OTTAWA – She worked in restaurants and bars for years, infamously managing a campus pub when she was unexpectedly elected as an NDP MP in 2011.
But even Ruth Ellen Brosseau – known as REB in inner circles – was taken aback when she arrived on Parliament Hill.
“It was intimidating, because it’s something I’ve never experienced,” says Brosseau.
“It’s a male-dominated environment.”
Brosseau – 30, blonde and brown-eyed with a wide, white smile – is seated in a downtown Ottawa coffee shop, demurely dressed in a charcoal blazer and black dress.
We’re talking, in broad terms, about recent events involving two of her colleagues, whose unproven allegations against two Liberal MPs led Justin Trudeau to expel them from his caucus.
One woman recently detailed her allegations anonymously in the media, saying one of the MPs, Massimo Pacetti, had sex with her without “explicit consent.” Pacetti maintains his innocence.
“Even Parliament, the highest, most respected democratic institution, is not without its problems.”
She won’t, however, talk specifically about her own experiences.
When asked if she’s ever been harassed, Brosseau cryptically replies that, “You get comments walking down the street…It happens everywhere.”
“Anybody that’s been on the Hill, worked on the Hill, has had experiences – male or female,” she says.
“We’ve all maybe felt it, seen it, but it’s never been this public before.”
Echoing her party, Brosseau says the two women’s wishes to keep the process confidential were not respected – and Trudeau’s move to kick his MPs out didn’t help anyone.
“There are other things that could have been done instead of just excluding them publicly, excluding them from caucus,” she says.
“There were probably other things that could have been done, respecting and working with the victims.”
Does she think the matter will ever be resolved?
“I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what they’re going to do,” she says.
“I’ve had a lot of friends, women friends, who’ve been victims of sexual harassment and rape…It would be very courageous for them to come forward, especially as women in Parliament. But it’s not an easy decision.”
Has it gotten better?
“I haven’t noticed anything substantially different on the Hill.”
For Brosseau, it’s a culture that is evidently pervasive.
When we go to pay, a waitress gives Brosseau her coffee for free, joking that she was a good customer – she didn’t distract her from her work.
A cook from the kitchen stands by the bar. He looks at Brosseau.
“You distracted me, that’s for sure,” he tells her.
‘I don’t think that it will ever happen again’
No one is more aware of why Brosseau garnered such media attention when she was first elected than Brosseau herself.
After all, when she won her seat as part of the NDP’s so-called Orange Wave, Brosseau was an Anglophone single mom with no experience in politics who had never been to the Quebec riding she was supposed to represent.
“I understand why it was such a big story,” says the MP for Berthier—Maskinongé, dipping her spoon in a bowl of cauliflower, kale and sweet potato soup.
“It’s not the usual way people get elected and I don’t think that it will ever happen again.”
Then there was the whole trip-to-Las Vegas-during-the-campaign thing.
“People even asked me, ‘When you were elected, you were in Vegas?’ No, I was not in Vegas. I went there for my birthday (during the campaign.) And I was back and in Canada when I was elected.”
Since then, Brosseau has morphed into a veritable politician – now the deputy critic for agriculture and vice-chair of the NDP caucus – who prides herself on meeting most of the 34 mayors in her riding and attends local animal rights fundraisers on the weekends.
She may have been a name on a ballot in 2011 – a “paper candidate,” as she puts it – but in 2015, Brosseau plans to run on her record.
“I hope that in 2015, when the election comes, it will be for the work that I’ve done,” she says.
That includes her role on the agriculture committee and her work to pass a unanimous motion in the House of Commons in support of the dairy and cheese industry in Quebec.
“That was a really important piece for people in my riding, because I have a lot of dairy farmers and I also have a lot of cheese producers,” she says.
“I’m still trying to push the government. I’ll get up like once a week and ask them questions about what they’re doing on supply management, and what that means for future trade agreements.”
In person, Brosseau is friendly, but reserved; she defers her own experiences to those of others; and generalizes her role in Parliament and beyond.
