Mad about Ruby Dhalla

FULL STORY: The beleaguered star MP has both passionate defenders and detractors

Mad about Ruby DhallaFor a woman who has never met a microphone she didn’t like, it can’t have been easy. Days of enforced silence as her personal reputation, and perhaps political future, were savaged by allegations she and her family illegally employed, then bullied and mistreated, caregivers for her aging mother. Watching the critics pile on, and her federal Liberal colleagues run for cover. And when Ruby Dhalla finally did face the public last week, it wasn’t so much to mount a defence—a task delegated to a pit bull Bay Street lawyer—as plead for more time. “I would once again ask the Canadian public to please hold judgment,” the MP said in her brief remarks before the dozens of cameras and reporters jammed into her Brampton, Ont., constituency office. “Because when the facts and the truth come forward, then I think true victory will be achieved.”

Less than a week before, Dhalla had been basking in her status as one of the Liberal party’s up-and-comers, arriving in a white stretch limo for the Vancouver convention and standing alongside new leader Michael Ignatieff, hoisting his arm in the air as the confetti flew. Now confronted by three former family employees, she finds herself at the centre of a controversy that has mushroomed to enmesh members of the Ontario government, and spark an ethics investigation as well as public hearings before the House of Commons immigration committee. Among the allegations—first aired at a round-table discussion on nannies’ rights attended by two provincial cabinet ministers and later reported in the Toronto Star—are charges that Dhalla seized the passports of the immigrant women hired to help her mother Tavinder, and used her position to try to sidestep the required paperwork. Furthermore, the caregivers allege they were overworked and underpaid, forced to take on tasks like washing cars, shovelling snow and cleaning the chiropractic clinics owned by Dhalla’s brother Neil. The MP has called the allegations against her “false and unsubstantiated,” and maintains that all who know her family recognize “how loving, and caring and compassionate we are.” Her lawyer, Howard Levitt, has gone even further, suggesting there is a political or media conspiracy at play, “a purposeful attempt to destroy [Ms.] Dhalla’s career and credibility,” as he told reporters. “The only question is: who’s really behind them? And who orchestrated, enabled or assisted these former employees of her brother to suddenly come forward?”

But for a woman whose ambitions have been on display since junior high, and who has previously flirted with a run for the reins of the party, the damage may already have been done. At just 35 years of age, Dhalla is one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian politics: a popular speaker at party functions, glamorous enough to stride the red carpet at the Oscars, anointed as the third “hottest” female politician in the world last fall by Maxim magazine. In Ottawa, such notoriety has engendered a typically peevish backlash—in the Hill Times annual survey, colleagues and opponents routinely place her near the top of the list of “sexiest” and “best-dressed” MPs, but also rank her as one of the biggest gossips, and “worst Scrooge to work for.” And it looks like the fatigue might be spreading. Recently, Dhalla has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons: seemingly callous comments about police beating the children who snatched an aide’s purse during a visit to India; a simmering dispute with the producer of a Bollywood-style film she starred in before entering politics; and now the even more toxic nanny allegations. The first South Asian woman elected to Canada’s Parliament (and one of our youngest female MPs ever) is on a bad roll. Her friends and supporters think somebody is out to get Ruby, but the real question might be whether she’s simply doing it to herself.

Ruby Dhalla has the type of backstory that would be rejected as “too unrealistic” if it were attached to a fictional character. But somewhere safely tucked away in their Mississauga home (the MP lives near, but not in her suburban Toronto riding), her mother Tavinder has the scrapbooks that prove it’s all true. The first clippings date back to the summer of 1984, when 10-year-old Ruby made international news for a letter she wrote to Indira Gandhi, urging her to forge peace between India’s Sikhs and Hindus after government troops stormed Punjab’s Sikh Golden Temple, killing hundreds. The Indian prime minister mentioned it at a press conference, and wrote back inviting the little girl and her family to visit. The meeting never happened. First Ruby made the papers again, progressing from childhood celebrity to legend in her native Winnipeg, when she was hit by a car while pulling a younger child from its path. It was October by the time she was well enough to travel. And the family was on a stopover in London, U.K., when Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards that October.

