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One day this week, Environment Minister John Baird stood in the House of Commons to respond to a question and came out with something that opposition MPs found so unsatisfactory that they began to chant: "Rona, Rona, Rona."

A few seats down the row from Mr. Baird, his predecessor in the portfolio allowed herself a little grin. Rona Ambrose is accustomed to being the butt of a joke. It got so bad when she was ignominiously shuffled out of Environment just after Christmas that the young Albertan with the big hair decided to drop off the radar. Even now she won't talk openly about her troubled time in the post.

But she appears to be regaining her sense of humour.

"I'm going to start my own cosmetics line," she joked recently while serving as emcee at a fundraiser for the conservative Manning Centre.

Her first product, she told the well-heeled crowd at Ottawa's Fairmont Chateau Laurier, is a body cream especially for women going into politics.

"Put on lots," the label will read. "The more you put on, the thicker your skin gets."

The crowd chuckled, as did Ms. Ambrose. But she wasn't laughing a few months ago; she wasn't sleeping, either, a friend says. She was, as she told the Manning dinner, having "a kind of rough year."

The friend calls last year Ms. Ambrose's annus horribilis, a "perfect storm" when her personal and political lives collided, with disastrous results.

What caused that perfect storm, and what has she been up to since it died down?

RONNA, NOT ROANA

Small, stylish and attractive, with her signature curtain of dark hair, Ms. Ambrose arrived on Parliament Hill in 2004 as the rookie MP for Edmonton-Spruce Grove and soon made a name for herself even though no one could get it quite right. (She should be called "Ronna," but almost everyone says "Roana.")

While in opposition, she became an instant star by pressing Liberal cabinet ministers (she once called Grit heavyweight and hockey great Ken Dryden an "old white guy," demanding that he back off his child-care scheme because "working women want to make their own choices").

As well as French, she speaks Portuguese, having lived in Brazil as a child because her father worked for an international oil company.

As an undergraduate at the University of Alberta, she had earned a degree in feminist studies and volunteered for feminist organizations, such as Status of Women Canada. But then, a friend says, she slowly embraced libertarian beliefs in the style of writer Ayn Rand.

Her first taste of politics came in 2000, when she helped friend James Rajotte become the MP for Edmonton-Leduc. "She was an amazing organizer ... and had a keen interest in policy," he says.

Mr. Rajotte introduced her to Stephen Harper when Mr. Harper was running for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, and she soon became fiercely loyal. Bitten by the political bug, Ms. Ambrose went after the Spruce Grove nomination - a hugely competitive race against seven rivals.

Shannon Haggerty, a friend who helped her win the nomination and later worked for her in Ottawa, says the contest was important for what was to come. "That gave her the shell, the armoured shell she was going to need for Environment."

Indeed, when the Conservatives came to power, the appointment of Ms. Ambrose, a mid-level Alberta bureaucrat dealing with federal-provincial relations, to the Environment post came as a surprise. The pundits had her pegged for Intergovernmental Affairs.

But Environment was not a priority for the Harper government, which totally underestimated its rising importance, and Ms. Ambrose fit the demographic that seemed most interested in such issues.

As a rookie minister, she faced a huge learning curve. It didn't help that she was poorly briefed. The Green Party counted eight major mistakes in a presentation she made before a Commons committee. An assistant had to come to the rescue at one point.

Ms. Haggerty, then her director of communications, says anyone who takes on Environment may be doomed. "Unless you reduce the temperature of the Earth by two degrees, you are a failure."

Ms. Ambrose declined to be interviewed, but some of her friends spoke - on condition of anonymity, noting the chill between the press and the Harper government.

They contend that the Prime Minister's Office - the so-called centre - deserves much of the blame for Ms. Ambrose's rough year. They accuse the office not only of failing to support her, but also of having no clue how to proceed with an environmental plan. It didn't anticipate Canadians' intense interest in the environment and bullied Ms. Ambrose into spouting lines that were inane and insincere.

