Portraits of Ruth Ellen Brosseau
If she seems diffident and withdrawn, it’s not hard to understand why. The target of a pile-on-the-rabbit tactic during the last federal election, Ottawa-born, Kingston-raised Brosseau was an easy mark in the push-and-shove of politics. Introverted, inexperienced and young, she offended tastemakers by being a single mom with unpaid student loans for a degree she never completed. Worse still — or better still if you’re writing press releases for her political opponents — she was running in a nationalist central Quebec riding despite having weak French and no intention of campaigning there since, as a paper candidate, she never expected to win. Instead, she
took an already paid-for vacation to Las Vegas.
She met equal measures of vitriol and scorn in her bid for a seat in the House of Commons. And so, despite being inundated with more interview requests than seems reasonable for a rookie MP — Parliament is stiff with them these days — she’s only done a couple. Little wonder her office declined to join in the Gallic zaniness of an article to be titled “Les femmes sexy en politiques.”
It was hardly what her parents and extended family in St. Bruno, Que., could have wanted for her. True, last Christmas, she was getting by as assistant manager at Carleton University’s Oliver’s Pub to support herself and her son, Logan, 10. Yet being publicly vilified — even if it came with a sweet boost to her salary — was not what they expected, either. Not being politically minded, they worried about her entry into politics, but “were always great supporters of if you believe in something, fight for it. It’s important to be stubborn and stick to what you believe in. If you lose that, you have nothing left.”
All of which intrigued Tony Fouhse, Darren Holmes and Angelina McCormick, three noted Ottawa photographers asked to do a pre-Christmas shoot at ARC The. Hotel with Brosseau as they saw her — whether it be controversial, awkwardly shy, paradigm-shifter or simply young woman caught up in a game for which she was ill-prepared. “She’s unschooled still and that makes her more interesting,” observes Fouhse, who is known for his compellingly emotional photos of Ottawa’s addicts and homeless. Adds Holmes, who sees
Brosseau’s election as transformative in Canadian politics: “She’s standing on the shoulders of giants.”
They’re big boots to fill, especially since she’s still finding her feet. Elected during a complete upset for the Bloc Québécois, Brosseau has since boosted her spotty French with intensive language lessons and splits her time between her Gatineau home and her riding apartment to visit its 34 municipalities, much to the dismay of Logan. “In the summer, there’s lots of fêtes familles,” she says. “By the end, Logan was like, ‘I don’t want to meet anyone else.’ It’s a 180-degree turn from the life he had known.”
There were distractions, such as new friends who owned chickens and encouraged Logan to collect their eggs. “So now, he won’t eat chicken,” laughs Brosseau, a vegetarian since she was a strong-willed five-year-old. “My goal now is to get him to love cows.”
Winning over the locals was a little harder. “I signed up for Jack (Layton). He instilled such a positive outlook and optimism. The weekend before he died, I was in the riding and I was saying he was strong and would fight it. Then my mom called (with the news) and I dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe it. People in the riding were upset by his loss because they voted for him, but they got me.”
They also got a young woman determined to hear them out and run a bit of an agenda of her own, particularly in defence of single moms, who’ve written to her in support from across the nation. “The people (in the riding) were really sort of surprised that I’d go to the town hall and meet the mayors,” she says. “They would say ‘we’re very happy you’re here asking about our problems.’ That’s motivating and inspiring to me.”
Charming the voters has proven to be a political boon and one that has given her much-needed confidence on the Hill, where her political nouse is still under construction. That much was obvious when she took to her feet in the House of Commons in June, and, in French, asked a question about sports funding in her riding. Her English-accented performance nevertheless earned a standing ovation from her party and blushes from her.
“I got up and could see Stephen Harper right there in front of me,” she recalls, her voice still filled with wonder. “It was a little, like, wow.”
If that sounds a trifle ingénue and hardly the reaction of a future political heavyweight, there is a distinct sense from Brosseau that her
election as a young Anglo single mom into a francophone riding, as well as that of more women and much younger politicians than ever before, is something of a turning point for Canadian politics in general.
“This is about people with different experiences and values representing Canada now,” she says, her subdued voice strengthening into something approaching a political tone. “I know how hard it is. I’ve worked two jobs and I wanted to go on vacation and couldn’t afford it. I know how hard it is, when the Conservatives offer tax credits to get kids in programs, but it’s really not that helpful if you don’t have the money in the first place.
Do you really want just old guys, lawyers and people with their preconceived power trips in Parliament? I’m a real Canadian working for Canadians.”
As she prepares for winter — “I’m 100-per-cent taking a week off to go snowboarding with Logan” — she says there are no regrets. “I don’t think I could have done things differently,” she says, slightly defensively. “I didn’t think I would win, I couldn’t change the vacation. It is what it is and I’m happy with where I am now.”
Where that will lead her in the future depends on her performance before the next federal election. People in her riding “gave me a chance,” she says, adding, “they’ll tell you in four years if they like me or not.”
THE ARTISTS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
In his portrait, at right, Holmes focused his lens on the historical: Brosseau’s never-before-achieved rout as an Anglo single mom in a
francophone riding and the NDP’s astonishing emergence as official opposition where it had previously been a wallflower party. His chosen portrait of her — he shot three, all dealing with the theme of emergence — is “a reinvention of her, a reinventing of macro-scale politics, a reinventing of the country,” he says. “This is the grand unveiling. It’s a sense of transition or metamorphosis.”
For her portrait on page 70, McCormick says she researched Brosseau by reading this interview, articles and looking at photos. Her impression was a young woman with “a sense of idealism versus realism. So that became the vision of the portrait.” For McCormick, “idealism is a theory that reality exists only in ideas. Also it states that ideally, everything and everyone should be perfect and flawless. Realism, on the other hand, has a more practical approach of looking at things. Politicians target people’s idealistic nature to create a false sense of realism. Did we, the people, target her realistic nature to create a false sense of idealism? In my mind, her political career began with this debate. So my portrait reflects both sides of her.”
For his portrait Fouhse, who is a master at using found environments to work within, noted a spot 10 metres west of ARC The. Hotel, where his shots were taken. “I liked the feel of the architecture. The fact that there was a surveillance camera there was a bonus since it alludes to the scrutiny she was under after her election win.” Modern and simple with little or no post-production work, Fouhse says his images, taken with an old 4×5 camera, require a certain stillness and discipline from the subject. “But in that stillness, there is more than enough room for happy mistakes and being human.”
**Special thanks to ARC The. Hotel, 140 Slater St. for providing the photo shoot location.
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