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Charge of the parliamentary youth brigade

In the House of Commons, for so long mono-generational, for so long in need of rejuvenation, it's good to see signs of the future, signs that the stale-blooded baby boomers won't be dominant forever.

We can start with the boy-man who runs the chamber. Apple-cheeked Andrew Scheer, just 32, is the Speaker of the House, the youngest in history. The Conservative MP from Regina looks junior enough to be delivering the valedictorian address at his local high school. But in succeeding Peter Milliken, not an easy assignment, he is doing so seamlessly, demonstrating authority and command.

Another young Conservative, Michelle Rempel, 31, awakened all of us in the press gallery last week. We were dozing off at the typically prescripted responses of veteran blowhards. She responded to questions on climate change with a zest and spontaneity seldom seen.

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But it is the New Democrats who are leading the charge of the youth brigade. The last election brought a bunch of college kids to the chamber, including four NDPers from McGill University. They are about half the age of Justin Trudeau. They need time to make their presence felt. They need a tribune.

That's where Niki Ashton comes in. The pent-up, highly talented 29-year-old has so much brass that at that tender age she's running for the leadership of the NDP. Thus far, it's not an also-ran performance. She could be an important player in the outcome.

A second-term MP from northern Manitoba, the kid-candidate speaks Greek, French and Spanish and a lot of Mandarin. She is studying Cree. A top student, she has degrees in political economy and international affairs and has much experience abroad. She's quick on her feet and has a voice, too hectoring at times, that can cut through glass.

Her hero is Nelson Mandela, her issue is inequality and it's the issue, she thinks, that might finally get her generation off their duffs. Many in her age group, she maintains, grew up in an individualistic context. Their level of well-being made them too comfortable. Now, she says, they are starting to see the corrosive effects of privatization and corporate capitalism, its threats to the social fabric, to the environment, to employment and its segmenting of society.

"I want to build a Canada," says Ms. Ashton, "where equality and dignity are the name of the game, whether you are from the first nations, or an immigrant, or gay or female or whoever you may be."

Conservatives have gone after her for initially opposing the gun registry then switching to vote the party line. But she's in good company. Stephen Harper initially supported the gun registry in two votes as a Reform Party member, then flip-flopped to go with the party line himself.

In Thompson, Man., Ms. Ashton enlisted the help of radical activist Michael Moore to fight the planned closure of a smelting and refining plant by the Brazilian multinational, Vale, which bought out Inco. In Churchill, she is fighting the dismantling of the Wheat Board, which she says will cost the community 200 jobs. The Conservatives, she notes, don't want to listen to the farmers on the issue. They've rejected the results of a farmers' plebiscite saying the Wheat Board should be maintained and are ignoring also a Federal Court ruling that says they are breaking the law in introducing their Wheat Board bill without consulting the farmers.

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Ms. Ashton talks of the need for a new politics. But she needs new vocabulary and new ideas to distinguish herself from the many other leadership contenders.

Her campaign is off to a good start. She has performed well in all candidates' forums. Other contestants have picked her as their second choice to be leader after themselves. In the NDP's preferential balloting system, second choice means a lot.

Unless there's a miracle, Niki Ashton won't win. But she's a unique presence, a dynamo who could finish high. In so doing, she could light the way for her generation to make a greater mark.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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