Millennials get a bad reputation sometimes but three of Calgary’s MLAs are breaking some of those generational stereotypes as the youngest elected officials in the city, each one born after the 1985 coming-of-age movie, The Breakfast Club.

 Stephanie McLean, 31, Calgary-Varsity

Stephanie McLean was working at her own law practice when she received the request to run as a candidate for the NDP in the 2014 byelection for Calgary-Elbow.

As early as elementary school, McLean promised herself that she would run if the opportunity arose, after former Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan knocked on her door with a local candidate and spent time talking to her about the importance of politics.

Alberta cabinet minister Stephanie McLean, 31, speaks to a room of female professors and students at Mount Royal University on March 1 about how women can influence political change. She’s the youngest cabinet minister in Alberta’s NDP government. Photo by Sally Haney.

While practicing family law and criminal defence in Calgary, she had partnered with another lawyer six months before she was elected to office for Calgary-Varsity at 28, in the 2015 election. At 29, she was the youngest woman in Alberta to become a cabinet minister.

As a lawyer and now as Alberta’s minister in charge of Service Alberta and Status of Women, she said she enjoys advocating for those who are unable to advocate for themselves.

Motivation behind the millennial

“Millennials get a bad rap and I think that there’s incredible examples of millennials doing wonderful things all throughout society,” said McLean.

She is glad to have a voice in cabinet as the only millennial at the table, but she’s faced with the challenge of appearing credible and competent. She said she must prove herself by demonstrating her knowledge on every passing file.

“I think, we know that if you are a woman in politics first of all, it’s harder to to be viewed as credible. But that’s compounded if you’re a young woman,” McLean said.

“My understanding is that the men who came before me in that role were not criticized in the same fashion for their youthfulness.”

Tips for young people interested in politics

McLean said young people need to understand how beneficial it is to be young and energetic while in politics because the role is exhausting. She estimated millennials will make up a third of eligible voters in the next provincial election and added that it’s important for young people to get involved and know what’s going on.

“They will have the power to strongly influence the next election in a way that they haven’t before.”

Michael Connolly, 24, Calgary-Hawkwood

Raised by a single-mother of three on a teacher’s salary, Michael Connolly grew up with political talk at home which sparked his interest in politics.

Connolly remembers receiving a letter in high school from the provincial minister of education, Thomas Lukaszuk, who wanted to know how the government could improve education. Connolly jumped at the chance to influence change and used Twitter to send his suggestions.

Alberta NDP MLA Michael Connolly, 24, sits at his desk in his Calgary-Hawkwood office on March 9. He is the second youngest NDP MLA in the legislature. Photo by Stephanie Babych.

Connolly recalled his demand list, which included getting rid of Bill 44, reducing classroom sizes, providing teachers with necessary resources, and “a bunch of other things.”

He was disappointed when Lukaszuk tweeted a reply that read, “That’s an awful lot of tweets, did you save time for homework?” Connolly recalled.

Feeling sidelined, Connolly said he knew from that moment he wanted to fight for change.

Volunteering for campaigns and moving to Ottawa after graduation to attend school and work at a federal party office, Connolly was working his way into the New Democratic Party ranks. After being nominated in 2014 as a federal NDP candidate, he was asked by the party to return to Alberta to run in the 2015 election in Calgary-Hawkwood.

At 21, he was elected over Progressive Conservative incumbent Jason Luan who had been in office since 2012.

He said one of the challenges of being a young politician is the assumptions people make when he’s door knocking.

“The biggest thing I hear at the doorstep is, ‘Oh, you’re so young’ or ‘You’re too young to be an MLA’. Yeah, you’re right, I am young. And let me tell you why having a young caucus is useful,” Connolly said.

Motivation behind the millennial

Being one of three openly gay MLAs in the legislature, Connolly said he is able to relate with what high school and university students are experiencing right now.

“I know what it’s like to grow up in Calgary being gay and trying to navigate the system,” Connolly said.

“It makes you feel like you don’t belong a lot of the time.”

He’s glad to have an opportunity to speak about LGBTQ+ issues and the current curriculum with Minister of Education, David Eggen. He said that one of the best parts about being a young MLA is effectively changing things brought to his attention by a constituent.

From studying at university to working as an MLA, Connolly said he can better understand where government resources can be utilized to help university students.

“We know what people our age have been going through, what it’s like to be in university, to have to pay tuition, to have to take out student loans, to have to work a part-time job, what it’s like now as opposed to what it was 20 years ago because it’s changed quite a bit,” said Connolly.

As one of the youngest, Connolly has experienced hateful tweets and name-calling emails, but he said that it’s something every MLA has experienced.

“It sucks but you get through it and you realize … I believe I’m doing good work,” said Connolly.

Tips for young people interested in politics

Connolly said the best way to get into politics is to volunteer for a political party. To climb up the involvement ladder, he said you’ve got to get your foot in the door and get to know people.

“People should be candidates at 21 because, like I said, we need those young voices in government or in an opposition,” Connolly said.

Deborah Drever, 29, Calgary-Bow

Majoring in sociology at Mount Royal University, Deborah Drever wanted to become a social worker in order to help people in serious need. But her studies were interrupted when she was asked to run as the NDP MLA for Calgary-Bow in 2015.

At 27, she was elected.

Alberta NDP MLA Deborah Drever, 29, said she works with youth in her constituency Calgary-Bow as often as she can since elected to government in 2015. She was attending Mount Royal University when she was asked to run for NDP. Photo courtesy of Deborah Drever.

Soon after, controversy erupted over Drever’s past social media posts. Some of Drever’s past Instagram missteps have included using homophobic slurs to poke fun at two Conservative party members, her posing with a shirt emblazoned with a cannabis leaf and another picture with a middle finger being pointed at a Canadian flag.

Following the controversy, Drever was barred from the NDP caucus and was sworn in as an independent MLA. The posts fuelled political commentary that she was too young to be a competent politician.

“Because I’m a woman and because I’m a young woman, I was targeted in a really malicious way to try to get me to quit,” Drever said.

Recalling comments that were made online against her, Drever said she believes her age played a part in the fallout.

“I definitely think there was a misconception because they (her detractors) were trying to paint me as this inexperienced, young person who doesn’t know how to do her job.”

Instead of stepping down, Drever pushed forward. She re-joined caucus in 2016 and said she is enjoying helping her constituents.

Motivation behind the millenial

In Drever’s eyes, working as an MLA has its parallels to social work which is what she had wanted to get into before being elected.

“You are dealing with sensitive topics on a daily basis and I do meet with constituents who are going through a lot of personal things. I have had survivors of sexual assault come to my office and try to reach out for help in any way,” Drever said.

Drever occasionally goes to the Boys and Girls Club within her riding to encourage the children and youth there to get involved in politics. Drever said because she’s young she can relate to them and show them young people can run for politics and make a difference.

“You know what I mean? It can be anybody. I see politics as an extension of society, which means that it’s open to anybody,” said Drever.

Drever loves when people ask, “Maybe my son or my daughter can think about running as an MLA or city councillor or school trustee, right?”

She said her age starts conversations and she views that as an important part of her job.

Tips for young people interested in politics

Drever said she encourages young women to get involved.

“You know, everyday, we are strong women and we can really improve society in different ways through these hard-working people. I really want to encourage people to think about running in politics,” said Drever.

 sbaych@cjournal.ca 

Editor: Mackenzie Jaquish | mjaquish@cjournal.ca