How can young, inexperienced students make concrete political change?

You probably know someone in your friend group or classes who is constantly fighting for change in some area of our municipal, provincial, or federal government. When Laura Grosman was studying public administration at the University of Ottawa in 2007, she was “that friend,” and soon began a long journey of pushing for a Holocaust monument in the Ottawa area.

Many students have the same passion for change as Grosman, but don’t know where to start. Luckily, although every path to Parliament is different, there are many lessons we can learn from each one.

It’s not every student that will embark on a 10-year journey to see their idea passed by Parliament, but every student can effect political change right now.

Hopefully, some of the lessons Grosman learned on her journey to passing a bill will inform and inspire you to be a driver of real political change—no matter how heavy your class schedule is.

A long road riddled with obstacles

The start of Grosman’s journey began in a Canadian Jewish studies class at the U of O, where she learned that Canada was the only allied power whose capital did not have a monument in remembrance of the Holocaust.

Being the granddaughter of a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, she was unhappy to hear about this, and asked her professor and others about the reasoning. Although she continued to dig, she says that no one really had a good answer.

“It was never ‘the government doesn’t want it,’ or ‘the community doesn’t want it,’” she recalls, “it was just more, ‘oh we tried but couldn’t get everyone to agree on something,’ or ‘we couldn’t figure out how to fund it with the government.’ A lot of reasons, but nothing good.”

Grosman says that her public administration major, paired with her experience working on the Hill, gave her a natural inclination to bring the idea to the House of Commons. Soon, she had the support of her local Member of Parliament (MP), Liberal Susan Kadis, who connected her with a parliamentary drafter to create a private member’s bill (PMB).

“I felt very strongly that it should not be a partisan bill, that it should have all parties on board before it’s even introduced,” she notes.

“I did not want it to be a political thing, it’s a Canadian thing, and I did not want it to be owned by one party.”

Although Grosman was only 18 years old at the time, she was given the full responsibility of lobbying for her idea to each party.

“As an 18-year-old, at that time to volunteer on the Hill, you know, bright-eyed bushy-tailed, didn’t know any better, and was thrust into this. So I knew if I wanted this to succeed, it was really all on my shoulders, there was nobody that was going to help.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. Grosman had a lot of difficulty getting people to meet with her, but says that being introduced to former Bloc Québécois MP Richard Marceau helped her get in the door.

“I was interested in him because he, as an MP, introduced the legislation to make Holocaust Remembrance Day a national day of remembrance,” she recalls. “It was an interesting meeting. He said to me that it’s a fantastic idea, you’re trying what many have failed at.”

Although her connections got her in a few more doors, it was still an uphill battle once she got into the room.

“Not a lot of people would meet with me, but the ones that would, they didn’t take me seriously,” she says. “I was young, I was 18, 19, what did I know… It got to a point where I was laughed at, I was scoffed at, they were meeting with me just to say that they met with me because I was bothering their staff so much.”

“I had one MP literally tell me to my face that he would not waste his reputation, his prestigious reputation, on an 18- or 19-year-old kid with a dream.”

As a student who was working during her degree, as well as holding the president seat of two campus clubs, she says her plate was full, and it was a challenge to balance it all.

“There were days where I was just like, I can’t today, I can’t get another door slammed in my face, I can’t have another person laugh at me or scoff at me, I just can’t today.” Another hurdle came when Parliament was dissolved in September 2008 for a federal election, leaving the first bill dead on the order paper. Meanwhile in Thornhill, MP Kadis lost her seat to Conservative MP and former journalist Peter Kent. 

Although Kent had met with Grosman and agreed to push for the project’s success, he was immediately appointed to cabinet, leaving him unable to introduce a PMB. Although he could have left Grosman’s project behind, he instead approached newly elected Conservative MP Tim Uppal, who held the second slot on the order paper.

Although the bill received support from the prime minister’s office, it still had to face the notoriously slow Senate—in a time where Stephen Harper’s government was unstable.

The bill raced through the Senate in two weeks, an event that Grosman calls “unprecedented,” and was given royal assent just hours before the Harper government fell in a non-confidence vote on March 25, 2011.

Grosman recalls that when she heard the news, she was so happy she didn’t know what to do with herself.

“I look at the monument now, I don’t see it as a Jewish thing, it’s a Canadian thing. It serves as a reminder to every single Canadian what happens when the government decides to turn its guns on its people,” Grosman says.

“This could happen to anybody. It’s happening right now, it’s happening in Syria, people are being murdered by their government at genocidal rates. And the lessons of the Holocaust are not just applicable to the Jews, they’re applicable to everybody.”

Although Grosman’s journey may sound like a great story, she recalls that over the course of her 10-year push for the monument she only talked with one or two reporters.

“I really didn’t talk about my experience because it was really hard, it was really hard. It wasn’t this wonderful experience that I went through and sailed through, and everything happened very naturally, it was very hard.”

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Laura Grosman, U of O alumna and a driving force behind Ottawa’s Holocaust memorial. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Grosman.

Is there another way?

After hearing Grosman’s story, I asked her what students should do if they want to take their ideas into Canada’s political arena.

