OTTAWA — They are a small group with little in common but an independent streak and the courage to exercise it.
About a dozen Liberal MPs during this past sitting of Parliament stood up and voted against the directives of their party — on government legislation, opposition motions and private members' bills.
But no one was more vocal than Toronto Beaches–East York MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. The young corporate lawyer left a career defending the law for one making the law, after answering what he perceived to be Justin Trudeau's call for a generational change in politics.
(Photo: Nathaniel Erskine-Smith/Liberal Party)
The day after his 32nd birthday — a small glass of tequila remaining on his desk as a testament to the previous evening's festivities — Erskine-Smith sat down to talk to The Huffington Post Canada about his record, his thinking process, and what he wants to accomplish in Parliament.
By his own count, Erskine-Smith says he's voted against the government 13 times.
The first-time MP:
- Voted against the government's legislation on medical assistance in dying, known as Bill C-14
- Voted against limiting debate on the bill and supported an NDP motion that would expand its application
- Supported an NDP motion to decriminalize pot while the Liberal government sorts out its plan to legalize marijuana
- Voted in favour of a Conservative motion that labelled ISIS's actions in Syria as genocide. The Liberals opposed the motion, but two days later, after a UN report came out, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion agreed that ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidi minority.
Erskine-Smith also supported two Conservative private member's bills:
He also abstained from voting with the Liberals on a motion that condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. While he disapproved of those who use the movement as a vehicle for anti-Semitism, the MP said he could not condemn individuals who use their rights of free speech to peacefully demonstrate in favour of human rights.
Erskine-Smith told HuffPost he's exercising his own beliefs and taking the prime minister's words to heart.
Trudeau promised to 'do things differently'
A year ago, Trudeau — then the leader of the third party — announced that a Liberal government would "strengthen the role of MPs." He promised free votes on everything except issues that touched on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, confidence matters, and the party's election platform.
"We'll make sure Canadians have a stronger voice in Ottawa. A voice that reflects and represents them," Trudeau said in June 2015.
Many people had told him politicians were all the same, he said. The Grits needed to show that true change is possible: "We must prove that we will do things differently."
When door-knocking last summer, Erskine-Smith said he also heard from voters who figured he would just vote the way his party told him to.
Voters were 'supremely skeptical'
"They were so supremely skeptical, like they would laugh when I would say [I would be an] 'honest politician' and 'bring honesty to politics,' and 'bring principles to politics,' they would just laugh at me.
"So I do hope that when I knock on doors this summer, they don't laugh at me."
Perhaps his willingness to voice a differing opinion is a product of his age, the rookie MP said, over a vegan breakfast of mostly fruits and a few roasted potatoes.
"Maybe, it's [because] I am not a particularly partisan person."
Or maybe, he added, it's because of the issues that have come before Parliament so far.
"I believe in the government's agenda ... but I do think it's important to come to issues without thinking we have to defeat this because it came from the other side."
"I do think it's important to come to issues without thinking we have to defeat this because it came from the other side."
— Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith
If he were a maverick and in the wrong party, Erskine-Smith said, he'd be voting against things the Liberals are "actually trying to accomplish," such as public infrastructure spending or raising taxes on the wealthy.
"When it comes to these opposition day motions or private member's legislation, I think our job is to consult constituents and come to our own determination based on the evidence that we review," he explained. "In a parliamentary democracy, backbenchers are there to hold the government to account and there to be principled voices, I think, at the end of the day."
Yes, he knows the opposition often tries to score political points by using their bills and motions to embarrass the government, but he'd rather be proud of his record and vote for what he thinks is right.
On a motion to decriminalize marijuana, Erskine-Smith was the only Grit MP to stand with the NDP. Legalizing and regulating pot is the answer, he said, but at the moment, "decriminalization is certainly better than prohibition."
Grit MPs broke ranks on assisted dying, ISIS genocide
It was among the issues he studied before becoming an MP, and he felt the need to "stand up and be a little bit more vocal." His master's degree from the University of Oxford focused on the evolution of section 7 of the Canadian charter, with specific references to assisted dying, prostitution and marijuana.
