If all had gone according to plan, the NDP candidate in the riding of Berthier-Maskinonge would have been noted little beyond the historical record. She would have been nothing more than an entry on the ballot that the majority of voters in that riding passed over as they marked an X beside the name of the incumbent, Guy André of the Bloc Québécois, or perhaps the Liberal candidate, Francine Gaudet, a former member of the national assembly of Quebec.
But then the polls changed and Ruth Ellen Brosseau became an example of democratic absurdity. And then our political hierarchy changed and Brosseau became a duly elected member of Parliament.
A single mother living in Gatineau, Que.—several hours by car from Berthier-Maskinonge—Brosseau worked as the assistant manager at a university campus pub in Ottawa. She did not speak French fluently and had possibly never set foot in the riding she was nominally running to represent. Midway through the campaign she went to Las Vegas on vacation. But her name was on the ballot. And a week after her 27th birthday she received 22,403 votes, nearly 6,000 more than André.
The NDP’s previous record for seats won in Quebec in a single election was one. On May 2, they claimed 59 seats in the province. Nationally, the party had never managed more than 43. This spring it won 103. Swept up in such change was an eclectic cast of unlikely MPs—a horticulturist, a karate instructor and various students, including 19-year-old Pierre-Luc Dusseault, the youngest individual ever elected to the House of Commons. And in the immediate aftermath of the vote, Brosseau became a convenient—and, it must be said, photogenic—symbol of so much happenstance.
By the only measure that matters—the number of people willing to mark an X beside their respective names—they are all winners. Some might be likened to lottery winners, but a lucky ticket holder is not instantly invested with so much responsibility and power. And so, however they got here, it now only matters what they will do with this opportunity.
They have already changed the face of the House of Commons. There are now some 19 MPs under the age of 30. Thirteen of those MPs are women. That, in the first place, challenges our idea of what a politician is supposed to look like. They may yet change the way we practise or perceive politics or what we expect of young people. Some might one day be cabinet ministers. One or two of them might end up as prime minister. But it is early days. The under-30 set are conscious of the opportunity to represent their generation on issues like student debt and youth unemployment, but they have constituents now and they are parliamentarians, with everything that entails.
Brosseau has stood in the House to pontificate on the regulation of cosmetic contact lenses and acknowledge the local buckwheat pancake festival. She has seconded a private member’s bill that would allow those in service industries to claim tips for the purposes of employment insurance. And one afternoon in September she loaned her voice to the daily shaming of Tony Clement. “Mr. Speaker, as a single mother, I have very busy days,” she told the House. “Between helping my son with his homework, making meals, rushing to drop him off at school, going to the office and returning to pick him up on time, the last thing I want is to hear about the mismanagement of public funds at the G8 summit.”
So Brosseau is now very much a member of Parliament. And we have a very different kind of Parliament. One that may ultimately redeem itself, whatever the oddity of its creation.