September 22, 2011
Outside City Hall on Wednesday morning, all eyes are on Penelope, a bright, doe-eyed eight-year-old dressed in a pinstripe power suit and pearls.
"Hello Hamilton. My name is Penelope. Thank you all for being here," Penelope begins, reciting a memorized speech to the small crowd of reporters, handlers, and environmental advocates. "I like to ride my bike, go for hikes, dance, and eat peaches. Basically, I'm just like any other kid."
For the most part, Penelope Plessas is indeed like other kids — except she is the poster child for a provincewide, non-partisan environmental campaign attempting to draw awareness to environmental issues in the weeks leading up to the provincial election. Until October 6, Penelope is touring Ontario, stumping for clean drinking water, renewable energy and Greenbelt protection.
"I like campaigning around and travelling and learning about the environment," said Penelope after her news conference.
The campaign, run by Environmental Defence, paints Penelope as a politician in waiting — complete with a Penelope 2011 website, a working woman's wardrobe, and a slick YouTube video featuring Penelope knocking on doors and kissing babies. The tag line for the campaign is "You can't really vote for a kid, but you can vote for her future."
Penelope has already visited Barrie and Ottawa, and on Thursday, she's heading to Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo. Her day in Hamilton included the news conference at City Hall and handshaking stops at McMaster University, Cootes Paradise and Confederation Park.
Adam Scott, green energy program manager at Environmental Defence, said Penelope understands what she's doing and cares deeply about the environment.
"We wouldn't have gone ahead with the project if she didn't," he said. "The reason why she was selected to do this is because she does really passionately care and she knows a lot about the issues."
Penelope still manages to attend her Grade 4 classes several days a week. (In fact, her classmates were excited when Penelope promised them cookies from her campaign stop in Ottawa last week). Her mom Monique attends her events, including her appearance in Hamilton. In exchange for her efforts, Penelope is receiving a small stipend for her education fund.
The reaction to Penelope on the campaign trail has been overwhelmingly positive, Scott said.
"Elections can be pretty dull and really negative, and this is kind of a positive spin. It's pretty refreshing," Scott said. "Everywhere we've gone, we've gotten more interest from the public and media than we were expecting."
The passersby Penelope meets outside of City Hall agree.
"I think it's great. I think that kids today need to have awareness about what's going on in the world," said Alison Pepper. "That she's started so young is amazing."
"She's doing a good thing," said Kyle Algera. "It looks like she's got a good group of supporters with her."
But Dr. Madan Roy, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at McMaster, said there are both pluses and pitfalls to Penelope's involvement in the campaign.
"In terms of the positives, there's clearly an audience attraction novelty factor. It's definitely going to draw a lot of people into the campaign, into environmental awareness — especially young people," Roy said. "They're much more likely to respond to an eight-year-old compared to a 60-year-old talking about the environment."
However, Roy said it's a lot of pressure and stress for an eight-year-old to handle.
"It's a very difficult job to hold your own when you're giving these speeches," he said. "I would say an eight-year-old is not capable of analyzing the truths and untruths, positives and negatives. She's too young. … The question at the back of all of our minds is, ‘Is this cause being driven by other people using her as a medium, or is it her own inner feelings?'"
Still, Penelope says she's having fun on the campaign trail.
"It's very fun going across Ontario, and it's very exciting to meet all these people and talk to them about protecting the environment," she said. "Every second that I'm doing this, it's getting me more interested in being a candidate. But when I was little, I wanted to be a dancer, an actress, a singer — part of the arts," she said, drawing smiles and laughs from the adults surrounding her.
Don't you think you're still little, a reporter asks?
"Maybe I can do multitasking," she says with a smile.