No joke: The staying power of MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau - Macleans.ca

No joke: The staying power of MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau

Dismissed as ‘Vegas girl’ when she was elected, Brosseau has defied expectations

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Raising the bar

Graham Hughes/CP

Nearly two years into the Ruth Ellen Brosseau Experiment, she is still the unlikeliest of MPs—an assistant pub manager who was just a name on a ballot in the 2011 federal election, who had never set foot in her riding northeast of Montreal, and who famously spent several days of the campaign celebrating her 27th birthday in Las Vegas. But even if it is difficult to forget how she got here, she does not now seem entirely out of place. “I think, at first, I was kind of looked at as, ‘Hey, it’s Vegas!’ But I think I’ve kind of proven myself,” she says. “I’m tough. I could have just disappeared and kept my mouth shut and just taken this for a ride and not cared about getting re-elected or representing the people in my riding, but I take it really seriously and I take it to heart.”

On election night, she was an absurdity, the personification of what weird things can occur when democracy is involved. Had she subsequently failed spectacularly, she would have become an indictment of her party and its sudden success. “We owe her a lot,” says NDP MP Megan Leslie. “A lot of NDP-bashing after the election got taken out on her, and she represented us with smarts and grace.”

She likely benefited from the sort of low expectations that come with being a fill-in candidate not ever expected to actually win. “When I’m in my riding, we get a lot of positive feedback,” she says. “Even at the grocery store, I’ll have people stop me and say, ‘You’re doing a really good job, don’t give up.’ ” She figures the curiosity around her election at least boosted her name recognition. And she thinks maybe people see themselves in her.

Indeed, even if the career politician is too casually maligned, there is perhaps something to be said for the randomly elected neophyte. “One of the things I noticed about Ruth Ellen,” says Malcolm Allen, the NDP’s primary agriculture critic, “right from the get-go, from the very first moment I met her, was she was very keen about listening, and not talking—which is unusual for us as politicians, right?”

At this point, Brosseau is both un-politician and politician. When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair announced his shadow cabinet, she was named the party’s deputy agriculture critic and in that role she has been a prominent presence in the House, particularly during last year’s tainted meat controversy involving XL Foods: Brosseau and Allen took turns challenging the credibility of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. “We are looking for answers,” she told the House one morning last fall, “and the minister has not been responsible. He needs to step up or step down.” One afternoon last month, with the New Democrats pressing the government about a possible trade deal with Europe and the Prime Minister apparently feeling it necessary to answer himself, Brosseau found herself standing immediately after one of Stephen Harper’s responses. “Mr. Speaker,” she ad libbed, “that is not reassuring.” It was not the perfect quip—Harper having just denounced the NDP’s trade policies—but this was how Brosseau, who hasn’t yet worked up the courage to introduce herself to him, came to casually dismiss the Prime Minister on the floor of the House of Commons.

Four days later, there was a different kind of moment. That afternoon, Brosseau stood to ask Human Resources Minister Diane Finley about the loss of personal data related to student-loan recipients, Brosseau telling the House that she was one of those whose privacy had been breached. Here was a rare case of an MP being able to speak to the personal impact of a current controversy.

She is renting a place in Berthier-Maskinongé, but planning to buy. She and her 12-year-old son currently live in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Ottawa. Sometimes, if evening votes are scheduled, she brings him to the Hill and he hangs out in the opposition lobby. She says it’s still a bit “dream-like” to be here. But she also says she now can’t imagine doing anything else. She’ll run again in 2015 and has started fundraising and preparing to seek re-election.

Asked if she feels she’s getting the respect of other MPs, she says she thinks it’s coming. The first time she stood to ask a question in the House, she was warmly applauded by MPs on all sides. For awhile after that, the House was quiet when she stood. Now, sometimes, there is a bit of noise. “I’m getting yelled at sometimes when I stand up, or heckled a bit in the House,” she notes. “So it’s kind of like, ‘Yes, they’re yelling at me. That’s good, right?’ ”