However, the idea that a girl from a poor, single-parent family (Dhalla’s father Nick died when she and her brother were quite young) could make a difference was already firmly entrenched. In Grade 8, she racked up her first election victory—she has yet to lose one—becoming class president at Isaac Newton Junior High. At age 12, she started attending Liberal rallies with her uncle Paul Dhillon, a true partisan, and joined the party. By her first year of high school, she was a regular volunteer in the office of David Walker, the then-newly minted MP for Winnipeg North Centre. “She was just so much more mature and skilled than her peers,” says the former politician, who now has his own Winnipeg consulting firm. “You knew that this was a person who was going to be a star, who was trying hard to be a star.”

When the other kids at Daniel McIntyre High were listening to U2’s Paul “Bono” Hewson, she was hanging out with Paul “Finance Minister” Martin. “[During high school] people would go off and party and I would go to a policy convention,” she told the Star shortly after first winning federal office in 2004.

But Ruby wasn’t just brainy, she was beautiful. While doing her undergrad in biochemistry and political science at the University of Winnipeg, she participated in the 1993 Miss India Canada pageant, placing second behind Ruby Bhatia, now a well-known film and TV star in India. When Dhalla moved to Toronto two years later, modelling gigs helped pay her way through chiropractic college. And in 1999, she even made her own brief stab at a Bollywood career, moving to India and finding work in commercials and as a music-channel veejay. Her practical side won out, however, and she soon returned home to establish a chain of chiropractic clinics with brother Neil.

The doctors Dhalla prospered, buying the pleasant red-brick suburban home they still share—both are unmarried—with their mother. But politics continued to be the focal point of Ruby’s life. She was a national organizer for Paul Martin’s 2003 leadership campaign. And when he decided to go to the polls in June 2004, the new prime minister hand-picked her as his candidate for the new riding of Brampton-Springdale. It wasn’t a widely acclaimed choice. Upset that their favoured candidate, Andrew Kania, a lawyer and backer of Martin’s leadership rival John Manley, had been punted, 12 of the riding association’s 20-member executive formally endorsed Dhalla’s NDP challenger. (Kania won election as the Liberal MP for neighbouring Brampton West in 2008.)

Regardless, backed by the party machine and with endorsements from the likes of comedian Mike Bullard—a former patient—Dhalla cruised to victory, taking more than 47 per cent of the vote. Attractive, media-savvy, and youthful in a profession that is generally challenged on all three of those fronts, her future seemed bright. “I’ve sacrificed so much of my life, but it hasn’t seemed like a sacrifice,” she told a reporter. “I always had a love for federal politics and the Liberal party, so now I’m living my dream.”

Parliament Hill is a low-pay, long hours kind of place, at least for the staffers. The assistants and volunteers who do much of the grunt work associated with being a member of Parliament—dealing with correspondence, intervening with the bureaucracy on behalf of constituents, picking up the dry cleaning—are mostly young, enthusiastic and fiercely devoted to the party. Not so different than Dhalla herself. And that makes it all the more difficult to understand why the coolest chick on the West Block has such a bad reputation, crowned two years running by the Hill Times as the MP you would least like to work for. (A title, it should be noted, that is far more hotly contested than, say, best hair.)

“I took the job knowing about her reputation, but it was worse than I expected,” says one Liberal who has gone on to work for a different MP, and asked to remain anonymous. “She’s a very difficult person to work for. She’s a diva and she pays crap.”

Even some of the people who profess to have enjoyed their time with Dhalla use terms like “princess” and “cheapskate.” “She’s very tough. She’s very, very hard on her employees. She works them hard,” says another ex-staffer, who also asked not to be named. “But I learned not to take it personally. If I was there late at night, she was there too.”

Last summer, the story of a dispute between Dhalla and one of her staffers was the buzz of the Hill. When the man contracted mono and was forced to miss work for an extended period, the MP demanded that he resign. And when he refused, she fired him, according to the account, forcing him to launch an appeal to Human Resource Skills and Development Canada so that he might qualify for EI while at home recovering. The employee in question, who still works for the Liberals, confirmed the dispute, but declined to discuss it in detail. Dhalla asked Maclean’s to email her written questions about the dispute, but did not respond. Candice Debi, her director of communications, did not contradict the story, but suggested the former employee was unreliable: “You should look into his background.”

