Profiles

PROFILE: A lunchtime chat with NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau

Photography by Colin Rowe

It happened to be the first time in her life that she had actually been to Las Vegas. She didn’t gamble, really, other than a few coins in a slot machine. A new pair of deck shoes came home in her suitcase, but that’s because she’s a sailor, not a shopper.

She went to Vegas with a girlfriend to create distance from the ritual her life had become: taking care of Logan, her beloved son, a fifth year of living back at home with her parents and working days and nights in a bar, serving drinks. “My goal [in Las Vegas] was to shoot a gun,” she told me, “but I never got the chance.”

The truth is that there’s not much Vegas in Ruth Ellen Brosseau, but that didn’t change a thing for the public, or the media, during the last election.

A quick online search offers little more than the story everybody already knows: a name on a ballot was elected member of Parliament, and now there’s a bartender in the House of Commons. Some of us might think our honourable members would benefit from a stiff drink in there, but that’s not the point of this story.

The point here was to spend a few hours with Brosseau and find out who she says she is. And on a bright Saturday at lunchtime, she pulled up outside my place. Brosseau, behind the wheel and halfway up the curb, oopsed and then stuck her head out the window.

“So how you doin’?” she asked, smiling.

“Just great,” I responded. “Thanks for coming out.”

She made it clear from the first: her friends call her R.E., and she hates the Vegas connection. R.E. is the composite of two maternal grandmothers — Ruth and Ellen — and part of a tight-knit family for which she moved back to Ottawa five years ago.

By the time we sat down for lunch, I knew that she had become a vegetarian at the age of five because “I found out that they turn animals into food, and I loved everything.” I knew that she’d had a hamster named Hammie and a bird named Birdie but no dolls, that she once wrote a 10-page essay about raccoons her mom was feeding, and that the family bury dead animals in their yard to provide them with a proper resting place. Oh, and the first speech she ever gave was about the merits of coffee — not bad for an eight-year-old. I also learned that Bob Villa inspired her to want to be an architect, that she has kept boxes of her drawings of houses and buildings despite emphatically repeating, three times in 100 words, that “I’m not a hoarder!” That, and I discovered that she has raced sailboats and loves water sports.

But by the time R.E. got to be 16, her world was about to change. For months, she had been dating the most popular boy in school; for once, she had missed taking her pill and became pregnant with Logan. “It just happened,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I lost a lot of people I thought were my friends.”

Including the father, whom she says wanted no part in the pregnancy, the birth, the future, or even support payments — he avoided the latter by enrolling in college, apparently. Yet she implored me not to mention his name. (What happens in Vegas… .)

Anyway, that’s when the light changed. “All of a sudden, I knew I wasn’t just thinking about myself, not anymore,” Brosseau said. “The game had changed.” It reinvented her into a determined, hard-headed woman who could turn chaos into opportunity, who realized that the only job that truly mattered was protecting Logan.

Indeed, the first real glimpse at how the rookie MP can move shows she’s a sailor. It appears she can navigate choppy waters and may explain why, despite hostile stories and headlines, she has been able to rise in the House and ask questions in French and go to her riding to meet the people she now represents.

She’s better in the eye of the storm.

“I’ve coasted in my dead-end jobs,” she admitted. “It’s a flaw I have. Trial by fire is the best way to learn… . Well, it’s the best way I learn.”

It was never Brosseau’s ambition to become a politician: she signed up so that people in the riding could vote for the same party she supports, and the job fell in her lap. She resents the way the media singled her out — “I thought it was shit, real crap,” she said — but accepts it. While she decided not to read any of the Vegas coverage, her mother learned to use a computer so that she could follow the narrative.

“I don’t want to disappear,” she said, “but I don’t want to be in the media like I was before.”

Fortunately for her, the national media missed all five of her tattoos, her pierced lip, and her occasional fag (yes, cigarette). And while she plans to run again in four years, Brosseau doesn’t think she’ll ever want to be prime minister. “It looks like the hardest job in the world.”

In fact, in a series of perfectly un-politician candid moments over our two-hour lunch, Brosseau admitted that she doesn’t know exactly how she’s going to succeed as an MP. “I’m not in full control, and I know it’s going to be a roller coaster for a while,” Brosseau said about the House of Commons. “It’s like landing on a different planet. I do get really nervous, and I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it. So I’ll just do the best I can.”

The first steps in the plan have been underway since the election: set up offices in Ottawa and the riding, improve French skills, hire staff, meet and listen to people, and use the word opportunity at every turn. The next step, simply, is to represent the people of Berthier-Maskinongé in Ottawa.

While many have expressed vitriolic shock at her electoral triumph, Brosseau reacts the same way a bartender does to a disorderly drunk perched at the bar: she ignores the voice and keeps mixing for others. She listens and manages as many conversations as possible while juggling her family, her new job, her new life. Brosseau just doesn’t care if anyone is bothered about her background or questions her abilities. “Everybody’s different,” she said. “That’s why we have the House.”

As Ronald Reagan said while he was a successful U.S. president and not a Hollywood actor, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” In this case, we have an individual who doesn’t fit the mould, who isn’t the usual politician, and who got there by blind luck, not naked ambition. She is the unlikely MP. And her name is Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

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