NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau listens to a constituent while discussing growing concerns over float-plane noise in her riding Thursday, April 19, 2012. Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press
Before they knew her name, she was instantly and derisively known as the MP for Vegas.
Ruth Ellen Brosseau spent three days in Las Vegas for her 27th birthday during the 2011 election campaign and not a single day in the riding of Berthier-Maskinongé.
A desperate NDP ran her as a paper candidate in the Quebec riding, never anticipating she and dozens of other paper candidates would ultimately be sitting in Parliament.
So the nickname, while perhaps not kind, fit.
Brosseau was not supposed to win, nor was she expecting to win. She had run a bar at Carleton University. She had never run for office. On election night she was as surprised as everyone else.
“Election night was so fun,” Brosseau says while surrounded by the trappings of her Parliament Hill office. “It was a good night, but as things got closer and numbers started rising and rising for my district, it was sort of, what do I do? Who do I talk to?”
Three years later the walls of her parliamentary office are still sparse. There is a picture of Tom Mulcair, some Jack Layton memorabilia and a big orange banner congratulating her on the win. It was Brosseau’s grandparents who proudly had it made and she has reluctantly decided to hang it.
Brosseau is one of dozens of NDP Quebec MPs who got caught up in the orange wave that swept through the province, giving the NDP its best performance in its half-century history.
She became a poster child for the so-called paper candidate: a standard-bearer with a name on a ballot, but no actual campaign. In French she refers to herself as a “poteau,” a more descriptive but negative word that translates as "sign post."
Brosseau says she understands why she became a big story and tries not to take it too personally.
“I think part of it was because I was a young woman, you know blond hair, went to Vegas," she says, "and there are some sexist aspects.”
Certainly being young and attractive meant the story took on a life of its own.
Brosseau became the butt of jokes, a cautionary tale of what happens when the electoral tide washes in paper candidates. But instead of shying away from the opportunity, Brosseau waded into it.
“Winning the election was hard," she says. "I could have hid and just said, no, this isn’t for me. But I figured, what do I have to lose? These people voted for me, maybe I could do the job.”
But first, she had to learn how.
Brosseau hadn’t spoken French since she was a kid, she didn’t know anything about the mostly rural riding of Berthier-Maskinongé and she knew nothing about politics.
Brosseau decided to do what she knew best — she listened.
“Like a sponge, listening, trying to soak up as much as I can and working in a restaurant, or as a bartender, you’re a listener and I think I’ve gained a lot of patience from my work before. It had nothing to do with politics, but it helped me,” explains Brosseau.
Kathleen Monk was director of communications for the NDP in 2011 and she worked closely with Brosseau.
“Her political career had a rocky start," admits Monk. "There were many people in the media and political backrooms who didn’t think or frankly want her to succeed.”
Monk says she had a feeling Brosseau would manage to pull it off and now considers her “an example for women who strive to work in politics.”
Indeed, when you ask people in Brosseau’s riding and her colleagues on Parliament Hill, you hear time and again that Brosseau is good at listening and determined to learn.
In recent weeks she was voted vice-chair of the NDP caucus by her colleagues, and as deputy agriculture critic, she is now leading the NDP’s committee prep work for the agriculture file.
Her colleague Malcom Allen, the agriculture critic, says she is a rising star in Parliament.
“She works remarkably hard," says Allen. "I mean, lots of MPs work hard, but she has a great work ethic. She has a mature level about her that wants to learn.”
Her maturity might come in part from a decision she made 13 years ago. She was 17 when her son, Logan, was born. And although her family and friends supported her, plenty of others told her she wouldn’t amount to anything. She decided at that moment to prove them wrong.
Sometimes it meant working in retail during the day and tending bar on the weekends to make ends meet.
Her goal was to be a positive role model for her son.
Brosseau never imagined she might also be a role model for young women across the country, but it’s something she has now embraced.
“I think it’s important to push young people and obviously women to get involved in politics, because we need a strong, more powerful voice,” she says.
Brosseau is slightly more polished that she was three years ago. She has clearly had some media training so that she gives answers that are politically safe, but she is still down to earth.
As Brosseau points out, she may have been in Las Vegas for her 27th birthday, but for her 30th birthday she was back in the riding, at a chamber of commerce dinner, and she says it was “amazing.”