How Brigette DePape Lost Her Job & Found Her Voice
The corporate media went into overdrive reporting the outrage expressed by members of the Canadian political establishment after Brigette DePape, a 21 year old university student, executed a direct action protest during a political ceremony in Ottawa.
Hundreds of newspapers and TV stations, working from the same script, described Brigette as a “rogue page.” They reported that she had “betrayed Parliament” and “taken a shortcut to power.” One journalist declared that “you don’t accept an invitation to someone’s house and spit in the soup.”
Brigette’s middle aged critics, culled from a pool of elected officials and journalists, stood in stark contrast to her relaxed, youthful non-conformity.
Hours after being fired from her job on Parliament Hill, Brigette appeared on national TV to discuss her protest and critique the policies of the Conservative government. She turned the interview into a job search and told the country she was looking for work. The TV show host told her she was “feisty.”
I caught up with Brigette in October 2011 on Gould St in Toronto before she delivered a speech at a social justice rally on the Ryerson University campus. We spoke about her vision of Canada, her inspiration as an activist and the neoliberal soup that is served on Parliament Hill.
Brigette DePape stood against the wall in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Canada as Governor General David Johnson read the Speech from the Throne, outlining the government’s agenda for the next session of parliament.
As a parliamentary page, Brigette’s job was to deliver water and messages to the senators. Her place was against the wall.
Judges of the Supreme Court, Members of Parliament, and Prime Minister Steven Harper listened as His Excellency the Right Honourable Johnson spoke.
To serve as a page in Parliament Brigette took an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
“I do swear that I will be faithful and bear True allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors. So help me God.”
Before the Speech from the Throne is delivered, Members of Parliament slam their office doors to symbolize that the Queen of Canada is forbidden to enter the House of Commons. The Queen is the head of the executive branch of government while the Senate and House of Commons are part of the legislative branch.
The House of Commons can get a little wild. Politicians heckle one another and debates deteriorate into shouting sessions. From time to time journalists comment on the “disgraceful behaviour” of the MPs or they celebrate the yelling and screaming as “free speech.” For many Canadian tax payers, a little of this quirky and ribald political tradition goes a long way.
Since the Governor General is the Queen’s representative, he or she is also forbidden to enter the House of Commons.
The Speech from the Throne has to be delivered somewhere, so the Usher of the Black Rod – the traditional head of security in parliamentary systems that follow the British model – knocks on the slammed doors to summon the MPs to the Senate Chamber.
The Queen of England is assumed by the people of Canada to be present in the Senate during the Speech from the Throne, even if she is in Buckingham Palace when it is delivered. The presence of the absent Queen adds to the solemnity of the event.
No one on Parliament Hill expected Brigette to use the Speech from the Throne as a platform for a direct action political protest against the Prime Minister. Solemn political events in Canada are rarely, if ever, interrupted by cries of dissent.
With the speech was well underway, Brigette walked onto the Senate floor and pulled a red sign from under her skirt and held it up with both hands.
The message on the sign said, “Stop Harper”.
As soon as Brigette held up the sign one of her friends emailed a prepared statement to the press.
“Harper’s agenda is disastrous for this country, and for my generation,” Brigette wrote. “We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.”
Brigette’s direct action protest, during one of the most solemn events in the Canadian parliamentary tradition, caused a shit storm of talk on TV and the internet.
Canadian journalists and politicians castigated Brigette mercilessly. The establishment appeared united in its disdain for her behaviour and outraged that she had used the Speech from the Throne, and her coveted position as a page, to promote her personal political views.
“She walked back and forth with her STOP Harper sign until the Sergeant-at-Arms from the House acted to remove her,” said Senator David Tkachuk in a prepared statement. “She betrayed those who put their trust in her – and she insulted this institution.”
Green Party leader Elizabeth May reminded everyone of the presence of the Queen and the solemnity of the event.
“Inappropriate. That is the most solemn moment in a parliamentary democracy. We’re essentially in – in theory, we’re in the presence of Her Majesty and the Sovereign,” she said.
Veteran Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett called the protest “an abuse of parliamentary privilege.”
Senator Noel Kinsella said he “deplored” DePape’s behaviour “which constituted a contempt of Parliament.”
Bob Rae, leader of the Liberal party, said, ”She’ll have to live with the consequences.”
Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, said that Brigette’s protest was “wrong.”
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney derided Brigette as a “lefty kook.”
Senator Tkachuk transposed Brigette’s skirt onto her jacket.
“I don’t have to tell you what would have happened if she had something else inside her jacket instead of a poster,” he said.
Brigette was fired from the Senate Page Program and banned from Parliament, as well as the Senate and the Library of Parliament.
A few people on Parliament Hill repsonded to Brigette’s protest in the context of democratic tradtion.
“One of the principal rules” in the Senate is “free speech,” said Senator Pierre Claude Nolin.
“Dissent is part of our democratic system,” said Justin Trudeau.
“It’s probably one of the more exciting things I’ve seen in the Senate in a long time,” said Senator Jim Munson.
Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, described Brigette as “adorable and brave” while the Council of Canadians issued a statement dismissing criticism by Conservative minister Peter Kent that Brigette’s protest was a “breach of security.”
Jian Ghomeshi, the host of Q – a CBC cultural affairs radio program – suggested that the reaction to Brigette’s protest was “kind of sad.”
“Maybe there is another way to look at this. Maybe it is about acknowledging the courage of a young woman who is willing to ruffle feathers and take a stand. Maybe it’s about celebrating the political passion of someone who is a member of an allegedly dysfunctional and apathetic generation. Maybe its about remembering that historical change has come from citizens who are brave enough to take a stand and break the rules. Maybe its about wanting our younger generations to think big, believe in change and to invest themselves in the direction of the country.”