Others who have worked closely with the MP remain fiercely devoted. Mitch St. Pierre, an Ottawa filmmaker who is a long-time volunteer in Dhalla’s office, says she treats her employees like gold. “In all the years I’ve known Ruby, she’s never raised her voice. Not even once,” he says. “She’s not truly my boss. She’s more like family.” Andrew Lopez, a Toronto public relations specialist who has worked on Dhalla’s election campaigns, says he has always been impressed with her calm demeanour. “If anyone was the hard guy, it was me,” he says. “She was always decent to everybody.” And what is really remarkable, says Lopez, is the MP’s drive—during the campaign she would frequently work until the wee hours, then rise before dawn to start again.

In Ottawa, much of the midnight oil that Dhalla burns is spent trying to arrange visas for relatives of constituents (more than 25 per cent of Brampton-Springdale residents are of South Asian descent, according to the 2006 census). Keeping the riding happy is the part of the job at which Dhalla excels, say Hill watchers. But when it comes to relations with her fellow MPs, things don’t always go so smoothly. There is a certain amount of jealousy over her high profile. And caucus colleagues complain she doesn’t do her share of the heavy lifting on committees and within the party. Behind her back, some deride her as a lightweight, sarcastically invoking “Dr. Dhalla’s” chiropractic degree.

And whether or not a “conspiracy” exists, there is little question that individuals inside and outside the Liberal party have the knives out for the MP. When the Ottawa-based gossip magazine Frank was still publishing, Dhalla was a favourite target, with emails from her staff routinely leaked to its pages.

The tone of the mainstream press also began to change as she became an increasingly visible presence in the party. In January 2008, Dhalla’s glamorous image took a hit when an aide’s purse was snatched by child thieves during an official tour of India’s Punjab region. A local reporter witnessed the theft and jumped on his motorbike to pursue the crooks—an 11-year-old boy named Sachin and his nine-year-old sister Binda. The journalist recovered the bag and turned his camera on the scene as police arrived to arrest the pair. The images he captured of Sachin being dragged along the ground by cops, then later lying in the back seat of a patrol car, apparently semi-conscious, while his crying sister pleaded with the authorities, touched off a firestorm. So did the quote from Dhalla that ran alongside the pictures in Indian papers: “I cannot control what the police do and I hope that those young kids learn from this incident.”

The MP’s response quickly became the story in India (“shockingly callous,” tutted Times Now, a Mumbai-based TV network) as well as back home in Canada. For her part, Dhalla said she was unaware of the circumstances of the arrest when she gave the interview. “I was completely, completely unaware of the type of treatment these young children were subjected to,” she told the CBC. And she called for an official investigation into the officers’ conduct. Despite promises at the time, that doesn’t appear to have happened: no charges were ever laid against the police, and the children and their family quickly disappeared. The woman whose purse was stolen, Seema Bhayana, then Dhalla’s executive assistant and now working as an immigration consultant in the riding, did not respond to interview requests.

But the story that the media, and the public, can’t get enough of is Dhalla’s ongoing feud with the producer of a made-in-Canada Bollywood-style film she starred in back in 2003. Kyon Kis Liye (Why? And For Whom?) was a singing and dancing murder-mystery, loosely based on a real Ontario killing where a husband poisoned his wife and tried to collect the insurance money. Dhalla plays the female lead, a police officer investigating the crime. The low-budget effort was the brainchild of Charanjit “Chico” Shira, the owner of a Hamilton autobody shop and a Liberal supporter. He also starred, as well as fixing the cars used in the film’s chase and crash scenes.

Dhalla happily promoted the movie when it premiered in 2003 (with $13,000 of federal money, courtesy of then-local MP and heritage minister Sheila Copps), but later changed her tune. In her 2004 campaign, someone tried to use the film to smear her, sending excerpts to media outlets along with a note claiming it had been banned by Indian censors for its explicit love scenes. (It wasn’t, and there is nothing racier than some fully clothed wrestling between Dhalla and her co-star.)

This past fall, when Shira announced plans to market a DVD version of the film, he heard from the MP’s lawyer. Dhalla said that she never consented to its release and claimed that its publicity materials “put my face on someone else’s body, in clothes I never wore.” (In May 2003, she told the Winnipeg Free Press something different—that her body had been slightly digitally altered. “They’ve contoured my body a bit. In India, thin is not as in.”)

