Name: Luke Savage
Job: Constituency assistant to NDP MP Mike Sullivan (York South-Weston)
In 30 seconds or less, tell me what you do all day at work.
I’m a constituency assistant to a Member of Parliament, and I deal with casework, which can be anything to do with the concerns of anyone who lives in the riding. It’s usually areas of federal jurisdiction, so immigration is a really big one, as are taxes, and people trying to apply for federal benefits. But, sometimes, people don’t understand the different levels of government, so they come to us and we try to help them anyway. The concerns can be anything—both official and unofficial stuff. Sometimes, people just want to come by to talk about something, and it helps to hear them out.
When did you first become interested in politics?
For the last four years, I’ve been studying political science [at the University of Toronto], and it’s nice to be able to work in something that’s related to the field that you’ve studied—it’s a luxury that unfortunately not many people have. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I started university, and maybe even before. But I should point out that the work I currently do isn’t strictly political in as much as it’s not partisan work—a lot of the problems that come in aren’t political. A Conservative constituent office would probably not deal with an immigration case any differently than we would—at least I hope so! The laws already exist, we’re just there to facilitate so people can understand how they work.
A lot of people start out in politics by volunteering. Was that how you got your foot in the door?
Yeah. The riding that I work in is part of the old city of York, so it takes me about an hour to get there by public transit. I’ve been more involved with the NDP in that riding than I have been in Trinity-Spadina, where I live, because, a few years ago when I had just joined the NDP, I was going to the convention in Halifax, and I was very broke at the time and didn’t have a way to get there. So I asked around, and I got a carpool with a guy who had run for parliament in 2008. He ran again in 2011 and I worked on his campaign, and he was elected. Another person that I met through that experience was a former MPP who ran again last year, and I also worked on his campaign. I’ve done canvassing—either by phone or door-to-door—and data-entry stuff in the office.
When you finished university, how did you go about looking for a job in this area?
These jobs do come up every so often; they are posted on the NDP website and anyone can apply for them. I made the mistake last summer of not really thinking about internships or jobs until April, and I realized that was too late. So, this year, I vowed that that wasn’t going to happen again, and in December I started sending feelers out. I sent one to the candidate that I worked for in October and to his campaign manager, just to see if there was anything. When I was at the NDP convention in Toronto in March I ran into them, and it turned out that there was a job here—it just so happened that two people in this office were going away for a time and they needed someone to fill in.
When you started in the constituency office, was there a steep learning curve?
Yes—there’s so much you have to learn about how things work, and you have to learn it quickly. If you give someone the wrong information about something, you can really mess things up for them. This is the second poorest riding in Ontario, so a lot of the needs are around community housing, or getting a spouse or family member a citizenship application, or securing benefits. A lot of people are entitled to benefits and workplace-safety claims but they don’t know about how to get them, and they are understandably intimidated by large government institutions where there’s so much paperwork. Sometimes, problems that seem insurmountable can be solved by one phone call or email on their behalf. One of the things that I’ve learned through working here is that there’s a lot of immediate help that you can provide to people.
If someone calls or comes in with a question that you don’t know how to answer, what procedures do you follow to help them?
It depends on what it is. For anything to do with say, a benefit, there’s a website out there somewhere. But, sometimes, the government websites are like labyrinths. I always first try to go to whatever official website exists, and then I might have the person wait while I make some calls and inquire further or get their information and contact them when I know. A lot of the questions you don’t know the immediate answer to, especially because the people asking them may not know the exact details of what they are looking for. So then you try to ask them more questions and see if you can find what they need. You have to improvise a lot; every case is different.
What are some of the skills that are important for this line of work?
A general knowledge of the formal institutions of society and how they work is important, as is knowing a bit about current political issues, because people are always calling with concerns surrounding them. I think you also need a lot of inter-personal skills, which I picked up working at The Varsity [University of Toronto’s student newspaper], because so much of the job is dealing with people on a personal level and providing service and advice. And being able to keep your cool is important, because you never know what’s going to come next.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of what you do?
The most difficult part of it is the commute—it’s 45 minutes to an hour—but I shouldn’t complain because most people in Toronto have a worse commute. Being still reasonably new to the job, there’s still a lot of technical knowledge that I’m still picking up, so I’m trying to absorb as much of it as I can. My favourite part of the job are the moments where someone comes in and they’ve got a problem and, after you’ve heard them out, you can see the solution and it makes an immediate difference to their life. It’s like helping someone get a tax credit that they’re eligible for, or getting someone in community housing some money they’re entitled to, just through making a few calls or contacting someone from Revenue Canada. Those moments are my favourite part. Jobs are always best when you’re not alienated from what you’re doing, and this has that aspect of feeling like you’ve actually done something useful.
Think your job could be someone’s life? Email Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy.