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Ruth Ellen Brosseau: from ‘Vegas Girl’ to NDP vice-chair

In 2011, after she won a highly unlikely seat in the House of Commons, she was nicknamed “Vegas Girl” and dismissed as a bartending single mom. Nobody expected she’d be so darn competent.

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Ruth Ellen Brosseau NDP MP

Photo, Sian Richards.

Seated in the swanky restaurant on the sixth floor of the Centre Block building on Parliament Hill, Ruth Ellen Brosseau scans the lunchtime crowd. The first-term member of Parliament from Quebec seems to have a friendly rapport with everyone she encounters — cabinet ministers, security guards, reporters — though she has gently grilled our bow-tied waiter about why we’ve been seated near the centre of the restaurant, rather than in the official New Democrat area way in the back. He shrugs demurely and fills our glasses with ice water. Stymied, Brosseau cranes her neck to see if she can detect what’s going on in Ottawa’s most exclusive dining room, perhaps evidence of alliances forming or feuds brewing.

A morning spent in Brosseau’s company reveals both her unexpected political instincts and her deeply wonky passions for issues like the logistics of grain transportation and the economics of migrant labour. Unexpected, because four years ago, she was one of 57 untested NDP MPs ushered into office on the Orange Wave that swept Quebec, buoyed by the smooth charm of the party’s then leader, the late Jack Layton. But among the political newbies who signed up to run for unwinnable seats in Quebec in 2011, Brosseau took the most hits. Pundits alluded to her youth, her blondness and the fact that she was once a teenage mother. During her non-existent campaign, she spent three days celebrating her 27th birthday in Sin City, and became a national punchline, nicknamed “Vegas Girl.”

Of course, the criticism wasn’t solely rooted in sexism. A pub manager with zero political experience, no campaign materials and what appeared to be a selfie for an official photo, Brosseau was catnip for journalists seeking a zany angle on the election — especially when she refused to grant interviews. Reporters camped out in front of her parents’ home in Gatineau, Que. and cracked jokes comparing her to Waldo. Even the NDP seemed surprised when polls began to predict her victory.

Today, on a frigid Monday in March, Brosseau appears businesslike in a chic cream blazer over a black dress, but she maintains a down-to-earth openness. Since her surprise election, the 31-year-old has quietly evolved into an effective and highly regarded politician. She is now the deputy agriculture critic in Thomas Mulcair’s shadow cabinet and the NDP’s vice-chair. Her colleagues speak of her commitment to her constituents, and her humility, ferocious work ethic, compassion and ability to listen. “I’ve been described a lot as ‘an ordinary Canadian,’ ” she says. “Whether or not it’s meant as a compliment, I’m proud of that, because I think it’s valuable to have that perspective in politics.”

There’s nothing ordinary, of course, about being suddenly thrust into the public eye, about one day struggling to pay for daycare and the next day landing a $157,000-a-year job helping to govern the nation. With the 42nd federal vote set for October 19, Brosseau is eager to launch her “first real campaign” and prove that her election to office was no fluke. Parliament Hill can be hostile to women at the best of times. But what critics overlooked about Brosseau amid all the Vegas jokes was her extraordinary grit and determination. As Anne McGrath, national director of the NDP, put it, recalling the grace with which Brosseau weathered the media tsunami, “I’ve seen long-time politicians fall apart after enduring far less scrutiny than Ruth Ellen.”

anne-mcgrath-ruth-ellen-brosseauWhen it comes to schoolyard taunts, Brosseau has heard worse. At 16, when she was still in high school, she got pregnant. She and her boyfriend broke up, but she continued to attend the same school. Classmates gossiped about her: “When you’re a teenaged single mom, you learn who your friends are pretty quickly,” she says. After her now-adolescent son, Logan, was born, she earned her high school diploma and, with the help of her parents, grandparents and younger sister, put herself through college in Kingston, Ont.

Her political leanings have always been progressive: She’s a long-time vegetarian and advocate for animal welfare. As a young mother, she worked part-time cleaning hotel rooms, where she was fired after she attempted to organize her fellow staff. After that, she supported herself and Logan by working in bars and restaurants.