In an interview last week, Shira told Maclean’s that at a face-to-face meeting in Brampton, Dhalla’s family offered him money not to release the film. The concern expressed by the MP, her uncle, brother and mother, says Shira, was that it would somehow offend her socially conservative immigrant constituents. “ ‘If the film comes out they will think I’m a movie star,’ she told me,” says the producer. “But I said I will never stop my film at any price. I am proud of it and it’s my baby.” (Dhalla’s uncle confirmed the meeting took place, but denied that there were any discussions about cash.) And when the first copies of the DVD arrived in Canada on the weekend, just in time to cash in on the nanny scandal, Shira went public with claims that the love scene used to smear Dhalla back in 2004 has somehow mysteriously disappeared from the film. “I am having my lawyer in India look into this,” he told the Toronto Sun, adding that a confidential source had told him “someone in Canada paid a lot of money to have it taken out.”

Despite her glamourpuss image, Dhalla knows a thing or two about the bare-knuckle aspects of politics. During last fall’s federal campaign, she hardly missed an opportunity to remind Brampton voters that the brother of her Conservative opponent Parm Gill had been charged with mischief for vandalizing her lawn signs during the 2006 election. (The charges were later dropped.) And when it comes to the current nanny storm, it is already clear that she intends to use every tool in her basket to fight them.

Howard Levitt, her lawyer—who represented Yolanda Ballard, the companion of the late Toronto Maple Leafs owner, in a long-running dispute with his estate, and served as legal counsel to Jean Chrétien’s successful 1990 leadership bid—waved about several documents at her press conference that he claims disprove the allegations. (The documents have not been made available to the media.) And Dhalla is now busy painting herself as the victim. In her testimony before the Commons’ immigration committee Tuesday, the MP pointed to contacts between her accusers, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, and her Conservative challenger Gill. She wondered aloud if the caregivers—all citizens of the Philippines, in Canada on temporary work permits—were using her name in a bid to gain permanent residency. She came close to tears as she related her own battles on behalf of immigrants. “These women that spoke today: these are the women that I am trying to help,” said Dhalla. “Every initiative I’ve championed in my riding . . . it’s these women I’m trying to help, and I’ve sacrificed my whole life for.”

(The closed-circuit testimony of two of the three caregivers was no less emotional. Richelyn Tongson broke down as she talked about her four children and out-of-work husband back home, and the pressures of trying to support them. “I don’t want to see them starving,” she wailed. Magdalene Gordo repeated charges that her duties were mostly domestic, including cleaning the basement apartment of Dhalla’s cousin once a week, and had little to do with looking after Tavinder—who no longer has a caregiver, and is the MP’s designated travel companion. “I felt like a vacuum cleaner being on loan,” she said. “I was mentally tortured and physically stressed . . . You are being insulted. They show you, you are really a slave.” And Gordo reiterated that it was Ruby Dhalla, not her brother or mother, who hired and supervised her.)

Meanwhile Dhalla’s supporters and family are busy pushing the conspiracy theory. “I think it’s all political,” says Paul Dhillon, her uncle, who still resides in Winnipeg. “We’re all immigrants. We’ve all been through this. Treating people like this is not possible for us.” He mentioned the nice basement suite—with 60-inch flat screen and mahogany furniture—where the nannies lived. “Nice, perfect conditions.” And he says that his nephew Neil would never demand that a caregiver polish his shoes daily. “He’s got a machine in his closet. He does it himself,” says Dhillon.

Once it became known that Maclean’s was preparing an article on Dhalla, the reporter’s phone started ringing with people seeking to share their unsolicited testimonials. Someone claiming to be from her office went even further, posing as a potential source and engaging in a ham-fisted fishing expedition for the names of others who had talked to the magazine.

It’s hard to blame them. The stakes couldn’t be higher for a woman whose entire life has so far been focused on making her mark in Ottawa. But already the waters have been muddied enough to suggest that Dhalla’s career will survive this brush with scandal. Her constituency office was fastidiously scrubbed clean of all Liberal posters, pamphlets and photos for her press conference, and she did have to resign from her post as youth and multiculturalism critic. But Ruby was an early supporter of Michael Ignatieff, and the new leader appears content to let her ride this controversy out from the backbench.

David Walker, her one-time Liberal mentor, has seen it all before. “When you become a star at her age, you can fall pretty quickly when you make a mistake, because you don’t have a reservoir of goodwill and friendships built up over 20 or 30 years,” he says. But Ruby being Ruby, Walker has no doubt that she will rise again. “These issues will linger for her for a while. But she’s so smart. She’ll just have to apply all of her skills.”

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