Political life is full of surprises. For Alex Nuttall, a 30-year-old former municipal councillor in Barrie, the biggest surprise of the past year was simply getting elected as a Conservative member of Parliament.
Nuttall spent nearly a year knocking on doors in Barrie before the 2015 election. He had a good sense of where the political winds were blowing, and they weren’t in the Conservatives’ direction. At “every door,” he said, the residents of Barrie were giving him an earful about former prime minister Stephen Harper — a leader that Nuttall still admires, despite how things turned out last fall.
“So I wasn’t surprised,” Nuttall says. “I was surprised I won!”
That surprise victory arrived later than expected, too. With fewer than 100 votes separating Nuttall from his Liberal challenger, it took nearly three weeks to confirm him in his new job as the MP for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte.
It doesn’t take long after meeting Nuttall, though, to realize why this Conservative eked out a win when so many other candidates, rookies and old hands from the former government, saw defeat on Oct. 19. Nuttall, humble and cheerful, has a remarkable story — growing up on social welfare, still grateful to all the Barrie citizens and organizations who lent his family a helping hand.
“I’m not your traditional Conservative, by the way,” he says, smiling behind the wheel of the big Ford truck he’s driving, giving me a tour of the community to which he owes so much, including those 86 votes that put him over the top in the official recount.
“I’m a product of this community,” he says, pointing out the places where he’s lived, worked and learned since coming to Barrie as a child from Liverpool in the 1980s. Nuttall sees his job as a large thank-you note to his fellow citizens. “You guys have invested in me and hopefully now’s the time when you can see some return on that investment.”
One of the first stops on the tour is the Mill Creek subsidized housing project where Nuttall, his mother and two brothers lived in a tiny townhouse. Money was tight after Nuttall’s parents split up, and even more so after his mother was injured in a serious car accident.
Tough as it was, Nuttall believes his childhood turned him into a better politician — and citizen.
“I played soccer and hockey because of Rotary Place sports programs. I’m now a Rotarian. We went to the food bank when things got really bad and you just pushed your pride aside,” he said. “We had Christmas cheer. I had this train set, which had no English instructions, it was Russian, but it was the best toy I had.”
It was in Grade 10 where Nuttall was first bitten by the political bug, in a course called civics and careers. He fell “head over heels” in love with civics in the first half of the school year and did his careers project in the second half on his new-found ambition to be prime minister. In subsequent school years, he would serve as “student mayor,” even getting an impromptu chance to speak on the same stage as John Tory during the Toronto mayor’s first, unsuccessful bid for that job back in the early 2000s.
Barrie has been a Conservative town for a while now. It was also home to Patrick Brown, the man who now leads the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, whose former federal riding was split into two new ones for the 2015 election.
Nuttall, like most rookies, has been awed by his new Parliament Hill workplace, sitting beside Conservatives whom he first got to know by watching TV. But his favourite parts of the job are the ones that keep him connected to Barrie. “You need to know what people are thinking and saying and what the real situation is on the ground.”
His least-favourite parts of the job, again, not unusually, are the duties that take him away from his young family; his wife Erica, his 1-year old daughter Anabella and son Caleb, who turns 3 this year.
“For me, the toughest part — and this is going to sounds so stupid, but (it’s) not being able to change a child’s diaper.”
Nuttall is not discouraged, though, by the current state of Conservative fortunes. He is backing Maxime Bernier in the leadership race and he loves all he’s learning as one of the caucus critics for innovation, science and economic development.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine Nuttall as discouraged, after a life story so far he describes as “an incredible journey” — one that has thrived on a bit of adversity.
“My Conservative party is made up of people who have fought to be where they are,” Nuttall says.
– House-trained is a summer series on new Ontario MPs.