Rookie MP learns on the job

Deputy ag critic | Ruth Ellen Brosseau impresses after surprise win

When agriculture minister Gerry Ritz appeared at a Parliament Hill committee in late November, he was grilled by a rookie Quebec MP who wouldn’t take vague for an answer.

Ruth Ellen Brosseau, deputy New Democratic Party agriculture critic, asked him whether supply management tariff protections are being negotiated in the Canada-European Union trade liberalization talks.

Ritz told her the government maintains “unequivocal support” for supply management, and supply management leaders are happy and trust Conservatives to do the right thing.

Brosseau wasn’t content with that answer. She wanted specifics.

“Can you tell me how much access will be given to (imported) dairy products, cheese in particular,” she said. “Will it be two percent or three percent?”

Ritz said negotiations continue.

“But at this point, I don’t foresee any changes that would threaten the validity and the value of our supply managed system.”

It was still vague, but at least the young MP had asked questions that dairy farmers in her rural riding wanted asked.

“I of course want to speak for my producers, to let them know they have a voice in Ottawa,” Brosseau said in a later interview in her Parliament Hill office.

For Brosseau, learning political skills and how to be an MP is still a work in progress.

Two years ago, the then-26-year-old single mother working as assistant manager at the Carleton University pub could never have imagined she would be sitting as an MP for the rural Quebec riding of Berthier-Maskinongé.

During the 2011 election campaign, the NDP was looking for a full slate of 75 candidates in Quebec and she agreed to allow her name to stand for a Quebec riding.

“I was just a name on the list.”

At that point, the NDP had only one Quebec seat.

She continued working her pub job and took a brief vacation in Las Vegas. She never campaigned in the riding and in fact had never been in the riding, having been born in Quebec but raised and schooled in Ontario.

Then something happened. Leader Jack Layton caught on in Quebec, NDP support soared and on May 2, 2011, the NDP took 59 of 75 seats in the province to vault into official opposition status for the first time.

Brosseau was shocked and quickly visited her riding that abuts Trois Rivieres to meet the people she suddenly was representing.

“They have been very welcoming, and I spend as much time as I can there,” she said.

The riding is on the St. Lawrence River north shore between Montreal and Quebec City.

Brousseau has been visiting farms to get a better understanding of their issues and problems.

Last summer, she was featured in a parade in Louiseville during its annual buckwheat festival.

“I love meeting the farmers in my riding and discussing the issues, going to their farms,” she said.

“I really enjoy what I do. I am learning an incredible amount and have much more to learn, and I’m having fun.”

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen, a former southwestern Ontario auto plant electrician and union activist, said the Quebec perspective is important for the party.

“She brings a fresh approach and a voice for Quebec producers that we haven’t had,” he said. “And she’s very keen to get into the detail on all issues.”

Brosseau has also received good reviews from farm lobbyists who talked to her about their broader industry issues.

“She really got it,” said Grain Growers of Canada executive director Richard Phillips after talking to her about the cost to the industry of regulatory and inspection duplication and cost.

“She said that having worked in the food services industry, she understood the point we were making.”

Her food services industry experience involved working for much of the past decade in restaurants and bars to support herself and her now 11-year-old son.

“I think that experience working in bars taught her she has to pay attention to detail and create a team,” said Allen.

“She has a view that nothing is all black and white. Her background has taught her that you have to do things skillfully. It’s a working machine. That is incredibly helpful in politics.”

Brosseau is a vegetarian, supports organic production and identifies herself on her parliamentary web page as an animal welfare advocate.

However, she said that does not mean her views are the only option.

“This is my personal choice, but as the government in waiting, we need a broad and balanced platform,” she said.

“It is a huge and diverse industry and we don’t value it enough. We all eat every day. We need to support small farmers, but I recognize that it is not the only model.”

Brosseau said she has always been interested in where her food comes from, despite her lack of farm background, and that gives her an interest in her work on the agriculture committee.

She supports labelling for genetically modified content in food but mainly argues that consumers need to be better informed about their food system and what they are eating.

Meanwhile, Brosseau said she is having a great time as an MP, learning on the run.

As a single mother who dropped out of school at age 17 when she was pregnant, returned to school, worked in bars to support her son and is now is an MP, she said there is a pattern.

“I am stubborn and hard working,” she said. “I always work hard to prove people’s low expectations of me wrong.”

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