On a recent Wednesday, Liette Carle was bicycling along the main strip of Louiseville, Que., a town of about 7,500 about an hour’s drive northeast of Montreal, when she came upon a swarm of journalists in front of the town hall building. In the midst of it all was Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the local NDP candidate, who earlier this month defeated the two-term Bloc Québécois incumbent seemingly despite herself.
“I’m happy to meet you,” Carle said, en français. Brosseau said the same back, thereby exploding one of the myths about the 27-year-old politician: her French is actually quite good, despite claims to the contrary floated in the press during the election.
The non-journalist crowd, Carle included, was instantly smitten with the intensely friendly woman in a black pantsuit. Really, though, Carle would have voted for just about anything with an NDP orange hue. She didn’t care that Brosseau had never set foot in the district until that day, or that she’d spent a considerable part of the campaign vacationing in Las Vegas. Carle didn’t even blink at the post-election news that Brosseau’s resumé had been mildly embellished on the party website. “I didn’t vote for Brosseau,” Carle says over red wine and radishes at her kitchen table. “J’ai voté pour Jack.”
J’ai voté pour Jack. Carle’s phrase continues to haunt pollsters and rival politicians two weeks after the NDP’s astonishing Quebec breakthrough, in which Jack Layton’s party took 59 of the province’s 75 seats. The harvest includes five McGill students, one martial arts expert, a horticulturalist and Alexandrine Latendresse, a 26-year-old linguistics student whose interests include “iced vodka, wrestling and procrastination,” according to her Facebook page.
“She was in the right place at the right time, if that’s the term you want to use,” says Marc Brosseau, Ruth Ellen’s father. “I didn’t think she was going to win. I’d done an analysis of what had been happening with the party during the election. She was seven points behind at the end, and I just didn’t see how she was going to make that up in one night.”
Equally impressive is the NDP’s margin of victory: in the Quebec ridings they won, the party beat their rivals by an average of over 17 percentage points. The NDP’s so-called Orange Wave wiped out Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe as well as all of his presumed successors, along with three Conservative cabinet ministers. (This includes Josée Verner, a five-year incumbent in the Quebec City riding of Louis St Laurent, ousted by a certain boozy, wrestling procrastinator.) The average age of an NDP MP is 45—nearly five years less than the governing Tories.
Yet despite the enormous victory, NDP officials have mostly kept their crop of new MPs on a tight leash—none more so than Brosseau, who has yet to venture out in public without the NDP’s Quebec lieutenant Thomas Mulcair at her side. She has dyed her hair from blond to a more demure shade of brown and is reportedly undergoing intensive French classes. “The party wants a cautious approach to the whole situation,” says Marc Brosseau. Indeed, party officials have refused all print interview requests with the newly minted MP, save for one: a spread in La Semaine, a supermarket glossy known for its soft-focus pictures and even softer treatment of its subjects.
“It’s a lack of vision on the party’s part,” says Pierre Martineau, a DJ at a radio station in nearby Trois-Rivières. “They’re protecting her too much. It’s like they’re scared of what she is going to say, of how bad her French is. But we had her live on the air here, and she speaks fine.”
Guy Richard concurs. The mayor of Louiseville welcomed Brosseau, Mulcair and newly elected Trois-Rivières MP Robert Aubin into his office hours after Jack Layton’s office called to say they were on the way. They spoke about economic development—“Louiseville is overly dependent on our furniture production industry,” says Richard—and the need for continued federal funding for the town’s buckwheat festival, which attracts 100,000 people every fall.
“ ‘Sponsorship’ is a bad word in Quebec, but the fact is we need it,” Richard says of the $350,000 in federal money the town receives annually to celebrate its most famous crop. “I was very impressed with her answers. It went very well.”