Cost of Living

Running for office? It'll cost all your money, friends and free time

The challenges faced by candidates running for federal election — money, time, lost opportunities and more — are real barriers that few Canadians can afford to surmount, according to political strategists and alumni alike.

In parts of Ontario, there's a reason why so many politicians are well-off lawyers and business executives

Election signs line a street in North Vancouver as candidates compete for votes in the 2019 federal election. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)
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The challenges faced by candidates running for federal election — money, time, lost opportunities and more — are real barriers that few Canadians can afford to surmount, according to political strategists and alumni alike.

That includes Heather MacKenzie. When she decided to run for office in the 2015 federal election, she knew it wasn't going to be easy but what made it even more difficult was trying to anticipate all the extra hidden costs.

As the NDP candidate for Edmonton-West, she faced stiff competition from both her Conservative and Liberal rivals. Her odds of winning were so slim at the outset, the federal NDP transferred only $500 to her campaign, according to Elections Canada.

Still the mother of two, then 33 years old, went for it. 

"I had always thought I might run for office," said MacKenzie, who had previously served as a public school board trustee.

"Eventually my dream was to work in the not-for-profit sector. I studied international development and thought I'd maybe dabble in that as well."

  • CBC Radio's new business and economics show, Cost of Living, airs on CBC Radio One every Saturday at 11:30 a.m. (12 p.m. NT) or online anytime at CBC Listen.

To achieve her goal, MacKenzie raised $52,000 and recruited dozens of volunteers. From there, it was six months of non-stop campaigning — hitting the pavement, knocking on doors, shaking hands, posing for photos and answering questions.

No income for six months

MacKenzie was not paid for the months she was campaigning.

"So I had no income for six months. I was completely dependent on my husband's income, and that is a huge point of privilege that a great number of Canadians don't have," she said.

From left to right — Heather MacKenzie, former NDP candidate in Edmonton-West, Martha Hall Findlay, former Liberal MP in Willowdale, Najib Jutt, political strategist with Statecraft Partners. (Naomi Brierley, Tracy Fuller/CBC, Meghan Lyons)

MacKenzie ended up in third place, garnering 13 per cent of the vote in the Edmonton-West riding. Her campaign expenditures totalled nearly $43,000, less than half of what the Liberal candidate Karen Leibovici reported at $97,000. The expenses were also significantly below what the Conservative winner Kelly McCauley reported at $108,000.

As a former candidate for Edmonton city council just a few years before her bid for federal politics, MacKenzie also knew running for federal office would affect her future in other less obvious ways.

"I quickly discovered that not-for-profits would not hire me," said MacKenzie.

"They were terrified of anyone with a political past. They felt like that would compromise their charitable status and their funding if you were too political."

Eventually, MacKenzie founded her own government relations consultancy firm.

Why so many candidates are wealthy or have flexible jobs

In parts of Ontario, it's no surprise then, if you pick a random sample of politicians in a room, chances are good you'll end up with lawyers, entrepreneurs, professors and career politicians. 

In fact, that's exactly what CBC Radio's Cost of Living found, when it reviewed the 2019 election data for 94 of Ontario's 121 federal ridings, focusing on those included in southern Ontario (Map 2.)

For the purposes of this analysis, Cost of Living looked at candidates from the three main parties using information posted on their websites. 

Out of the 282 candidates running under the Conservative, Liberal and NDP banners, nearly 40 per cent were already politicians of some stripe or work in the business world, and 13 per cent were lawyers. 

"Most universities have really generous leaves of absence rules for people running for office and large corporations do too, a lot of them," said Martha Hall Findlay, former Liberal MP representing Willowdale in Toronto. 

"At the very least, even if you're not paid you know you're going to get your job back when you come back. What happens if you lose and you don't get elected and you don't have a job to go back? Well that's a really serious consideration and frankly I think that's probably one of the biggest barriers."

After two unsuccessful bids for the Liberal Party leadership, Hall Findlay left politics to head the Calgary-based think tank Canada West Foundation. She said the barriers to seeking elected office are especially high for younger Canadians.

"It's tough. It's particularly tough for people with small kids," she said.

"It is particularly tough on relationships. A lot of marriages have not survived it," said Hall Findlay.

Broken relationships, online hate and other stresses

If you want to know who your friends are, run for office, said political strategist Najib Jutt with Statecraft Partners.

"I can't count the number of times that a candidate thought he was going to get all this financial support and volunteer help from their community or friends and family which never, never comes," said Jutt, who's worked on numerous election campaigns for several major parties, both provincially and federally. 

Most of us just aren't in a position to forfeit six or seven paycheques in order to go do something with a very uncertain end.- Mike Morden, Samara Centre for Democracy

A candidate's faith and race may also come under scrutiny on the campaign trail, he said.

"I work with a lot of candidates of colour," Jutt explained. "You send them out to knock a few doors and they're like, 'Wow, I did not know that I was going to get doors slammed in my face because I'm X faith.'"

Sprinkle in a few online trolls, and it all takes a toll on one's mental health.

"Social media eats into a huge amount of your time, especially as a woman in politics — the amount of vitriol online" said MacKenzie, the former NDP candidate in Edmonton.

Bad for democracy?

The cumulative effect of all these costs, financial or otherwise, is that the MPs who end up representing Canadians in Ottawa don't always reflect the socio-economic diversity of the nation.

It's something Mike Morden thinks a lot about as research director of the Samara Centre for Democracy. 

"The reality is most of us just simply aren't in a position to seek public office," said Morden.

"Most of us just aren't in a position to forfeit six or seven paycheques in order to go do something with a very uncertain end."

The working class, in particular, is severely underrepresented, according to Morden, which has consequences.

"[Elected officials] inform our views of where Canadian society should go, what Canadian governments should do," said Morden.

"So we're missing a really important piece of the demographic puzzle."