Born to Run
Armed with his degree from Queen’s Law and a passion for advocacy, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is making his way to Ottawa as one of Canada’s newly elected MPs. A practicing lawyer and first-time Liberal candidate, Erskine-Smith was elected in his home riding of Beaches-East York in downtown Toronto on October 19.
At age 31, Erskine-Smith is one of Parliament’s younger members, but he reflects on his political experiences with the insight of a seasoned veteran. Erskine-Smith’s first foray into politics was in 2006, when he ran for a spot on Kingston’s city council. Despite an endorsement from the Kingston Whig-Standard, he came in a distant third place in the Sydenham District.
Erskine-Smith looks back on that first run as foundational to his recent victory. “It was a good learning experience,” he says of that first campaign. “There were any number of things I did right and [I] learned from that, but many more things that I learned not to do.”
Namely, Erskine-Smith learned the value of getting out into the community and speaking directly with people about the issues they care about. At the time of his first run, Erskine-Smith was a Queen’s student completing his undergraduate studies in politics. He admits that back then, he didn’t fully appreciate the immense commitment required of campaigning. “The primary lesson I learned was that you’ve got to talk to as many voters as you possibly can and have real conversations with those voters if you want them to put their trust in you at the end of the day,” he explains.
In the recent federal campaign, Erskine-Smith took this strategy to heart and set out to connect with as many of his neighbours as possible. He and his campaign team made over 100,000 attempts to connect with voters, either through phone calls or door-to-door canvassing. Erskine-Smith’s hard work paid off. He beat his closest opponent by over 10,000 votes.
“He and his campaign team made over 100,000 attempts to connect with voters…”
Erskine-Smith attributes much of his success to his classmates from Queen’s, many of whom assisted with fundraising and rallied in support of his campaign as volunteers. “I would not have been able to do this but for the support of my Queen’s law classmates and my undergraduate classmates,” he says.
One former classmate, Andrew Goodridge, was particularly instrumental to Erskine-Smith’s victory. Following law school, Erskine-Smith completed his Master of Laws at Oxford and then returned to the Toronto with his wife Amy where he began practicing commercial litigation. It was Goodridge, Erskine-Smith’s old friend and first-year roommate, who urged him to throw his hat in the ring federally.
“Our conversation was: ‘You’ve always talked about making a different politics, why not now?’” he says of Goodridge, who also served as Erskine-Smith’s campaign manager. “He really did convince me to take a chance.”
Erskine-Smith’s legal training frequently came in handy on the campaign trail. His courtroom experience prepared him well for engaging with voters on their doorsteps on a variety of issues. Of the many issues Erskine-Smith heard about from voters during the campaign, a few stood out as especially significant in his riding in the Beaches area of Toronto. Public transit and stable infrastructure funding were top priorities for many residents. Concerned parents were troubled by youth unemployment and worried about job opportunities for their children after university. The environment was another concern that came up again and again.
As Erskine-Smith sees it, the very best training for the campaign came from campaigning itself. Fielding questions from the bench as a lawyer provided good practice, but he found there was no substitute for having one-on-one conversations with people. “When you get a question you haven’t thought about before, and you go back and think about it and answer it—that is the best training for a campaign,” he says.
With the campaign now over, the work of governing begins. Erskine-Smith is eager to get to Ottawa and represent the interests of his constituents to the best of his abilities. He sees his background in litigation as being particularly beneficial as he transitions from legal practice to the role of elected representative.
“In the course of working as a commercial litigator I would regularly go to court and advocate on behalf of my clients. Instead of clients I now have constituents, but the job is the same—to be a strong advocate on their behalf,” he explains.
Now, it is imperative that new government move to deliver on their campaign platform. In terms of immediate priorities, Erskine-Smith cites the settlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees, the restoration of the long form census, and the implementation of the new Canada Child Benefit among campaign promises requiring quick attention. With respect to his own riding, Erskine-Smith is adamant about building a strong working relationship between the federal government and the City of Toronto in order to facilitate key infrastructure investments. Ever the lawyer, he is ready to roll up his sleeves and get the job done.
“I think especially after such a long election, Canadians just want to see us get to work.”
Jess Spindler is in 3L. She is a staff writer for Juris Diction.