Two weeks after advising aid groups concerned with the government’s opposition to funding abortion abroad to “shut the f–k up,” Sen. Nancy Ruth is on the phone attempting to explain her expletive. “Looking back at it, I made a mistake,” she says. “I should never have said it. In any form of language. Groups need to talk when they need to talk.”
Which is not to say she doesn’t still worry that reopening the abortion debate, in any fashion, might only lead to new limits in Canada. That strategically, as was her intended point, it might not make sense to pursue such a fight—especially if, as she imagines, abortion will end up being covered, one way or another, in a G8 plan for maternal health.
That a women’s activist would counsel caution is perhaps confusing. But maybe no less so than the idea of a free-speaking feminist lesbian sitting happily with a governing party that is often caricatured as opposing everything she represents.
She was appointed to the Senate in 2005 as a Progressive Conservative. Her father, Harry Jackman, and grandfather, Newton Rowell, were both MPs (her brother, Hal Jackman, is the former lieutenant governor of Ontario). She was a young PC, born into a prominent Toronto family, who trained as a United Church minister, then discovered feminism and turned to activism and philanthropy. She campaigned for women’s rights, twice sought provincial office (unsuccessfully), dropped her last name (Ruth was her middle name), came out as a lesbian and was named a member of the Order of Canada.
Two months after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, Ruth joined the governing caucus. That has meant access, and influence. Her victories include a federal action plan for women, and gender-based analysis of government policy. But her Throne Speech suggestion—to consider restoring the national anthem to its original gender-neutral English wording—lasted barely 48 hours, withdrawn by the Prime Minister’s Office amid national outcry. Months earlier she made news when she publicly mused of culling geese—to cut down on the health hazard of goose droppings—and feeding the birds to the poor. And in the wake of “shut the f–k up,” the National Post lamented Ruth’s “history of making odd remarks and embracing equally odd causes,” and citing her as an example of all that is wrong with an unelected Senate.
In conversation, though, Ruth is decidedly wonkish—discussion ranging from United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women’s rights to the extension of matrimonial property rights to First Nations reserves. She is happy in the Conservative caucus, she says. She and the Prime Minister share a “mutual respect” and affinity for policy-making. “The Prime Minister likes her and she’s well-liked in the caucus,” says government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton. Adds Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal: “Any party that doesn’t embrace somebody with that kind of passion and intensity is a small tent party that has no future.”
The Liberals demanded she apologize for attempting to “bully” and “intimidate” the international development community, but the panel at that day’s meeting on Parliament Hill came to her defence in a letter to Liberal critic Anita Neville—noting, for instance, that Ruth had hosted the forum. “While we may not agree,” they wrote of her remarks, “we appreciate the opportunity to finally express dissent in an open and public forum and we owe thanks to Nancy Ruth for creating that space.”
Days after her comment, Ruth ran into the Prime Minister. “He put his arm around me and he said, ‘I hear you had some press last week,’ ” she recalls. “And that was the end of it.”