The Rogue Page: Girl-next-door-turned-activist

“Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them, and the cause is half won.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

No one had ever heard of a Senate page gone rogue before Brigette DePape unexpectedly stepped into the public eye. This young woman, then 21 years old and gainfully employed by the Senate of Canada, dared to interrupt the Governor General’s reading of the Speech from the Throne on June 3, 2011 by solemnly walking across the floor of the Senate chamber, in full uniform, completely silent, stopping to stand just behind the Supreme Court justices and before observers in the gallery, her white-gloved hands holding up a handmade red stop sign that read “Stop Harper!” in bold white painted letters. This lasted for just under a minute, until she was quietly escorted away by the Sergeant-at-Arms. The Governor kept reading and hardly flinched, but news of the young woman’s actions quickly rippled throughout the political sphere, regardless. According to a piece in the Winnipeg Free Press the following day, “within 20 minutes of her holding the sign in the Senate, she was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter in Canada and, within an hour, she had her own fan page on Facebook.”

The Speech from the Throne symbolically marks the beginning of each new parliamentary session. This particular Speech, however, marked the debut of a Conservative majority reign in the House of Commons –a majority mandate that meant the recently re-branded ‘Harper government’ could pass or repeal any law as it saw fit; with only a minority of votes in the House, members of the opposition are left relatively helpless when it comes to stopping the passage of proposed Bills into legislation. They can certainly make life more difficult for the ruling party through specific procedural mechanisms (and have certainly taken advantage of these on multiple occasions, as exemplified by debates lasting for hours on end regarding ‘back-to-work’ legislation, as well as amendments to omnibus budget bill C-45, respectively), but any Bills introduced by the government became officially unstoppable.

DePape was well aware of this, as were some of her fellow Senate page colleagues, whom she describes as being equally concerned about what she refers to as ‘the Harper agenda’. In her address as part of the David Lewis Lecture Series, she describes hiding in the bathroom with several coworkers, discussing what they were going to do next, joking that they thought of putting “tar sands water” in the Senators’ water glasses, but they didn’t want to poison anyone!

Interestingly enough, it was really the Senate’s decision to overturn the Climate Change Accountability Act (which passed the House in its second incarnation, Bill C-311) that served a catalyst for DePape, causing her to lose respect for the very institution that employed her: the chamber of sober second thought, purportedly free from the ideological interference of the government or Prime Minister — that is, until the Harper government had appointed Conservative Senators strike down a Bill voted through the democratically-elected House of Commons.

And so it began to ruminate — though the exact plan was only hatched a mere few days beforehand, a growing storm of dissatisfaction was brewing beneath the surface of the polished, uniformed exterior DePape presented at work everyday. An ideological difference with an employer isn’t uncommon, nor is taking issue with government decisions, but there are some interesting variables at play that set DePape’s action apart from the rest.

First of all, as a young adult, she falls into the demographic that is typically characterized as representing future generations, and yet ironically, politically apathetic. DePape, having arguably illustrated quite the opposite, takes issue with this.

There’s a myth that youth in Canada are apathetic. Look at the thousands of people taking to the streets in Quebec. Are youth apathetic? No! Youth are burning for change. We are hungry for change and we are starting to wake up and take action, and I really think that young people want to get involved, but often times they don’t know how. [….] The young people that I meet, they care a lot about what’s going on in their communities— racism, inequality, the environment — but they don’t believe there is anything they can do. (excerpt from this)

Secondly, Brigette has an austere aura about her. Noticeably younger than most occupants of the Senate and House of Commons, she has a soft voice and slow manner of speaking that exudes child-like innocence, her well-researched convictions notwithstanding. The overtly bold and political nature of her act of protest was new territory for DePape, and this rookie element arguably lends an endearing, girl-next-door-like quality to her that made her easier to identify with.

The young Winnipegger had grown up as an active member of her community. She was part of a local baton-twirling team until the age of 13; volunteered at the local Siloam Mission; raised over $100,000 for a village in Senegal; and was a member of Students Without Borders. The summer before she left for Ottawa to take part in the Senate Page program, DePape interned at the Winnipeg office of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), where her boss described her as “very passionate about the issues important to her.”

An active community member, indeed, but before her action in the Senate, DePape did not have a reputation for being a rabble-rousing activist. In fact, DePape’s inexperience in the realm of activism saw her lean heavily on her friends for advice and support, and they seem to have played a considerable role in shaping the action. According to DePape, her roommates and partner at the time “had been trained in direct action, so they knew what to do… You know, they helped me to write a press release, to do practice for interviews, to practice some of the core messaging we really wanted to get out there.”

Indeed, DePape’s friend Tasha Peters served as a sort of publicist and coach of sorts, according to Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press, who observed that:

DePape was well spoken but occasionally appeared intimidated, wasn’t always sure what questions she could answer, and kept looking at her friend, Tasha Peters, who was acting as her publicist, for help. “Tash,” she said plaintively at one point, hoping to be rescued under intense questioning about whether she had disrespected Parliament.

In fact, DePape was so nervous in the lead up to her action that she went so far as to use a pseudonym (Brigette Marcelle, her middle name) in her press release for fear of what her parents might think. “I’m not from a family that is very political”, she said during her address at the 2012 David Lewis Lecture Series, explaining that her mother is a fitting room attendant at the local Walmart and her father is a consultant for development projects. She is clearly a very family-oriented individual, and has openly discussed the reactions of her family members on multiple occasions.