"At that time, 13 states in the U.S. had decriminalized [pot] and usage rates had not gone up. And so the argument that organized crime is going to profit even more over the next year and a half if we were to decriminalize, the evidence doesn't bear that out, so that's largely what brought me to be the only Liberal to stand up on that one."
On the Tories' motion recognizing ISIS' genocide, Erskine-Smith noted he wasn't the only Liberal to vote with the Conservatives. Montreal MP Anthony Housefather, New Brunswick MP Karen Ludwig, and Toronto-area MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj also supported the motion.
Wrzesnewskyj, a Liberal MP who returned to the House in 2015 after a 2011 defeat, told HuffPost that he has been more vocal in caucus this time round. He feels that new MPs, cabinet ministers and even the prime minister make better decisions when members are more frank.
Borys Wrzesnewskyj speaks to reporters at the Supreme Court in Ottawa in July 2012. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
"On issues of life and death, war and peace, and especially genocide …. There is nothing more serious.
"Anyone who took the time would clearly see that what was happening was not just horrific but crossed the line into genocide," he added.
Dion's and the Liberal government's view, however, was that the House of Commons wasn't the body that should be making a legal determinations on what constitutes genocide. The Grits pushed a motion at the foreign affairs committee to reflect a desire by many MPs to condemn ISIS while using language that was more in line with Dion's view.
Erskine-Smith, however, felt that, much like a civil trial and a criminal trial can be held on the same subject with different standards of proof, MPs could come to their own conclusions based on the evidence before them. "We had a disagreement on the process," he said.
'It's OK to disagree'
The foreign affairs minister telephoned him Sunday before the vote but the intervention didn't convince the neophyte MP. "I have utmost respect for Mr. Dion," he said. "He is very thoughtful. It's OK to disagree."
Erskine-Smith said he doesn't want to make it sound like he's the only MP exercising independent thoughts. "I think a lot of my colleagues do."
Toronto's Rob Oliphant, for example, initially opposed the government's assisted dying legislation and did so forcefully, appearing on television denouncing Bill C-14. He told HuffPost, he did so for three reasons:
- He felt the legislation didn't meet the criteria of the Supreme Court decision, and that rights assigned by the country's top court shouldn't be stripped by Parliament.
- His constituents spoke clearly in favour of a more liberal policy on assisted dying.
- His conscience.
"I could not support a bill that I found to be cruel. In my life, if I am given a chance to end pain and suffering, I should do just that and take action to help people," he said.
"It is not about a legacy," he added, "it is about living with myself. I will sleep better if I do what I think is right."
In caucus, colleagues were very respectful, Oliphant said. "Some, I am sure, harbour negative thoughts about me in this process, but the people who know me know that I have always tried to act with integrity.… This time it felt like an important place to hold my ground."
Oliphant met with Trudeau, the party whip and the House leader before the vote and said he doesn't expect to be penalized.
But there is a cost, he said. "I have spent 48 years in the Liberal party…. It is quite painful to feel offside when I have always been with the team, through good times and bad. That feeling may, in the end, be the punishment."
Liberal MP Rob Oliphant takes part in an interview on Parliament Hill in February 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Three years ago, the not-for-profit public education group Samara Canada found that Conservatives MPs were far more likely to break rank with their colleagues than Liberals or the NDP. New Democrats consistently voted together.
On the final C-14 vote, for example, 22 Tories voted with the Liberals. Three Liberals — Erskine-Smith, Manitoba MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Quebec MP David Lametti, the parliamentary secretary for trade — voted with the opposition. The NDP all voted together against the bill, as did the Bloc Québécois.
Conservative democratic institutions critic Scott Reid said he thinks the Tories are more independent-thinking because of its Reform party roots.
