How'd You Get That Job? I showed up!

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How'd You Get That Job? Wednesday, September 18, 2013 View Count = 2160

How'd You Get That Job? I showed up!

Carlene Variyan is a parliamentary affairs advisor for the Senate Opposition Leadership, and a Vice President of the National Women’s Liberal Commission
From 2008 to 2011, she was an advisor to the Honourable Ken Dryden, PC, OC. You can follow her on Twitter at @carlena.

**Since submitting this article, Carlene has left her job on Parliament Hill and is now working in Government Relations in the private sector.**

What made you want to get involved with politics?

My dad is the high school history teacher in the small town I grew up in, in central Saskatchewan. For me, that meant a childhood that was light on fairy tales and heavy on great wars and political battles as bedtime stories. As I got older, my interest drifted toward the role of politics and governance in the history of my own country.

Being the product of what you might call two archetypal Canadian stories, I’ve always cared a lot about my identity as a Canadian. My mom was born into a fourth-generation grain farming family in central Saskatchewan. My dad is Indian and came to Canada to escape the political unrest plaguing his own hometown, Kuala Lumpur. Where else could I have happened but Canada?

As I started high school, I became more and more focused on what was happening in our country’s political present rather than its past.

The easiest decision I made was choosing a political party. There was no question in my mind that the Liberal Party was where I belonged. To me, centrism just made sense. It meant looking at the evidence and the facts, and saying, “Okay, what’s really going to
work?”  I wanted to be a member of a party that approached public policy that way.

How did you become a political aide? What path brought you to that specific role?

It involved a lot of persistence. For a teenager in rural Saskatchewan, there wasn’t exactly an obvious path to involvement with the Liberal Party of Canada, but I had my mind set on it so I did everything I could.

I sent e-mails to any addresses I could find, for anyone remotely associated with the party in Saskatchewan. I told them I wanted to know how to get involved (and at this point, I wasn’t even sure what “get involved” meant).

Somebody finally wrote back. A guy from the Saskatchewan Young Liberals told me about a provincial convention taking place in a few months, and invited me to join the Young Liberals for their meetings and social events.

The people I met at that convention were incredibly kind and welcoming to me – although I’ll never know if it was really kindness, or simply being thrilled that a young person from rural Saskatchewan wanted to join their party. They started including me in their initiatives and campaigns.. I couldn’t believe how much I loved all of the work I was getting to do in making more young people engaged in politics.

At seventeen I moved to Ottawa for university, and continued to show up to anything and everything that I could. I asked some of my Saskatchewan Liberal friends to introduce me to their counterparts in Ottawa, and through them I continued to volunteer at any opportunity they gave me. The next few years followed one general theme: I showed up. Nights of phone banking, rallies, by-election campaigns, recruitment drives. I showed up, and I learned what I could from those around me.

Eventually, I had been “showing up” for long enough that it occurred to someone to invite me to apply for an opening for a job as a summer intern in the office of a Liberal MP. As luck would have it, they took me.

From the day I started at my tiny desk on a creaky top floor of Parliament’s Confederation Building, I took every opportunity I could to learn more, see more, and meet more people. I asked my new colleagues about their own paths to political careers (hint: this is a really good way to make friends. People
love when you give them an opportunity to talk about themselves. Case in point: this article). 

I took what I was learning in my new job redoubled my efforts in the volunteer work I was continuing to do for the party.  By now, this had evolved into a role in election readiness for the Young Liberals. When my university studies took me overseas, I spent the school term doing conference calls in the middle of the night from my apartment in Paris, because I didn’t want to miss anything.

I arrived back in Ottawa to an extraordinary opportunity: former Cabinet Minister and then York Centre MP Ken Dryden needed a new aide in his parliamentary office. His senior staff had seen my work with the Young Liberals and asked if I would be interested in the role. I accepted with excitement, but no small degree of anxiety about the pressure for such a high-profile figure.

My new gig didn’t last long. A federal election was called days after I started my job, and a new opportunity presented itself: an MP with a relatively safe seat was willing to give me a shot as his campaign manager. I was twenty years old and fairly confident he was making a terrible mistake, but I wasn’t about to let him figure that out. I worked harder than I’d ever worked, and in the end was able to deliver results – in what was by and large a disastrous election for the Liberal Party; I managed to increase my candidate’s margin by four points.

After the election, I rejoined Mr. Dryden’s office, and stayed with him for the remainder of his time in Canadian politics. The subsequent few years were some of the most special and memorable of my life, and I remain very grateful to have had the opportunity to have worked side by side with a truly Great Canadian.

What was your favourite moment as an aide?

This is going to sound absolutely backward, but the most significant, treasured memory I have from my life in politics [so far] is from the night of May 2, 2011 – the night we lost.

Why? Because in that moment I knew what it was like to have really, really,
really wanted something - to have put every ounce of myself into something, and to have ultimately come up short. It was formative.

I was proud of what I had done. I knew that our team had run one of the best-run campaigns our boss had ever seen. We were smart, fast, and innovative; we embraced new ways of doing things at a time when those new ways were still distrusted by many of our peers.

In the end, all that wasn’t enough. But in the aftermath of that campaign, I realized for the first time that it isn’t just about winning; it’s about the great leap of faith that you take when you throw yourself into a fight that you believe in. I learned that you can still land on your feet, even if you don’t land where you thought you would.

What skills or experience are required for this job?

Don’t worry about what you studied in school.  (Most of my colleagues don’t know that I’m an accountant by education.)  Don’t ever let anyone tell you you need a political science degree to work in politics.

You need passion and you need enthusiasm. You need a good attitude and you’ve got to be humble.

Oh, and you have to be smart. People take a chance on you and hire you because you’ve shown yourself to be competent and they believe you could be somebody they could count on.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

Show up.

Contact the riding association of your party in the area you live in. Go to meetings and events. If there is a provincial or federal convention that you can afford to attend, get there. If you can’t afford the delegate fee, ask to be a volunteer.  Stay in touch with the people you meet and build relationships.

Don’t ever expect a glamourous role. There are really very few truly glamourous roles in politics.  But if you work hard and you throw yourself into what you’re passionate about, you’ll love what you do almost every day. It is a very cool feeling.


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