She was one of several young party members and volunteers asked to put their names on ballots in Quebec in 2011 — with the understanding that they were candidates in name only. Going into the election, the NDP held only one seat there and had no provincial wing to help build its base locally. Brosseau’s riding was among the least viable: Berthier-Maskinongé is 98 percent francophone, and the incumbent was a member of the Bloc Québécois, making Brosseau, who grew up in Kingston and was managing a pub at Carleton University in Ottawa, the ultimate dark horse. Not only was her childhood French rusty, but she had never visited her riding, nor spent any money on her campaign.

Then came the NDP’s landslide — it won 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats — which catapulted the party to official opposition status. Among the freshmen MPs, Brosseau, who defeated the competition handily with 40 percent of the vote, was a magnet for media ribbing. Her opponents questioned the validity of her nomination papers, and, to make matters worse, in its hustle to create an MP website for her, the NDP made an error in her biography, stating that she had a diploma in advertising and integrated marketing communications from St. Lawrence College in Kingston, when, in fact, she had not completed all her credits.

The other new young MPs, like the gang of university students dubbed “the McGill Four,” were also dismissed at first. But Brosseau — whose name was always preceded with qualifiers like “Vegas,” “bartender” and “teen mom” — faced a particular kind of snobbery. Shadowed by photographers wherever she went, she took care to avoid doing anything that might be misconstrued: She was no longer free to have a beer on a patio with friends because she was afraid of being perceived as unprofessional or trashy.

Like the other new MPs, Brosseau was given a team of mentors, including Layton himself, who called Brosseau regularly and introduced her to his French teacher. From this super-squad, she got a crash course in governing, while friendly security guards taught her the best routes around the Hill to avoid the press. She threw herself into the parliamentary boot camp, dragging her young son along with her between caucus meetings and language classes. Her family formed a protective knot around her — her dad would go out on the front lawn and try to convince reporters to back off.

Brosseau was nervous but eager to work, frustrated by having spent many weeks being the object of derision without having had the opportunity to speak for herself. After she won her seat but then didn’t appear in public for several days, Maclean’s columnist Colby Cosh, in a tone-deaf comparison, called it “the biggest ‘cute white girl goes missing’ news story since Natalee Holloway [the 18-year-old U.S. high school grad who disappeared in Aruba in 2005].”

When Brosseau finally emerged for a highly choreographed “impromptu” visit to her riding nine days after the election, she was accompanied by Mulcair, now Opposition leader but then deputy leader. In a conservative black suit and with her hair darkened a few shades, she waded through a crush of local press and residents to greet her constituents in good but shaky French. (She is now fully bilingual.)

When I ask Brosseau about that first day in her riding, she remembers Mulcair’s steadiness — “he kept reminding me to breathe,” she says — and the welcoming reception from her constituents. Being considered a joke didn’t bother her as much as having the riding ridiculed. She might not have been elected on her own merits, but she didn’t doubt that she had something to offer. “They elected me,” she says. “I won by 6,000 votes. The people in my riding could have stayed home, or they could have spoiled their ballots. I think they were voting for something. So I never doubted my obligation to represent them. I wanted their votes to matter, and I wanted to do them justice.”

Despite the NDP’s big win in 2011, being the official opposition under a majority Conservative government doesn’t bring much clout. Brosseau, who is by temperament a conciliator, has been frustrated by the highly partisan culture in Ottawa. (“I really hate shouting,” she says.) One victory she speaks to with pride is the NDP taking advantage of the low attendance of Conservative MPs on a Friday last September to force an hour-long debate on an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. The party’s manoeuver didn’t change the outcome, but it helped publicly highlight the issue.

Brosseau is a feminist, and an advocate for reproductive choice and affordable daycare. She says that women of all political stripes, who might disagree on everything else, tend to find common cause on the Hill. When it comes to gender equality in politics, they stick up for one another. Brosseau speaks admiringly of Conservative Transport Minister Lisa Raitt (“a strong, brilliant woman”) and Conservative Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification Michelle Rempel (“she’s so gutsy”), who once responded to a Twitter troll who called her a “bitch” with “That’s Hon. Bitch, P.C. M.P. to you.”