"That was a populist rejection of the whipped votes and MPs who were merely standard-bearers for their party. The idea that members of Parliament would be a reflection of the point of view of their constituents was a central part of the Reform party's ideology," he said. "That culture was brought into the merged party."
Veteran Tory says independence is important
An independent-minded MP himself, Reid said in his 16 years in Parliament he has never faced any consequences for voting against his party.
He expects Tory MPs will likely be even more independent now that they are the Opposition. "There tends to be more when you are in opposition than when you are in government. Being in government just causes you to function in a more uniform and disciplined way."
This spring, for example, the Conservative party didn't offer any recommendations on how to vote on C-14 or its amendments, he said. The vote memos were blank.
Ouellette said doesn't pay attention to "those little pieces of paper" with voting instructions. He feels he may only be in Ottawa for 3½ years. "One term, and I could be done...and so I'm going to vote according to my conscience on everything."
"It is quite painful to feel offside when I have always been with the team, through good times and bad. That feeling may, in the end, be the punishment."
— Liberal MP Rob Oliphant
"I could pretend that somehow, somewhere I'm going to maybe one day get this great promotion, but if that's what I am aiming for, then I think that there are probably enough people doing or thinking like that that they don't need me doing that," he said.
Ouellette opposed C-14 because of the rash of suicides in indigenous communities. He didn't want to condone a decision to die because of a loss of hope or perceived hardships.
"I am an indigenous person who other indigenous people are looking up to, and asking questions of, and coming to see all the time, and so I felt that it would be inappropriate if I voted for a piece of legislation that might in some way valorize or create a situation where suicide becomes more of a norm, more accepted," he said.
"Indigenous people would not have survived if suicide or any form of suicide had been a concept," he said. "You know, we have to struggle in this life to see to next one."
Government whip Andrew Leslie, the former army commander charged with keeping the Liberal troops in line, never reprimanded him or pressured him, Ouellette said.
A lot of MPs wonder whether the benefits of voting one way or the other outweigh the costs, he said. "What will be the consequences for my career? Or fundraising? Or my position?
"I don't even think that they need some external group or person putting the pressure on them. I think people put that pressure on themselves."
Some of his colleagues ribbed him for his vote. "[They] joke that if I keep it up, I'll end up sitting between the Bloc Québécois and Elizabeth May. I think a colleague called it the Falcon's stance, 'They are preparing a nest over there.'"
The first time he voted against the government, he didn't sleep the night before. It was "nerve-racking." He worried about the consequences, the fallout. But the most "irksome bit" was when the opposition applauded, he said.
Peer pressure plays a role
If they didn't draw so much attention to it, he surmised, more Liberals might be tempted to vote against their government more often.
Oliphant said he hopes that as the Liberals' mandate goes on, MPs will become more comfortable with their roles as backbenchers and will demonstrate a greater willingness to vote according to their own beliefs or their constituents' requests.
But he's not quite convinced that will happen.
"The peer pressure, the pressure from the whip, the pressure from ministers and ministers' staff, the lack of information provided to MPs about procedure and what is really happening in the legislative process (and their reluctance to really want to learn procedure), the last-minute nature of votes, the somewhat artificial nature of debate in the House (as opposed to the Senate, which had a true debate on this issue), the career ambitions of many MPs, the lack of will (or perhaps time) to actually read legislation and know what is in it and what is not in it, and so on, all conspire to make it very difficult to be an independent thinker as an MP," he wrote in an email.
If Erskine-Smith has felt any pressure, he doesn't show it. Yes, he also gets ribbed by the opposition and his colleagues, who clap for him when he votes with the government.
Taking the PM 'at his word'
"Everyone cheers for me, it turns out," he said, laughing.
But the treatment doesn't discourage him.
"[As long as] you have reasonably thought things through and are respectful in the way you present your arguments, I don't think there is any reason to be shy about disagreeing."
