06/11/2011 09:52 EDT | Updated 08/11/2011 05:12 EDT

Our (Surprisingly?) Diverse Parliament

One of the defining images of Canada's new Parliament to date is a Globe and Mail cartoon of Jack Layton in the House of Commons surrounded by a group of kids, barely tall enough to see over their desks. One holds an NDP balloon, another squirms while Layton takes a Kleenex the new MP's runny nose.

Much has been made by the election of a historically unprecedented group of young people to Canada's 41st Parliament. Many commentators have used the occasion to question the capacity of these 'accidental MPs' to perform their duties, but if this CBC interview is any indication, it appears the kids are all right.

In fact, for those who believe in the power of representative democracy -- where our government's legitimacy stems, in part, from Parliament's ability to represent the collective of Canada to a greater whole -- there is much to celebrate in the new Parliament.

While the election of these young people has little impact on the overall age of the House (on average, MPs taking office today are 51, where in the last Parliament they were 52), we know MPs tend to be older, whiter, more male, better educated and more 'white collar' than the average Canadian.

This alone doesn't mean Parliament can't perform its functions, but for those who would prefer a Parliament that better looks and feels more like Canada, the election of a few 20-somethings is a good thing.

Furthermore, Canadians also elected a higher number of women and visible minorities than in the previous Parliament. There are 76 female MPs -- the most in history -- meaning women are roughly a quarter of Parliament. Much of this is thanks to the NDP, whose caucus is 39 per cent female (the Liberals is 18 per cent and the Conservatives' 17 per cent).

This Parliament is also home to a record number of visible minority MPs, with 29 or just over 9 per cent of Parliament. Again, the NDP is behind this increase, with nearly double the number of visible minority MPs than the other two national parties.

Provincially, the picture is even more interesting, and occasionally counters what one might expect.

View Diversity in Canada's 41st Parliament in a full screen map

Proportionally, Alberta's visible minority MPs reflect the province's diversity more closely than any other province. Almost 11 per cent of Alberta's MPs are visible minorities, versus 14 per cent of its population.

In Ontario, however, nearly 23 per cent of the population is non-white, yet only 8.5 per cent of its MPs are. Notably, Quebec is the only province to have a higher percentage of visible minority MPs than its population, in large part a result of the huge NDP gains made there.

Gender, age and skin colour are only a few ways to assess representation, and in the coming weeks, more information on the backgrounds and experiences of our MPs will be available via the Samara website.

While the picture is far from perfectly representative (for example, the number of visible minority MPs and women would basically need double for Parliament to reflect the Canadian population), for a chamber historically dominated by white men, Canadians have a Parliament that better reveals the face of a changing Canada than those which preceded it, runny noses and all.

Alison Loat is the executive director of Samara, a charitable organization whose programs work to strengthen Canada's democracy. You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter.