Law, he decided to run as the Liberal candidate for Montreal’s LaSalle–Émard–Verdun riding in part to advocate for evidence-based policy-making – an approach he says he has come to value through his academic training. “You learn to do that at a university, you learn to look at the evidence,” he said.
While the Liberal platform on higher education has yet to be elaborated, Dr. Lametti said he anticipates a reversal of the previous government’s “demeaning of what scientists do, of what universities do, of what social science scholars do.”
In the short time since the election, many stakeholders in the postsecondary education sector have praised the new government for its seemingly open approach to research and to higher education more generally. On Oct. 27, then-Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau made a surprise appearance at Universities Canada’s annual membership meeting in Ottawa. Elizabeth Cannon, chair of the board at Universities Canada and President of the University of Calgary, told the Canadian Press that the appearance was “a huge signal for us” and marked a change in tone from the previous government. “He talked passionately about the impact his own university education had on him, his life, his thinking. That was a very positive message,” she said.