She laughed and said not to follow in her footsteps with a PMB, because “the system is too volatile, (and) there’s so much out of your control.”

“Look at me, the bill died once, and it almost died again, twice… I would say only take this avenue if it’s a last resort, or if you know you can do it in a motion or statement to do it quickly.”

According to the Parliament of Canada website, 278 PMBs have been given royal assent, while a total of 681 bills did not pass—a success rate of just under 30 per cent.

The good news for those who aren’t up for the long haul of a PMB, is that there are so many other ways to create political change at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels.

U of O political sciences professor and Order of Canada recipient Caroline Andrew believes that effecting political change starts at the grassroots level.

“I think if people are interested in electoral politics, if people are interested in the social action of politics, there’s terrific groups in the city of Ottawa who need volunteers, want volunteers, love volunteers,” says Andrew.

“The great thing about Ottawa is that there’s so many headquarters of non-governmental groups here, that there isn’t an issue that you couldn’t find somebody to volunteer for.”

Grosman too believes that volunteer work is where it all begins.

“Grassroots is always, always, always the most important work. My whole thing was volunteer, nobody paid me for it,” she laughs. “I really don’t believe in needing to be in a specific position, status in life, whatever, to have any kind of accomplishment.”

Grosman emphasizes that she didn’t come into MPs’ offices with any official title, she only came with her idea and a will to get it done.

“I don’t think you need to have any kind of formal anything to get something done, you do need determination and tenacity.”

Caro Loufti is the executive director at Apathy is Boring, a national non-partisan project aimed at increasing youth participation in politics, and says that the first step in making change is getting to know more about the issue you want to tackle—in particular, figuring out which level of government is responsible.

“Look up what community organizations in your area might be working on that issue,” Loufti suggests. “If you find a good fit, try to take action in partnership with them. They will have resources and can likely help you activate on a larger scale than you could going at it alone.”

Loufti also notes that you can organize on your campus or with friends, as “making a difference doesn’t need to involve something big, small actions are also really important.”

Andrew says that Ottawa is an ideal place for young people to engage in the issues they feel passionate about, simply because representatives of all levels of government are nearby and accessible to national capital residents.

However, Andrew’s passions lie in the municipal level because it involves services that have a direct impact on local lives. This means you can see your changes in action, in your own community.

According to Loufti, the municipal level tends to deal with issues that are easier for most of us to relate to in our daily lives.

“There’s a huge need for engagement at the municipal level and there’s a lot that can be done… Once you learn more about how municipal government works and who the players are, you’ll be better positioned to advocate for the issue you want to tackle.”

But when it comes to choosing between formal action, such as a PMB, or more informal action such as activism and volunteer work, Loufti notes that there is importance in both.

“If you succeed in creating change through the more formal approaches, it will likely last a lot longer and be embedded in our system. Systemic change is one of the most powerful things we can leave behind for future generations,” she says.

“However, activist work can be more gratifying in the short term. It allows for movements to build and relationships to form which you need in order to take on the long-term systemic work.”

It seems that the varied paths to Parliament are symbiotic in nature—without the other, both paths would be much less effective.

Lessons learned on the path

First off, Andrew says that an important part of getting your ideas out there is experimenting with your passions, and not feeling chained to any project or cause. She says the important thing is understanding where your goals lie, and what projects you can develop from that point.

“It’s really important to get an idea of how you can push the political system to do what you think it ought to be doing. It isn’t just top down or bottom up,” she notes.Although students should try and seek out these opportunities and experiment, Loufti says that government has a lot of work to do, and “it shouldn’t solely be on us as young people.”

“There should be more ways to connect with decision makers both online and offline,” she says. “The more accessible they are, the better it is for building trust between citizens and government and helping to remind us that they’re just a regular person in an interesting job.”

Although networking can be intimidating when you’re a post-secondary student, Grosman believes that, in addition to being at the center of our nation’s political activity, the U of O offers a unique set of professors that will “take you places” after graduation.

Grosman says she didn’t have a specific way to cope with the struggles she faced on her journey, but that a lot of coffee and a support system full of people who wouldn’t let her give up helped her out a lot.

“I think that tenacity should be a quality that every young person possesses. That every time someone says no, you push harder, and any door that slams in your face, you’re going to push it and break it down.”

Loufti echoes this sentiment, saying that “it’s about mobilizing strategically, and having the stamina to keep knocking on the door to be heard.”

A little tenacity goes a long way

As Grosman’s Holocaust Memorial comes to life on Sept. 27, we all should be reminded that although the path might not be easy, it is entirely possible as a young person to bring the changes you want to see to our nation’s capital and beyond.

As Grosman says, a little tenacity can go a long way when you’re young and trying to push your way into the political sphere.

“There’s a lot of people in our world that are ‘no’ people, that just want to say “no,” and are not interested in putting their necks on the line,” she says. “They’re jaded, all they’re interested in is doing their job and getting home at the end of the day to having a steak on the patio with a beer. They’re not interested in rolling up their sleeves.”

“But no change is going to happen, no good things are going to happen, nothing is going to happen unless we all roll our sleeves up and push through those barriers, and break them down.”

It has to start somewhere. So, U of O, why not you?