As one of her more diplomatic friends puts it, "She didn't feel well served by the PMO communicators."

There also were problems closer to home. She and deputy Samy Watson did not get along. "How do you deal with the department if you can't deal with the deputy minister?" one insider asks.

Eventually, Mr. Watson was shuffled out and now serves as Canada's representative at the World Bank. But by then Ms. Ambrose's fate may have been sealed.

THE TIPPING POINT

In March, 2006, the PMO had her sign a letter to the editor saying that the "Kyoto accord is seriously flawed and that the emissions targets it imposes on Canada are unrealistic and unattainable."

Published at the same time that she was in Germany representing Canada at a conference on extending the Kyoto climate accord, the letter went off like a bombshell. "That's when it all started to become crazy," the Tory insider says.

The miscue made her the poster girl for Canada's retreat from its Kyoto commitment.

"I don't think that anybody thought that Environment was going to hit the way it did," Ms. Haggerty says.

"I think finding a position was not as easy as one thought it might be ... You're either going to piss business off to make Canadians happy or you're going to piss Canadians off by telling them they have to carry some of the load."

According to Ms. Haggerty, who is now back in Edmonton but speaks to Ms. Ambrose every day, the situation soon spun out of control - and beyond Ms. Ambrose's grasp.

"I think we all know something has to be done," she says. "It's so front-and-centre, and you've got the Al Gores out there and everything. I mean, how do you live up to the celebrity of that?"

Ms. Ambrose tried in vain to defend her government's hastily assembled green agenda, including her Clean Air Act, which the opposition declared dead as soon as she had unveiled it. She was being grilled on television, berated in the newspapers and skewered every day in Question Period.

Environmentalists accused her of spending more time on her hair than the environment, and she even received death threats.

Everyone, including members of her own party, started talking about a cabinet shuffle - with her name at the top of the list.

And all was not well on the home front. Ms. Ambrose was grappling with personal woes, including the sudden death of her brother-in-law, a cancer diagnosis for her father-in-law and the death of Haida, her beloved Dalmatian.

As the pressure mounted, her fiercely protective husband, Bruce, an investment adviser in Alberta (the two have been together almost 20 years), quietly began to call her friends in Ottawa asking that they look out for her. Not that he was immune to the stress - one day he tore into his own father simply for arriving for dinner with a frozen trout instead of the salmon he had expected.

The final humiliation came with the Prime Minister's last pre-Christmas news conference. Asked about Ms. Ambrose and the shuffle speculation, Mr. Harper just made a joke rather than trying to stick up for her.

Watching on television, she was devastated, her friend says, and cancelled dinner plans that night. After heading home for the holidays, she retreated with her cousin to "clear her head" at a Mexican spa. Not long after getting back, she learned that she was indeed to be offered a lower-profile appointment - Intergovernmental Affairs, the very job the pundits had expected.

She accepted and instantly went to ground. Between the ignominy of the shuffle in January and cracking that body-lotion joke at the Chateau Laurier, she said exactly nothing for public consumption.

But friend Tim Powers, a government-relations consultant, says Ms. Ambrose is not a "woe is me" person. She never complained, never whined, and friends say she enjoys being out of the limelight.

And now things are beginning to look up. On the personal side, there is a new puppy, Luna, who was flown to Ottawa for a visit not long ago, and her father-in-law has been given a clear bill of health.

Professionally, Mr. Powers says, the past year has taught her much about the "street-fighting nature" of politics. The body-cream joke demonstrates a "self-deprecating approach" and "a determination not to be knocked around."

In her new portfolio, she is working to bond with her provincial counterparts and suggested to Mr. Harper, when he called to wish her a happy 38th birthday, that the forthcoming first ministers conference focus on economic union. Insiders say he likes the idea.

Ironically, "the centre" finally seems to realize that Rona Ambrose is good for the party.

But as the opposition chanting this week showed yet again, people still don't know how to pronounce her name.

Jane Taber is a senior political writer with The Globe and Mail's

Ottawa bureau.