Ruth Ellen Brosseau is chatting with her people at the Festival de la galette de sarrasin on a pleasant fall afternoon when a middle-aged man with a broad smile bounds down a front stoop to shake her hand and pose for a picture.
This is no ordinary front stoop along Louiseville’s buckwheat festival strip, and the man no simple admirer. He is Léo Soulière, federal Conservative local riding president, and the stoop belongs to a campaign office of Josée Bélanger, his candidate. Ms. Bélanger is competing with Ms. Brosseau in the Oct. 21 election but Mr. Soulière makes no mind. He’s happy to see her. “I have trouble with these hard party lines,” Mr. Soulière says. “We’re all here to work together when this is all over.”
Mr. Soulière bends Ms. Brosseau’s ear about one of his several why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along theories. She agrees wholeheartedly: Her entire eight-year mission as the Member of Parliament for the vast French-speaking farmland riding of Berthier-Maskinongé, 110 kilometres northeast of Montreal, was built on crossing party lines.
“It was an advantage for me to come in here in 2011 not knowing anybody,” Ms. Brosseau recalls amid the kiosks of artisanal food and pancake sellers. “I had no lens, no baggage; I didn’t know what [political] colour people were. All I could do is sit down and talk with everyone.”
Whether she survives the vote to be the only remaining Quebec New Democrat from the 2011 orange wave depends on whether voters in a 99-per-cent white riding such as this can accept her leader, Jagmeet Singh, and his turban. The NDP is running a distant fourth in the province, threatening to wipe the last of Jack Layton’s Quebec legacy from the map. The NDP under Mr. Layton took 59 of 75 seats in 2011. Tom Mulcair gave up most of them in the 2015 campaign when the party won 16 seats. If the NDP has two Quebec seats left after Election Day, they will likely belong to Ms. Brosseau and Montreal MP Alexandre Boulerice.
A resurgent Bloc Québécois and the strong campaign of Leader Yves-François Blanchet are threatening all three main federal parties. The Bloc won only 10 seats in 2015 but could double or triple that with its surging support outside the cities.
The Louiseville fair is the epicentre of one of the last areas of Quebec NDP resistance. Sylvie Boulanger is on a break from her pharmacy technician job. “I adore Ruth Ellen,” she says. Once Ms. Brosseau is far out of earshot, she adds, “the thing that is hurting her is her leader and his turban.”
Ms. Boulanger briefly summarizes the problem as she sees it, talking about a court ruling 13 years ago that allowed school children to wear “knives” in school (she is referring to the Sikh kirpan). She mentions the work Quebeckers did to get religion out of schools in the Quiet Revolution, and then slips into her deep suspicion of Muslims. Someone explains that Mr. Singh is Sikh, not Muslim – a distinction Mr. Singh himself steadfastly refuses to do out of principle. “Anyway, I’m voting for her,” she says as she walks away.
In ridings across the province, the turban comes up repeatedly. Ms. Brosseau, like other NDP candidates, doesn’t deny the hurdle that Mr. Singh’s Sikh identity poses. Ms. Brosseau has never met a Sikh resident of her riding. (The 2016 census shows zero Punjabi speakers there.) But she says people are slowly warming up to Mr. Singh. “After that first French debate, people were like, ‘You know, he’s nice.’ He just has a turban. It takes a while to get over some perceptions. They see him handling these situations with such grace,” she says.
“I just hope it’s not too late. I don’t think it’s too late.”
Bloc Québécois candidate Yves Perron is a history teacher who lost to Ms. Brosseau in 2015 by 9,000 votes. Mr. Perron is president of the Bloc and one of the people who persuaded Mr. Blanchet to put his name forward for leader. Mr. Blanchet, who was known as “the goon” for his abrasive style during his time in provincial politics, has stabilized the party and softened his approach.
While Ms. Brosseau speaks constantly about problem-solving constituency work, Mr. Perron’s perspective is more pan-Quebec: He vows to protect Quebec’s secularism law, to work to block any oil pipeline from the West, and to fight federal subsidies for Newfoundland hydroelectricity.
He is asked about Ms. Brosseau: “Well, it doesn’t matter if she’s nice or she works hard on the ground, she voted to subsidize Newfoundland electricity to compete with Hydro-Québec,” he says. “It’s true she’s a very nice girl. But when it comes to defending the interests of Quebec, we have no compromise to make with Ontario or the West, unlike her.”
The tag “girl” has followed Ms. Brosseau from her start in politics.
Born in Ottawa, raised in Hudson, Que., and Kingston, she was a 27-year-old single mother and bartender living in her parents’ basement in Ottawa during the 2011 election campaign.
“My dream before being an MP was to have a unionized stable job, being able to pay down my student debt, get a small apartment, maybe buy a car,” Ms. Brosseau says. “My dream was just to be able to stand on my own two feet.”
She barely spoke French, but that didn’t stop a friend in the NDP from asking her to put her name on the 2011 ballot. The party was desperate for candidates. The NDP had won three Quebec seats in its entire history so nobody considered the possibility that she might win a rural, traditionally separatist, francophone seat. As the NDP rose abruptly in the polls in Quebec, Ms. Brosseau was in Las Vegas, enjoying a long-planned vacation. She was immediately nicknamed Vegas Girl.
The days after she won and first set foot in the riding were a swirl of handshakes and good wishes. Offers of help poured in, she recalls. “We had boxes and boxes of letters. They came from all political colours. It felt like a lot of people decided they were going to protect me, and see what I could do.”
Negotiating the halls of Parliament was another thing. “There were a lot of ‘oh shit’ moments,” she says. “Walking into the House of Commons for the first time. First caucus meeting in the Railway Room. It’s so beautiful. Huge caravan of cameras. It was just, holy crap. … I had hoped I could keep my head down, that we’d stop talking about the Vegas Girl, and start talking about what the Vegas Girl could do.”
Ms. Brosseau faded from the headlines and dove into constituency work, whether it was helping local seniors with their pensions or village mayors with infrastructure-funding applications. She was also NDP house leader, caucus chair and agriculture critic. She’s proud of that too, but sees “Parliament as a tool. The work here in my riding is what’s most important to me.”
Ms. Brosseau says she’s not contemplating life after politics but it’s clearly a point of some anxiety. Her father got sick and lost his job when she was young. Precarious employment is never far from mind. “It’s not always easy for an ex-MP to find a job,” she says. “Some people go back to do the job they were doing before. I could go back and work in a restaurant but it wouldn’t be easy. I didn’t work on Bay Street.”
Ms. Brosseau lives on a farm in her riding with Nicolas Gauthier, a wild-boar producer with 500 head and his own festival kiosk serving sausage and exquisite pork roast.
Outside the kiosk, Jacques Bellemare, a retired carpenter, and his son, Alexandre, say hello to Ms. Brosseau before sitting down to eat homemade potato chips. “She didn’t know a thing about politics, she didn’t know a thing about us,” the senior Mr. Bellemare says. “She worked hard. She invested in us. She practically grew up with us. And now she’s one of us.” In return, he says, she will have his vote.