06/21/2011 08:10 EDT | Updated 08/21/2011 05:12 EDT

Politicians' Careers Raise Questions For Our Democracy

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What do real estate agents, doctors, lawyers, engineers, musicians, farmers, businessmen, professors and activists have in common?

Most of us probably think, "Not much," but they are just a handful of the ways in which the 308 Canadians sitting in our House of Commons earned their living before becoming Members of Parliament.

In fact, MPs came to public life from a much wider set of careers that many of us commonly assume. While some were lawyers in their previous lives, most were not.

Fifty-eight per cent of MPs came from one of four broad job categories: business, law, consulting and teaching. Rounding out the top 10 pre-political careers are managers, directors, professors, farmers, community activists and journalists. Here is a word cloud of the words MPs most commonly use to describe their prior employment.

In the same way that a demographic analysis suggests Canada's House of Commons may better reflect a changing Canada, the diversity of MPs' pre-Parliamentary careers suggests the same.

This picture changes significantly, however, when looked at from a partisan lens.

Conservative MPs have the most MPs from business and consulting (42 per cent). Over a quarter have business backgrounds, while only 17 per cent of Liberal MPs and only a handful of NDP MPs had careers in business prior to entering the House of Commons.

The Liberal caucus is dominated by lawyers -- 25 per cent of their team -- while only 13 per cent of the Conservative caucus and only a few NDPs have a legal background.

After the law, Liberal MPs are most likely to have pursued academic careers before running for office. 17 per cent of their MPs are professors.

Education is the preferred pre-political profession in the NDP caucus. Twenty-five per cent of NDP MPs worked in education: 16 per cent as teachers, and nine per cent as professors. That party also has the largest number of activists (14 per cent) and journalists (10 per cent) in its ranks.

It is worth reflecting on what this diversity of employment might mean for the quality of Canada's political representation.

On one hand, MPs come to Ottawa with careers that better reflect the Canadian economy than many may realize, on the other, MPs still overwhelmingly come from white collar, service sector jobs. While most Canadians work in the service sector (77.8 per cent), 22.2 per cent still work in what StatsCan calls the "goods-producing sector," professional experience that is not well-represented in our Parliament today. Furthermore, there are other professions that tend to be poorly represented in Parliament, such as engineers and health professionals.

This suggests that although MPs come from a wider set of backgrounds than many generally think, the House isn't as representative of Canadians as it could be. But is this a problem? If so, what, if anything, could be done about it?

Furthermore, this leaves unanswered a more difficult question: what is the ideal mix of pre-Parliamentary career experience we'd like in our elected officials? Should MPs career backgrounds reflect the Canadian economy, or is there a more specialized set of skills and experiences we'd like our MPs to bring to Ottawa?

This is part of a wider research project that examines the backgrounds of the MPs who make up Canada's 41st Parliament. Thank you to Kyle Crawford for compiling the data for this post.

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.