LOUISEVILLE, Que. – Spend a day with rookie NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau and witness the degree to which someone’s life can change in 12 months.
It was a year ago this week that Brosseau was making regular phone calls home from Las Vegas, where she was celebrating her 27th birthday under the bright lights of Sin City.
Those calls brought news that turned her life upside down.
“Of course being a mom, I called home all the time and spoke to my son and my family,” Brosseau told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“They were kind of like: ‘There’s, um, stuff going on here, you’re kind of in the news a bit for going on your trip.’ “
Brosseau, then a campus-bar manager in Ottawa, was hit with a stunner. Her name and photo were splashed all over the national news during Canada’s ongoing federal election campaign, during which she emerged as a poster child for the NDP’s improbable Quebec surge.
Little did she know that roughly one year later, she would be spending a busy day in a rural Quebec riding – a place to which she had no personal connection – discussing pyrite, float planes, federal summer jobs and an art exhibition with local constituents.
Entering that campaign a year ago, even the term ”underdog” would have been charitable to describe Brosseau and a few dozen other Quebec NDP candidates.
She hadn’t knocked on doors, hadn’t spent a dime on her campaign and had never even set foot in the riding she was vying for.
Allegations also spread that Brosseau couldn’t speak French, even though the constituency was 98 per cent francophone.
But a so-called “orange wave” rolled in around the same time Brosseau was on that late-April trip. A few days later, that wave swept her to victory in the Berthier-Maskinonge riding, in what was perhaps the biggest upset of the election.
It was while she vacationed in Las Vegas that the first hints of the intense media interest in her story started to sink in. Brosseau read a couple of the news stories about her untimely, mid-campaign trip on a computer while travelling.
She tried, however, to keep herself from reading too much.
“I didn’t want to pay too much attention to it because I didn’t want to get too stressed,” Brosseau said at her riding office in Louiseville, around 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
Her family back home, meanwhile, was worried about all the attention.
Instead of heading home early, Brosseau stayed put. She said the trip only lasted a few days and that cutting it short wasn’t even an option.
“I didn’t have the money in my bank to buy another ticket,” she said.
“It was prepaid long (before), so I didn’t have the money for that.”
Since the May 2 election, the single mom has been earning an annual salary $157,000 as an MP in the House of Commons.
That turn of events also prompted a rather rapid reorganization of her life.
“(The) election was kind of, ‘Wow, what do I do now? How do I move forward?’ ” she said of that surprising win over veteran Bloc Quebecois incumbent Guy Andre.
“I knew it was a possibility, I just didn’t think it was possible.”
The Canadian Press followed Brosseau last week in her riding, where she met with constituents and fielded French questions from local journalists at a news conference.
She appears to have grown into her new job and, given the French lessons she’s been taking, original claims about her lack of proficiency in the language now appear exaggerated.
Brosseau, who turns 28 on Thursday, insists she learned French as a child, but it was rusty and she didn’t have the confidence to express herself comfortably last spring.
In a twist, the rumours about her struggles with French are now working in her favour – many locals still believe she was a unilingual anglophone just a year ago.
Several people remarked last week about how impressed they were with her progress, with some crediting her quick mastery of the language for winning them over.
“You could coach the (Montreal) Canadiens,” Jean St-Louis joked after a meeting to discuss concerns over float-plane noise in his community.
He was referring to the controversy over the hockey team hiring unilingual anglophone Randy Cunneyworth as interim coach this season; the next Habs coach is expected to be bilingual.
On Louiseville’s main drag in front of her riding office, Brosseau was greeted with several smiles, waves and even a friendly shout of “Ruth Ellen!”
“Salut!” she said as she waved back to the passerby.
The media’s interest in Brosseau still appears to be strong in the region.
Around a dozen local journalists showed up last week for one of Brosseau’s first news conferences in the riding.
A local advocate for victims of pyrite – a mineral common in the area that inflicts costly damage to house foundations – was pleased to see her.
“We’ve never seen this many journalists for pyrite before,” Yvon Boivin said as reporters gathered outside a home in Trois-Rivieres before the news conference.
“Ms. Brosseau definitely has an impact with the media… She’s known at the national level…
“We’ll take advantage of this.”
Boivin gave Brosseau’s notoriety partial credit for the big turnout, which was a joint event with Robert Aubin, a rookie NDP MP from the neighbouring district.
The NDP MPs are circulating a petition that calls on the Conservative government to help the more than 1,000 pyrite victims in the region pay for repairs, which can reach between 80 and 120 per cent of the value of a building.
“We’re here to defend them,” Brosseau told reporters.
“We work for you,” she added in a message aimed at constituents. “It’s time to put pressure on the Harper government, it’s time to react. These are our neighbours, these are our friends.”
Brosseau has met 25 of the 34 municipal mayors in her riding.
She says she enjoys talking with people and fighting for their interests.
With this increasing taste for politics, she plans to run again in 2015.
“I definitely got bit by the bug,” she said. “It’s been a whirlwind, it’s been a crazy year and it’s flown by. I’ve been lucky, it’s been very positive thus far.”