“I try to be the strongest voice and as active as I can be in the House of Commons, and also in my riding,” she says.
“I love talking to people.”
A vegetarian since age five, Brosseau doesn’t pick the restaurant for lunch– she lets a member of the NDP press team decide for her.
Her voice trails off after agreeing the Liberals will be her “big opponent” in 2015 – but offers no concrete details about how to fend them off.
But Brosseau also notes there’s no longer a Bloc Quebecois riding association in her area (she beat the Bloc incumbent with 40 per cent of the vote in 2011), and the other parties haven’t even held nominations yet. Brosseau has already been acclaimed the NDP candidate.
Her story – and the dozens of others elected for the first time in 2011 under Jack Layton – represents the key challenge for Tom Mulcair next year.
Will Brosseau prove to be a lasting breakthrough for the NDP – or just a fluke elected under Layton’s leadership?
“Even now people still talk to me about Jack. They say, oh, ‘le bon Jack’,” Brosseau says, referring to Layton’s nickname in Quebec.
“I think people voted for the party and what we were proposing, but they voted for Jack in 2011. That’s why I’m here.”
‘I never really had it easy’
Brosseau was standing at the front of the NDP caucus room on Oct. 22 when she heard several loud bangs.
A security guard held the door and told everyone to get down.
There had been a shooting on Parliament Hill.
“Just the thought of – it’s gunfire. Was anybody hurt? Did anybody die?” Brosseau recalls.
She and her colleagues were shipped out to the East Block of Parliament, where they languished until 9 p.m.
But the worst part was trying to reach her son, Logan, who turns 14 in February. His principal had informed students about the shooting, but Brosseau’s cell phone was out of service until about 1 p.m.
“He was terrified,” she says.
Pregnant at 16, Brosseau was 17 when Logan was born.
She went back to school when her son was seven months old, and took him wherever she went – be it to college in Kingston, Ont., or Gatineau where her parents eventually settled and where she now lives.
She travels to her riding near Trois-Rivieres, Que., about three-and-a-half hours away, every weekend. Sometimes Logan joins – when he doesn’t have basketball games to play.
Brosseau’s son knows her family is different.
“He doesn’t know his dad. He does obviously have a dad, and I try to tell him a little bit about him, but it’s hard to talk about somebody that I haven’t seen or know,” she says.
“He knows he’s loved, but sometimes it’s – it can be difficult.”
Her father, who is in chronic pain due to a back injury, helped take care of her son. When she went to college, she paid $55 a day in daycare. She understands, and obviously supports, her party’s $15-a-day national child care program proposal.
She credits her experience as a single mom with making the gruelling experience as an MP more bearable.
“It’s not new. I did work a lot before being elected,” she says.
“I think my experience working in bars and restaurants really helped me, because it is serving people. It is, you know, trying to do better. And the fact that, I’m determined. I’m a single mom. I worked hard, I never really had it easy.”
She admits to having not much of a personal life – helping her son with homework, doing laundry, and watching movies in her pajamas.
Brosseau is “very, very protective” of her son.
“If I see somebody, we’re dating, and if they meet my son it’s as a friend and not as a boyfriend. Unless I know that maybe one day we’re going to move in together or get married. Because I just did not want to hurt him.”
She says what’s unfolding with Ghomeshi and the harassment allegations on Parliament Hill has inspired her to talk to her son about how he behaves.
“I hope as a mom, raising a 13-, 14-year-old boy, I’m doing a good job teaching my son what is appropriate, how to respect men and women. Teaching him about consent and what that means,” she says.
“It’s important to have a discussion nationally, but also raising our children to make sure that they are aware.”
Most of all, Brosseau has learned to embrace who she is.
She wants to continue in politics, and believes voters do as well.
“People in my riding, they were always very open. They just wanted to meet me, and they just wanted to see what I was going to do differently. They wanted a change, and they got a change,” she says.
“And who knows what will happen come election time.”