Brigette’s protest only lasted 20 seconds before the Sergeant-at-Arms removed her from the Senate but the story of the “rogue page” went viral on the internet. Brigette’s critique of neoliberal economic policy and her call for a “Canadian Spring” was heard around the world.
“During the days leading up to the action, I was nervous,” said Brigette in “Thinking Outside the Ballot Box”, an essay she wrote for the Council of Canadians. “But as the Governor General read his speech, I felt calmness. All of my frustrations with the neoliberal agenda flashed in front of me. These thoughts carried me to make the first steps past the desks of the Senators. As a Page, my place was against the wall behind the desks of all the Senators. When I planted myself in front of Harper, I was precisely where a Page should not be, but felt like I was exactly where I should be.”
Neoliberal economics is characterized by the deregulation of industry by legislation, the liberalization of trade from tariffs and the privatization of public assets. In Canada neoliberalism has resulted in lower tax rates for corporations, decreased spending on health care and education and the sale of public assets to private corporations.
Neoliberals and neoconservatives both promote corporate freedom and the deregulation of markets but neoconservatives attempt to regulate society with law enforcement, privatization of prisons and military power.
The photograph of Brigette holding her “Stop Harper” sign in the Senate contrasts her direct action protest during a period of gobal economic crisis and social upheaval with Canadian parliamentary tradition and protocol. The image of Brigette’s direct action protest is prefigured in Canadian history by the photo of Pierre Trudeau pirouetting behind the Queen’s back during a G7 summit at Buckingham Palace in London in the late 70’s.
“He planned it hours before because he strongly opposed the palace protocol that separated heads of state from heads of government,” Jim Coutts, Trudeau’s Principal Secretary in the 70s, told the Ottawa Citizen. “The well-rehearsed pirouette was a way of showing his objection without saying a word.”
Brigette DePape was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on September 14th, 1989. She holds a degree in international development and globalization from the University of Ottawa.
Her engagement with people impacted by neoliberal economic policy began when she was a teenager at Collège Jeanne-Sauvé, a French immersion high school located in south-central Winnepeg. Brigette immersed herself in a four year project to raise money for impoverished residents living in a West African village. In her graduate year, Brigette travelled to the village in Senegal and met people who had benefited from the school project.
“I know things I can teach other people,” Brigette told journalist Lindor Reynolds about her teenage experience in Africa. “It’s not just pictures in a magazine anymore. For me, it’s real.”
After high school, Brigette won the prestigious Loran Award and enrolled at the University of Ottawa. The Loran Award, named after the antiquated LORAN navigation system, is granted by the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation to students who “show promise of leadership and a strong commitment to service in the community.”
The biography of Brigette published on the Loran Award website reveals a teenager actively involved in social justice issues.
“A member of Students Without Borders, Brigette has organized information sessions on Senegalese culture. She has also helped to raise over $100,000 for a village in Senegal. Brigette has performed and written plays for the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and was a member of her school’s basketball team and president of its social justice committee. She plans to study international relations.”
During the summer of 2009, as part of the Loran scholar program, Bridgette worked at a children’s camp in Bosnia.
At 21 Brigette graduated from the University of Ottawa but she missed the convocation ceremony because she was busy speaking to the press about her direction action protest in the Senate.
“I’m affected by all of those around me,” said Brigette when I spoke to her on Gould St. “I think a huge catalyst for my activism has been seeing youth rising up in Egypt, in Greece, in Chile. It’s incredibly inspiring. I realized that I can’t continue to keep watching and letting this happen, I need to take action.”
“The government is cutting corporate taxes, allowing companies to evade their taxes by investing in foreign banks and all of this instead of investing in us, in the public good, in health care, in child care and social services.”
“A major issue here in Canada is that inequality is growing so rapidly. There is an enormous gap between the rich and the rest of us. Between the 99% and the 1%. Wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top 1%. And we are really feeling this here in Canada. Inequality is growing here even more than it is in the States.”
“This whole tough on crime agenda that Harper is putting forward is really just getting tough on Canadians, it’s getting tough on average people, on most marginalized people in society and locking them up rather than addressing the fundamental root causes of crime which are poverty and inequality.”
Many people around the world oppose the Alberta tarsands oil project because of the environmental damage caused by the oil extraction process and then again when the fossil fuels are burned.
“We are seeing very real impacts on our communities here in Canada because of the tarsands,” said Brigette. “It’s really undermining the rights of indiginous peoples. Most of these developments are on indigenous land. It is extremely harmful, not only for those frontline communities who are directly impacted but it is also harmful for society at large. It’s really putting at risk youth and future generations. It could lead to stopping the conditions for life to be able to happen on the earth because it’s leading to climate change. The tarsands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.”
From the stage on Gould St Brigette spoke to several hundred students, First Nations activists and union members. Yellow Steelworkers Union flags rippled in the autumn breeze hehind her.
“Anyone can be an activist,” she said. “We are all leaders. And as we come together in the streets to take action we become a living, breathing force for change. As we see Harper’s agenda go forward we see our social and environmental fabric being eroded. It’s getting harder and harder for average Canadians to get by. But we say no longer. Change will not happen in Parliament. It is outside that we will make change. It is the only thing that has ever led to fundamental changes in our society. We see young people rising up from Egypt to Greece to Chile. And now we are rising up right here in North America. In Canada.”
Listen to Jian Ghomeshi talk about Brigette DePape.
Watch the June 3, 2011 Throne Speech.