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A Challenge of Parliamentary Proportions & Ruth Ellen Brosseau

May 10th, 2011     by Meg Pirie     Comments

Well, originally I was going to write about organizing collectively and ‘watching the clock’ strategies, especially in unstable, low-wage situations with moderate to high degrees of surveillance, but then the Conservatives were re-elected with a majority and, well … I had a big cry.

Nevertheless, there were some exciting events during this election: the well-organized, enthusiastic, youth-driven vote mobs that sprang up across the country; the highest number of women ever were elected as MPs; and a significant number of youth and first-time MPs won seats and will be headed to Ottawa.

Change is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to a Parliament replete with–quite literally–old, white, straight men. That we get to to be part of what is hopefully the beginning of broader political engagement … well, for me, that’s the silver lining to Harpocracy.

That said, sexism and classism abound, especially where Ruth Ellen Brosseau is concerned.

Brosseau was elected in the francophone riding of Berthier-Maskinonge, beating Bloc Quebecois incumbent Guy Andre by roughly 6,000 votes. Much of the derision at the hands of mainstream media outlet has honed in on the following: she failed to campaign in this riding leading up to the election; she does not speak French; she took a vacation to Las Vegas in the middle of the campaign; she does not live in her riding; she is an assistant manager at a restaurant; she was accused of electoral fraud; she is 27; she is a single mother.

To start, we can safely say that Brosseau put her name forward to represent a political party she believes in, in a riding she never expected to win. The NDP surge that began in Quebec was unprecedented and, as such, never predicted. This phenomenon of “placeholder candidates” is not new. Interestingly, a Lethbridge Conservative MP–also running for the first time–was absent throughout the campaign, as well. Yet, this has been relatively unreported until later on in the campaign and demonstrates a sexist bias in mainstream media outlets.

And while I’m not condoning putting your name forward as a candidate and then failing to campaign meaningfully, Brosseau was by no means alone here. What’s more, the phenomenon of placeholder candidates tells us more about collective voting psyches. By and large, this election revealed both cynicism and a desire for something or someone different.

As for failing to speak French and the Vegas vacation: Brosseau did not hide this from the NDP. Again, that she was able to win the riding is, I think, a reflection of widespread dissatisfaction among voters. Was the vacation a truly sound decision? Maybe not. But instead of attacking the individual, let’s think about what Brosseau’s election signifies on a broader level.

Okay, Brosseau does not live in the Berthier-Maskinonge riding, although that’s about to change. Is this ideal? Nope. Is it uncommon? Hell no. The past two MPs in my riding of London North-Centre have not lived in this riding. While they live in or near the city–somewhat less dramatic that Brosseau’s case–the fact that they do not reside in this particular riding has been of little consequence to voters or local media. Yes, Brosseau has a lot of learning to do, but I hope that all newly- and re-elected MPs approach their roles in Parliament as one of constant learning.

So Brosseau is an assistant manager at a restaurant/pub at Carlton University. Okay. There are MPs who are community leaders, teachers, and farmers, to name but a few. But isn’t that the beauty of our system? That, if you win the nomination of a political party or run as an independent, you can be elected to work as a Member of Parliament? To this point I say: next. The voters of Berthier-Maskinonge could have gone with their incumbent, they could have voted Liberal, they could have voted Green, they could have voted for the Rhinoceros Party, and they could have voted Conservative. But they didn’t.

The accusations of electoral fraud levied Brosseau’s way have been ruled as baseless by Elections Canada. The finger-pointing on this issue is indicative of sore losing on the part of the Liberal party, now forced to reckon with the inadequacy of the title: “The Natural Ruling Party.”

Brosseau’s age and identification as a single mother make her an easy target for these sorts of attacks. And again, we’re seeing an intersection of sexism and classism here that is pretty disturbing. The repetition of her single mother-dom is an indication of internatlized, normative values: this title, continually attached to her name, acts as an innuendo that denotes some sort of threatening character flaw.

Which brings me to my next point: The Rt. Honourable Ruth Ellen Brosseau is 27, and she is a single mother.

I can’t emphasize enough how much this grinds my gears. This is certainly part of this woman’s story, but it is by no means all of her story. Beyond that, there seems to be a morality clause attached to the mainstream media’s repetition of the title ‘single mother;’ an inherent character flaw attached to this wayward women.

Surely, Brosseau’s lived experience is different from say, Stephane Dion’s, or Olivia Chow’s, or Elizabeth May’s. But diversity is good. Individuals not enmeshed in the status quo of everyday parliamentary affairs is also good. Youth and (gasp) single motherhood does not signify an inability to lead.

Finally, much attention has been focused on the salaries the MPs will earn. “But, but … they’re so young, and now they get a little over $100,000 a year!” Undeniably, for someone like Brosseau, a move from the hospitality industry to federal politics will see a significant pay raise. Why is this so bad–for her or her child? The underlying implication when this comment is made is that the working class is incapable of managing money. Do we make similar complaints when lawyers and doctors are elected?

So, perhaps we should instead be focusing on the earnings of MPs as a whole, while the disparity between rich and poor continues to grow in this country, and that livable wage is a right we should all lay claim to.

My hope for Ruth Ellen Brosseau is that she embrace this unexpected opportunity and become a model Parliamentarian capable of cooperation and dialogue, espousing an a politics based on anti-oppression and inclusion. The one positive is that the tide is beginning to turn and Brosseau is gaining some support from media columnists who view her election as just that: the election of a new MP in what turned out to be an exciting campaign that surprised all involved.

So, it’s true; we’re undoubtedly entering some uncharted political waters. But now, more than ever, we need to think about how we can meaningfully engage with our MPs and hold them accountable in a relationship based on reciprocity and respect, even when our world views don’t align.

My step-by-step plan for being a shamelessly involved citizen is simple: stay involved and stay informed. Youth inherit the legacies–good and bad–of the generations that preceded them. And this election has been a testament to the compassion of youth and, in spite of the fact that a majority was elected with the votes of just 40% of the 62% of eligible voters who cast a ballot, there is a broad desire for change.

So think: who represents you in Ottawa? What are their politics? In what ways do your views align and diverge? Would you like to know more about a specific issue? Did you get to see them debate? Did they come to your high school, college, or university? If not, why can’t there be some sort of town hall Q&A? Are they accessible via email, phone, or Twitter? Do they respond to your queries in a timely fashion? Is there a political party that aligns with your views? What about community groups or non-partisan research initiatives like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives?

When PM Harper gave his acceptance speech Monday night, he said now is the time to “govern for all Canadians,” even those who didn’t vote Conservative. I’m not sure if he’s up to this challenge, but I have hope that this current iteration of Parliament will call him on his hand.

Voting might be a one-day event, but governance is ongoing, as is engagement. And this is our challenge of parliamentary proportions.

Tags: in my opinion..., on the job

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