Canadian political observers can point to plenty of gains made by women in the last several years. Consider that female premiers run three of the nation’s four largest provinces. And for the first time ever this year, the three major federal election war rooms will be run by women, making Conservative Jenni Byrne, New Democrat Anne McGrath and Liberal Katie Telford among the most influential power brokers in the country. Yet when it comes to the House of Commons, the numbers are bleak: Women make up just a quarter of current MPs and only 30 percent of the declared candidates for the October election, which suggests that despite recruitment drives like the Liberals’ “invite her to run,” progress toward equality has stagnated.

At the NDP offices, on Laurier Avenue West in Ottawa, just a few blocks southeast of Parliament Hill, McGrath offers a telling observation about gender and politics. In more than two decades of conducting candidate searches to recruit for the party, never, not once, has a man told her that he didn’t think he was experienced enough or smart enough for the job. Women, on the other hand, tell her that all the time. “Sometimes, the only way for me to get a woman to run is to tell [her] that the seat is unwinnable,” she says. “Then she’ll do it because she believes in the party, or she cares about a particular issue, because she won’t do it for her own ambition.”

The free-for-all cage match of question period is rarely a site for civil debate, and even the toughest female MP can be out-shouted. Last year, for example, Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland was heckled by Tories during question period to a degree that was aggressive even by Ottawa standards. She was later advised by a male journalist to put on her “big-girl voice.”

Rempel, elected in 2011 to the Conservative riding of Calgary Centre-North, has been one of the most outspoken feminists in federal politics, alongside NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie, who has criticized the “locker-room mentality” of the House of Commons, which last year saw the suspension and eventual expulsion of two Liberal MPs after allegations that they sexually harassed female MPs. In an interview with the CBC last year, Leslie described witnessing male politicians touching female MPs, particularly the younger ones, patting them on the lower back or stroking their hair. That behaviour is not violent sexual aggression, she said, but then added, “[but] you’re not doing that to the minister of defence.”

When asked if she’s had to deal with sexism, Brosseau says, “I worked in bars, where I had to deal with a lot of bullshit, and I developed a tough skin. But the way you shut down a guy in a bar? That approach doesn’t work here.” The codes of behaviour on the Hill aren’t always clear — to Leslie’s point, there can be a generalized creepiness that can be difficult to prove as harassment — and women who complain might be perceived as too sensitive or too uptight for the job. Brosseau is pleased that Parliament now has a sexual harassment policy, although she wishes the Liberals had handled the harassment allegations without compromising the women’s confidentiality.

According to NDP MP Niki Ashton, these incidents may be one-offs, but they create a culture that makes politics unappealing to women. “We all say we want the House to represent all Canadians, but politics hasn’t been very welcoming,” she says. Even advocating for equality as a politician can be a trap, Ashton says. “It ends up absorbing your time and focus, so that when we talk about women in politics, all we end up talking about is sexism and discrimination.” She points to Brosseau: “The attacks against her at the start were vile. Why would any other woman or young person want to go into politics after seeing that?”

When I pose that question to Brosseau — why go back for more? — she seems undaunted. She looks back at the past four years with pride, having proven to herself, her colleagues and, she hopes, her constituents that she was more than a paper candidate.

Political life has its drawbacks, of course, like the lack of privacy. Dating, which was never easy as a single mother, is impossible now, as is other normal human stuff like running out to the grocery store in pyjamas to grab some milk. But stacked up against what she’s gained, the life she’s made for her son and the perspective she brings to office, she doesn’t see that as a sacrifice.

Quite the opposite, the experience of being an accidental candidate helped her find her calling. “I knew,” she says, “that the perception of teenage mothers was that they never amount to much. Before politics, my goals were simply to get an education and be able to support my son. Then when I was elected, all the negative attention just made me work harder. I wanted people to say, ‘I never should have doubted a single mom.’ ”

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