Skip to main content
jane taber

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment Michelle Rempel stands along the Ottawa River in Ottawa on Dec. 8, 2011.Dave Chan

Such a contrast this week in the House of Commons. With Peter Kent, the Environment Minister, away at the UN climate conference in South Africa, it was up to Michelle Rempel, his parliamentary secretary, to defend the government's sometimes questionable environmental record.

And Mr. Kent, a former anchorman and journalist, could take a few lessons in communications from her.

In a Commons full of ministers robotically reading answers from their iPads because they're afraid to go off script – that includes Mr. Kent – Ms. Rempel simply tossed away her talking points and confidently took on her opposition opponents.

She is among a new breed of Tory women. Like Lisa Raitt, the uber-confident Labour Minister, with whom she pals around, and Candice Hoeppner, the Manitoba Tory MP who killed the long-gun registry, Ms. Rempel stands out.

Only 31 years old, the blonde and petite rookie Calgary Centre-North MP, doesn't hide behind anything – not even behind those prominent dimples of hers.

Throughout her political career, a pattern has emerged: Other women have pushed her to be better and more involved.

This week in Question Period, Megan Leslie, the NDP's environment critic, attacked Mr. Kent for lecturing countries in Durban, "saying that they have to join a binding climate deal for 2015."

Ms. Rempel shot back, reminding Ms. Leslie that on her recent trip to Washington to talk about the Keystone pipeline project, the New Democrat MP "lectured the United States … lobbying against our jobs here in Canada."

Even then – and despite the war of words and accusations – Ms. Leslie respects Ms. Rempel. In fact, they go for drinks together "to decompress."

"It's nice to have a strong adversary on the file," the NDP MP says. "She's smart as a whip."

Ms. Rempel didn't grow up dreaming about being an MP.

"It's not something a lot of women have in the back of their heads as a possible career choice," she notes.

She's a classically trained pianist, who helped pay her way through university by playing. There's the piano virtuoso side to her, and then there's her expertise in wine. She's also a sommelier.

A Franco-Manitoban – her maiden name is Godin – Ms. Rempel grew up in a working-class family, with one younger sister, Cherie, who now works in Ottawa for Manitoba Senator Don Plett.

She speaks some French, but figures she'd need a good immersion course to converse confidently. Surprisingly, her parents are not political.

Despite her young age, Ms. Rempel has been married for 10 years. Her husband, Jason, whom she met in high school, is an actuary. She describes him as "pretty easy-going."

They have no children, but, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper's family, they have two rescued cats: No. 1 and No. 2.

"Hey, cats are good people," she says.

In 2004, after putting themselves through university, she and her husband decided to move to Calgary for job opportunities.

"Calgary has that draw," Ms. Rempel notes. "It's a younger, entrepreneurial city. You just know it's where you're supposed to be."

In Calgary, she also found that politics is where she was supposed to be.

First, she became involved in Tory MP Diane Ablonczy's riding association, climbing the ranks to become involved in party policy.

Then came Nov. 4, 2010, and what she calls her "life-changing" event. Jim Prentice, the veteran Harper minister, announced he was resigning his Calgary seat to join a Bay Street bank. Calls came from the party and the business community encouraging her to run.

About two weeks later at a conference in Edmonton, Ms. Rempel was still considering her options. There, she ran into Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, who helped her make up her mind.

"Are you thinking about this," Ms. Ambrose asked. "What's holding you back?"

She was mulling over some other job opportunities. Besides, she said, she felt she was still making a difference as an "activist."

"Stop right there," Ms. Ambrose said. "We have so many talented women as staff and activists in the party. What we need is to get them on the benches. We're only going to get that if you decide to run. So run."

She didn't have to run; she was acclaimed, likely scaring off her competition with her organization.

Once in Ottawa, she was quickly elevated to parliamentary secretary in a portfolio that she argues is a good fit for an Albertan.

"Alberta has one of the most iconic landscapes and there's this culture in Alberta … not reported on. People really care about the natural heritage. People love the land there.

"I think where the misconception comes from is that people in Alberta want to protect the environment, but they know it can be done while still growing industry," she says.