Canadian Twitter showed everyone how not to talk about class issues Monday after the Conservative Party tweeted a photo of its leader Andrew Scheer as someone who, unlike Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, succeeded in life without any privileges.
Extensive mockery ensued, mostly via the largely misguided hashtag #ScheerWasSoPoorThat, followed by a range of jabs at the Conservative leader’s credentials. It was an unnecessary pile on, but it was revealing in showing how sensitive everyone is when you mention the “middle class.”
Both Trudeau and Scheer have been telling Canadians that they’re the champion of the middle class, which basically means whatever isn’t “elitist.”
But just how middle class are the party leaders telling Canadians that it’s your turn to “get ahead” or that they’re “in it for you?” Aside from income and spending, the idea of middle class is impossible to quantify and changes depending on where you are and what era you’re living in.
A recent New York Times article called Canada’s middle class one of the world’s richest, and noted that median income for two-parent Canadian households is about $92,700.
Regardless, according to a 2017 Maclean’s poll, about 70 percent of Canadians consider themselves middle class. (Although, another poll for the Canadian Press that same year suggested only about half of Canadians consider themselves middle class.) Anyway, middle class is like porn: you know it when you see it.
But who actually has credibility on this very unimportant issue? We’ve put together a list that scores party leaders’ middle class bona fides ahead of the election by looking at their upbringing, education, and work life. Each category is scored out of 5 (with 5 being the most middle class) for a total of 15 points.
Justin Trudeau (b. 1971 in Ottawa, Ontario)
Upbringing: Growing up the son of Canada’s prime minister basically disqualifies you from middle-class contention. So does coming from a pedigree of rich businessmen and politicians on both sides of the family. Makes for a decent inheritance ($1.2 million to be exact).
The current PM has has been derided by his opponents for growing up an “elite.” By the time he turned 8 years old, Trudeau’s dad Pierre had won his third majority in Parliament and was making the equivalent of about $140,000 per year as prime minister.
It’s not just about the money, but also the lifestyle. Even when young Justin took a bus to school, an RCMP car followed him.
Like Scheer, Trudeau talks a lot about helping the middle class. But he has had to fend off attacks that depict him as an out-of-touch politician who wants to stick up for a segment of society he’s never been a part of and can’t relate to.
Education: Like most on this list, Trudeau has attended elite (for Canada) institutions. He earned a bachelor's degree. in English from McGill University (1994) and a B.Ed. from the University of British Columbia (1998). He then started and abandoned a couple of graduate programs in engineering and environmental geography. In light of his upbringing, it’s hard to imagine Trudeau having to toil day and night so he can afford his tuition. That said, dropping out of a couple programs is relatable.
Jobs: Maybe as an attempt to get out of his privileged early years, Trudeau has worked a few regular jobs before politics that one wouldn’t really associate with being part of the “privileged class.” He was a snowboard instructor while studying at UBC. He also worked as a bouncer around that time. Then he taught high school French and elementary school math in Vancouver. A few points for trying some poor-paying jobs like the rest of us.
Verdict: Class AAA Ottawa elite
Andrew Scheer (b. 1979 in Ottawa, Ontario)
Upbringing: Scheer has been trying hard to distinguish himself as the real champion of the middle class. His party's ’s tweet depicts Scheer as having grown up with basically zero privileges. That may be a non-insignificant stretch, as Scheer’s mom was a registered nurse and his father was a proofreader and librarian for the Ottawa Citizen. Certainly much closer to “middle-class credentials” than Trudeau, as he grew up with two parents who had solid, decent-paying jobs.
Education: After attending Immaculata, a Catholic high school in Ottawa, Scheer studied History at the University of Ottawa, where he headed the Canadian Alliance campus club. He started working for the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party while still a student. Then he transferred to the University of Regina to finish his B.A, studying history and politics. (3/5)
Jobs: Scheer has spent most of his professional life in politics, having worked for conservative politicians Preston Manning and Stockwell Day while still in college. Then he became an MP at the age of 25 in Regina, was the youngest speaker of the House of Commons at age 32, and in 2017 became the leader of the opposition Conservatives. A career-politician definitely doesn’t fit the image of a middle-class working profile very well. But before politics, Scheer flipped burgers and made popcorn at concession stands. Later in high school, he waited tables at a restaurant.
Score on balance: 2/5
Verdict: Ottawa elite who genuinely enjoys Tim Hortons
Jagmeet Singh (b. 1979 in Scarborough, Ontario)
Upbringing: Singh's parents, both immigrants, were struggling to make ends meet when Singh was born. His mom worked at a bank and his dad had to work as a security guard while studying to obtain medical recertification (Canada did not recognize his training in India as a physician). His parents had to send him away to India to live with his grandmother because they couldn’t afford to keep him around. These challenges have helped shape Singh’s underdog image, particularly as the first racialized leader of a major political party in Canada. You could say that his early childhood struggles place at least part of his youth below the privilege threshold for the average middle-classer.
Education: Singh moved to Newfoundland as a kid so his dad could attend Memorial University. He learned English there. Then he moved to Windsor, Ontario where he was bullied so badly his parents ended up sending him across the border to a private school near Detroit, Michigan. He then got a degree in Biology from Western University, before going to Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. Tough roots, but some fine schooling.
Jobs: Singh was still in university when his father fell ill and couldn’t work. So Singh ended up working in retail and became the sole earner in his household. Once he finished school, Singh worked as a criminal defence lawyer. While working in Brampton, Singh ultimately became interested in partisan politics and ran in the 2011 federal election and lost. That same year, he ran in the Ontario election and became an MPP in Brampton.
Verdict: Brampton Elite who spent time in the Twin Heartlands of Canada, Windsor and Newfoundland
Elizabeth May (b. 1954 in Hartford, Connecticut)
Upbringing: The only party leader on this list born outside of Canada, May didn’t actually move here until she was 19. She became a Canadian citizen in 1978. May then worked in her family’s small restaurant and gift shop business in Cape Breton. Her dad worked as an accountant at first and her mom as a sculptor and writer. By all accounts she had a pretty standard middle-class upbringing. But she loses a half-point for being born in Connecticut.
Education: May had to put aside her studies at first to help out with her family’s restaurant business. She took some courses in hotel management but didn’t pursue full-time school until 1980 at Dalhousie University—the McGill of the Maritimes, where she got a degree in law.
Jobs: May is basically a career activist, policy wonk, and activist. She worked on environmental issues all throughout the 1970s and then as a policy adviser under the Brian Muroney government in the 1980s. She then became the executive director of the Sierra Club from 1993 to 2006. In 2006 she became the leader of the Greens but didn’t win a seat in Parliament until 2011.