My dad was really critical of the action. My parents want what’s best for me and all that, and I respect that. So they were concerned; “how are you going to pay the rent?” and that kind of thing. But then there was a real sense from my sisters that they were proud of me. I do feel a lot of support from my family. That’s huge and really important to me. To be honest, I think my dad is coming around.

She admitted that worries about the repercussions of her actions crept into her mind just before she pulled out her homemade sign in the Senate chamber that day:

I knew that I had to act, but I was so scared. I was thinking about my family back home and what they were going to say, how was I going to explain this to them at Thanksgiving dinner, and I was scared about getting arrested, and I was afraid about losing my job…

This makes her risk that much more mind boggling; here is this young woman, with her whole life ahead of her (as they say), sticking it to her employer in a very public way that many can only fantasize about, knowing full well that she would lose her job and source of income, in and of itself a very privileged position that many of her peers would vie for.

It’s no wonder, then, that DePape should take such offence at the labelling of young people as apathetic. A past mentee of Senator Sharon Carstairs (former leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party), DePape has repeatedly stated that she meant no disrespect to parliament or parliamentarians. She has, however, questioned the legitimacy of the Harper majority mandate on the grounds that the Conservative Party only received a minority of the overall popular vote, citing a major flaw in Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system: a government can be elected to over 50% of the seats in Parliament, and given the ability to pass legislation with a mere 38% of votes cast.

Harper claims to represent the views of people in Canada, but he does not. […] He says, you know, that Canadian values are conservative values; they are not. And so, I think that it’s really important that, in a democracy, people, and the government needs to gain the consent of the people. And he has not. Three quarters of Canadians¹; disagree with the Harper agenda. (excerpt from this)

This is likely why DePape takes such care to point out that expressing one’s political views through voting, or through protesting solely in areas somehow deemed appropriate for such purposes, is a narrow view of democracy that unfairly discounts other forms of participation. On CTV News the night of her action, she called for stronger public engagement in social movements:

[…] we can’t stop Harper’s agenda within the parliamentary system; we need to engage in civil disobedience. We need to support social movements –workers, women’s rights movements, environmental movements. This is the only way we’re going to see real change.

The following Sunday, the interviewer on CTV’s Question Period wasn’t the first journalist to ask why DePape felt it appropriate to express her political views the way she did as opposed to other more appropriate of engaging with Canada’s political system, to which she responded:

I think we need to really challenge the assumption that democracy happens once every four years when you go out and vote. I think that real democracy happens in our everyday lives and in our everyday actions.

Later in the same interview, when asked about her political leanings, DePape elaborates further on her views on parliamentary democracy and her distaste for partisan politics:

I’m not part of any particular political party. I think that it’s important to get away from only thinking about politics as within the realm of parties and politicians. I think that people have a responsibility. People from all walks of life can become engaged in politics and social movements.

These statements exhibit the underlying philosophy that DePape dubs “thinking outside the ballot box,” calling for an increase in public engagement in social movements as well as in acts of ‘creative resistance’ or civil disobedience (she appears to use the two interchangeably).

DePape’s action in the Senate poked the elephant in the room in a way no one would have expected in a forum considered a sacred part of the Canadian cultural fabric at the very epicentre of our country’s governance. Hers was the first form of protest to have come from the floor of the chamber as opposed to the galleys, a committee room, the front lawn or the streets. There was a Trojan horse element to her act of creative resistance; it came from the inside.

A former playwright and performer, DePape’s experience being in the limelight still couldn’t have prepared her for such a politically-charged rapid vault to fame. In what one might observe as a timid yet rigid fashion, she repeated her well-rehearsed lines on Power & Politics that night. She’s come a long way, however, and has since delivered keynote addresses and speeches at various events across the country on topics including but not limited to: resisting austerity measures via the Occupy movement; the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt; the Quebec student movement (a.k.a. le printemps érable), and Harper’s Crime Bill, C-10. She was also a member of the Canadian Youth Delegation to the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the UN Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa.

While her talking points remain fundamentally similar, she now delivers them and elaborates on them with more finesse. Moreover, she has since been taken under the wing of some of the bigger names in Canada’s progressive advocacy scene, mentorship that is sure to rub off on such a quick understudy.

DePape may not have achieved moderate celebrity status for her work as a community organizer, but she is learning quickly, and has managed not to fade completely into the background after her initial fifteen minutes of fame. She continues to build a name both for herself, and for the movement for which she stands. While some of the points she makes are simple, in fairness, hers is a simple message, overall: Stop Harper. Be good to people. Be compassionate. The economy is messed up. Fix it.

Sometimes it’s not about having all the answers, but about getting people to engage, to care enough to reach out to others so that, collectively, we may draw on collective wisdom to come up with answers. DePape may not be the ideological saviour some have made her out to be, but she did stir the pot in a timely and thought-provoking way, and continues to do so. For that, she deserves recognition.

Her brave albeit simple action in the Senate that day serves as an important reminder to everyday people that we, too, can perform some creative act of resistance. “What, in the end, is a stop sign?” Brigette mused at the anti-Harper rally the week following her action in the Senate, “It’s a nod to the power of the street.”

[1] This estimate isn’t accurate. It’s 62% of the popular vote that did not vote Conservative, not 75%.


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