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Friday, May 13, 2011

Ruth Ellen: All the Rage

And of the controversies of the late election, a single one stands out, shines brightest. And it has nothing to do with contempt of parliament, or hoax Elections Canada calls, or Stephen Harper breaking the law to campaign on election day itself, or how many ridings the Conservatives won by less than 50 votes.

No, the only controversy the Canadian electorate seems to care about at the moment is a young, blonde woman.

Yes, I’m talking Ruth Ellen Brosseau, and I’m not about to tear her down.

For those of you who somehow missed this, Ms. Brosseau is 27, a single mother, formerly manager of a pub on Carleton University campus, and newly elected NDP MP for the riding of Berthier-Maskinongé. Am I the only person to whom this all sounds quite impressive?

Okay, now for the roundup of the controversies: Ruth Ellen spent five days in Las Vegas during the election campaign. Ruth Ellen never set foot in her riding until two days ago. Ruth Ellen’s French is so terrible they couldn’t publish her interview in the newspaper. Ruth Ellen’s campaign picture is really unprofessional-looking. Ruth Ellen doesn’t have a college diploma even though her NDP profile says she does. Ruth Ellen admits she never expected to win. Ruth Ellen is so terrible they’re not letting her talk to the media. Ruth Ellen’s nomination papers may have forged signatures on them.

So… yeah. I will give you that her campaign picture was really unprofessional-looking (it kind of looked like it was taken with a webcam). Also the not setting foot in her riding thing. Even if she didn’t expect to win—and let’s face it, who had any idea that the NDP would sweep Quebec when candidates were being nominated?—I would think she could have at least gone up and met with the riding association, but I also think that the riding association should have insisted she come up to meet with them before they agreed to nominate her.

As for Vegas, Brosseau wasn’t the only candidate to vacation during the campaign, and as I mentioned before, she always knew her chances of winning were slim. Seriously. Why is everybody vilifying this woman for not expecting to win when nobody else saw the demise of the Bloc Québécois coming either? A month ago, if you had told me how many ridings the NDP were going to take in Quebec, especially rural Quebec, I would have laughed at you. And possibly raised an eyebrow superciliously.

As for the diploma incident: personally, I believe the NDP’s statement that it was their mistake, that Brosseau had told them she had studied at St. Lawrence and they extrapolated. According to the NDP, Brosseau was two credits away from getting her diploma when she was forced to quit school and move to Ottawa for family reasons. I mean, slow down and think for a second here. She’s 27, with a 10-year-old son. I’m sure there were a lot of family reasons to consider. Brosseau grew up and went to school near where I live, and the local papers have just been brimming full of interviews with friends, classmates, and teachers who knew her through both high school and college, and they all seem to think she’s competent and capable:

Known as Re when she lived in Kingston, Brosseau graduated from KC in 2002 and St. Law¬rence, with a diploma in Advertising and Integrated Marketing Communications, in 2006.

"She was an excellent student," said Mike Hector, a St. Lawrence classmate who has known Brosseau since she was in high school and described her as "a good friend."
"We worked on a lot of projects together. She's a good strategic thinker."

Danielle van Dreunen, who taught three courses in which Brosseau was enrolled, has fond memories of her former student, who has since changed her hair colour from brunette to blond.

"She was a lovely, bright woman," said van Dreunen, who taught Brosseau Internet Marketing Communications, Public Relations and Entrepreneurship.

"She liked to be engaged in the class, asked questions, posed conundrums about the things we were working through," said van Dreunen, who retired from the college in December.

"One remembers students like that. She was engaged, not just sitting on the sidelines. She was quite focused on learning."

And will do a good job:

Despite Brosseau's lack of political experience, Hector and van Dreunen believe she will do just fine in her new role, which pays $157,731 a year.

"She's intelligent enough to do the job," said Hector. "Maybe (the NDP) put her there not expecting to win, but to gain some experience and cut her political teeth.

"This is not the first time there's been a surprise winner (in an election). She brings a fresh mind to the House of Commons."

Van Dreunen sent Brosseau a message on Facebook on Wednesday — "Congratulations, this seems a very exciting time for you" — but hadn't received a reply as of Thursday.

(Brosseau has yet to give an interview, and an NDP spokesperson told QMI Agency Thursday that she is receiving training on the ins and outs of her new job and taking a crash course in French.)

"It'll be interesting to see what happens," said van Dreunen. "She's a neophyte, she needs an opportunity to find her sea legs. That's not to say she couldn't be an absolutely wonderful (MP)."

Experience, said van Dreunen, can be overrated.

"There's an expression: The ark was built by amateurs, the Titanic was built by professionals."

Perhaps more to the point, the inhabitants of Berthier-Maskinongé like Brosseau. When she visited the riding for the first time this week, she was described as ”composed and confident”, and her French was perfectly understandable. The article at that last link doesn’t really say very much—watch the video if you understand French at all. I have listened, over the course of the years, to a LOT of anglophones struggling through French conversations, and Brosseau’s French is pretty good and on its way to improving. I doubt she’ll ever be fully bilingual, but I think, being thrust into this milieu and forced to speak it regularly, she will become functionally bilingual. But the most important thing in that video is the interviews with the Berthier-Maskinongé electors. They like Brosseau. They find her competent, relatable, and they really feel that she will do well at looking out for their interests. Maybe that’s just optimism; but you have to remember that even though no one ever expected Brosseau to win, the NDP didn’t just pick her randomly out of all of their card-carriers. Parties often pick young candidates to run in ridings they think are unwinnable, just to give them the experience. Stephen Harper started out that way himself, running for the Reform Party when he was still a young’un known as Steve.

But I think also—and this is throughout Canada, but maybe particularly in Quebec—the average Joe—the Mme Paillé, if you will—is getting tired of being represented by lawyers like Paul Martin, academics like Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. The NDP candidates, by and large, just seem more real, more like everyday folk. I think this explained, in part, the appeal of the Bloc Québécois. Former leader Gilles Duceppe studied at the Université de Montréal, but never graduated, and before he entered politics, he worked as a hospital orderly. Brosseau effectively has a college education in marketing communications, which is probably a more practical thing for a politician to have than a fancypants history PhD like Ignatieff’s (who can easily tell you what policies have and haven’t worked throughout history, but rather fails at understanding people and generally being effective).

Long story short, I think that more than cutting Brosseau slack, we should be proud of her. She’s a young woman, a single mother, a hard worker, and an intelligent person, and she has gained the respect and trust of tens of thousands of people, who believe in her ability to understand their interests and needs and defend them at the federal level. Maybe she’s made some poor decisions over the course of this campaign, but by and large, I think we need more MPs like Ruth Ellen.

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