Trudeau, he recalled, told Canadians he wanted his MPs to be the voice of their constituents in Ottawa — not Ottawa's voice in their communities.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith watches as the NDP's Jenny Kwan speaks at a news conference in Toronto on Friday, July 22, 2016. (Photo: Colin Perkel/CP)
"I take the prime minister at his word. That's not just rhetoric. That is a fundamental reform in our democracy, it's how other democracies function as well, if we look to the U.K., and our democracy is better for it."
Some of his colleagues have suggested that Erskine-Smith is expressing an independent streak out of anger that the government won't supporting his private member's bill on animal welfare.
Bill C-246, aims to:
- Modernize animal welfare laws
- Ban the imports of shark fins, as well as cat and dog fur
- Mandate source-labelling on fur products.
"I was surprised and frustrated," he said of the government's response. "But no," he said, he isn't lashing out in retaliation. "If I were petty in that way, I wouldn't be doing my job."
An hour before his bill was going to be debated, a caucus member called to say the government would oppose it.
"My understanding is it's political pressure, not political consideration."
The hunting and angling associations oppose the Modernizing Animal Protections Act. The Fish'n Canada Show recently suggested that "Canadian families who fish together will do time together if Bill C-246 becomes law."
Erskine-Smith, who is a vegan, thought the issue would cross party lines and be something all MPs could get behind.
Former PM Stephen Harper welcomes MP Robert Sopuck to the Conservative caucus on Parliament Hill in December 2010. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Instead, his efforts have been thwarted by Conservative MP Robert Sopuck, the founder of the Tories' hunting and angling caucus, which has close ties with hunters, anglers and trappers. He blames Sopuck for doing "as much of a hatchet job as he can" on the bill.
Before he introduced his bill, Erskine-Smith spoke to Sopuck and fellow Tory MP Blaine Calkins, the current chair of the group, to try to allay their fears. During their conversation, Sopuck raised concerns about definition of an animal, so Erskine-Smith went back to his office and struck it out of the bill, thinking "he's raised this concern I don't want to fight."
Instead of bridging differences, Erskine-Smith said all the conversation ended up doing was give the group time to mobilize against his bill.
Still, he said, he remains hopeful — "and this may be excessive enthusiasm" — that he can get the government back on side. He has reached out to agricultural groups and is trying to mobilize animal welfare groups to get behind language that will make everyone feel comfortable.
Lessons from first private member's bill
His experience with C-246, he said, has taught him that a lot of backbenchers don't understand how the legislative process is supposed to work.
"Everyone told me: 'Oh, we agree with what you are trying to do, Nate. We agree with the object of the bill, we agree with what you are out to achieve, but we have concerns and that might stop us from voting for it at second reading,'" Erskine-Smith recounted. "That's not really how the process is designed to work …. If you agree with something and … in theory it sounds like a good idea, you should send it to committee for further study," he said.
So that's what this Toronto Liberal is doing.
As a backbencher, Erskine-Smith said, he wants more private members' ideas get to committee.
"It would be better for all of us if our ideas are shared and other people are looking at them. We're all better for that."
Carbon pricing debate looms
Erskine-Smith said he believes his job is to vote in favour of what he thinks to be the right answer. While his riding is very progressive, if his constituents overwhelmingly opposed something he fundamentally believes is right, such as carbon pricing, he said, "my job would be to vote in favour of carbon pricing and to lose the next election.
"Markets work, pricing works, and I would not vote for something I knew was incorrect because my constituents told me otherwise."
But there are a number of issues where there is a range of reasonable answers, he quickly added. If his constituents thought a cap-and-trade system was better than a carbon tax, his job would be to reflect their view.
"Regardless of my strong preference, if the other views are reasonable than I'll defer to my constituents. Where there is clear right or wrong answers, then I would feel compelled to vote my conscience," he said.
"You're constantly having to assess your own views with the views of your constituents and come to a conclusion that combines those views as much as possible."
C-14 doesn't meet top court's standard, Erskine-Smith says
On C-14, Erskine-Smith held a town hall with experts, met with constituents, and asked residents for feedback on Facebook. Many were concerned that advanced directives were not included, he said. They were concerned about the limitations inherent in the wording "foreseeable death," and they felt that enacting no legislation would be better than passing faulty legislation. His personal views coincided with what he heard.
"I don't believe in its current form that it meets the test that the Supreme Court set out. It's pretty clear that it doesn't."
So he opposed it.
Three years ago, Erskine-Smith was a commercial litigation lawyer working for a small Toronto law firm. (His name and picture remain on the firm Kramer Simaan Dhillon's website.) He was having fun dealing with shareholder disputes, contract matters, and recovering money from fraudsters for millionaires.
But Trudeau's call for more youth involvement in politics moved him.
Justin Trudeau addresses students at a campaign event at St. Thomas University Wednesday, October 7, 2015 in Fredericton. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP)
"He was advocating for bottom-up democracy. He was really talking about positive politics in a serious way," he said.
"So I thought, well how many times in my life will I have an opportunity to represent my home riding, have a shot at an open nomination process where all I have to do is convince people — my neighbours — that I am in a good position to represent them."
Erskine-Smith grew up in the riding. His mother was the librarian at an elementary school, his dad was the head of the English department at his high school. He played baseball around the riding. He left only to attend Queen's University.
During his undergraduate years, Erskine-Smith made his first attempt at politics — a "naive" run for Kingston city council. "I thought I had a really good chance," he said. Instead, he learned a lot about what not to do. He knocked on no doors and spent most of his time instead researching local issues.
'I spent $300 bucks, I got 300 votes'
"Obviously, being informed and thoughtful is not enough, you also have to talk to as many people as you can. I did not do that. I spent $300 bucks, I got 300 votes," he said. Although a good learning experience, it was "pretty demoralizing to spend so much time and to come up so short."
After receiving a bachelor's degree in political science and a law degree, Erskine-Smith articled for a year in Toronto before moving to England with his wife to attend Oxford. The pair returned to Canada in 2012, and are expecting their first child in August.
While working in commercial litigation had its rewards — "it's fun to win," "fun to argue," "fun to do the research," and "fun to prepare arguments" — Erskine-Smith said he wanted to make a bigger difference.
"Helping a conglomerate of millionaires to get their few million bucks back — which they deserve to get back, don't get me wrong," wasn't going to be as rewarding as advocating for issues that affect many more Canadians, he said.
"My boss, when I told him I wanted to run for the nomination, he goes: ‘Nate, I don't understand. Don't you want to make money?'" he recounted, laughing.
"There are other things I want to do."
Cabinet spot not the ultimate goal
He spent 13 months trying to win the Liberal nomination, signing up 900 members, making phone calls and meeting a lot of people at their kitchen tables — lessons learned in Kingston. The contest, he said, was far more difficult than the election campaign. The riding is traditionally Liberal but was held by the NDP.
In December 2014, he beat four candidates to become the Liberal nominee.
Erskine-Smith said he hopes to represent his constituents "as long as they'll have me."
His goal isn't to be in cabinet, he said, with a straight face. "I mean if I get to cabinet, so be it, but I don't think you should make decisions based upon your own political ambitions."
"I [can't] go knocking on doors to say please support me, I'm going to vote in however [way] gets me further? That doesn't make any sense."
"Canadians don't trust our democratic institutions as much as they should. When I talk about a noble professions, people don't necessarily agree with me."
Instead, he hopes to change the way people look at politics and politicians.
A keen student of political philosophy, he said he believes "politics is a really noble profession" and that legislatures should embody thoughtful discussions and debate, and reasonable disagreement.
"But Canadians don't trust our democratic institutions as much as they should. When I talk about a noble professions, people don't necessarily agree with me.
"So I think if after four years, or eight years, or 12 years — but I've got another 3½ no matter what — if Canadians look at the profession and I could have made a little bit of a dent in viewing the profession in a more positive way, then that's the job.
"And if they kick me out, I can go back to being a commercial litigation lawyer," he said, with a laugh.
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