LOUISEVILLE, Que. -- In April 2011, a young single mom and Carleton University campus bartender was -- fairly or not -- pushed into the harsh glare of politics for taking a widely ridiculed three-day vacation to Las Vegas during the federal election campaign.

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LOUISEVILLE, Que. -- In April 2011, a young single mom and Carleton University campus bartender was -- fairly or not -- pushed into the harsh glare of politics for taking a widely ridiculed three-day vacation to Las Vegas during the federal election campaign.

Four years later, Ruth Ellen Brosseau has become a poster child for all that is going right for the NDP in Quebec.

With poll numbers above 40 per cent, it's clear the love affair with the NDP among Quebecers, which propelled it to official Opposition status for the first time, shows no sign of abating. But this time, the NDP is counting on its base in Quebec to get the keys to 24 Sussex Drive.

 

On a hot August morning in the quaint town of Louiseville, about an hour northeast of Montreal, the results of the hard work Brosseau has put in the last four years is evident from the reception she receives from the people who live here.

At a local produce stand, where she pops in to get lunch and raves about the ground cherries, owner Nathalie Ricard, rushes out of the stockroom and proffers an embrace. A young worker puts down her baskets of fruit to shake Brosseau's hand, and says, in French, "I saw you on TV."

At a senior's residence in Berthierville, a sleepy, picturesque hamlet on a small offshoot of the St. Lawrence River, Brosseau is a minor rock star. As she moves from table to table during lunch service, the residents put down their poutine and hamburgers to shake her hand. A few scowl in her direction, unhappy about the intrusion. But the vast majority smile warmly and wish her "bonne chance." Many speak of the hard work she has done since 2011 and encourage her to keep it up.

She is relaxed, easy going and clearly not out of her element as she converses and kibitzes with the people here.

Dressed in black capri pants, loose blouse and flip-flops that show off the tattoos on her feet, Brosseau is neither apologetic nor ashamed at how she was elected.

"I never lied about anything," the 31-year-old says. "In 2011, I was a name-on-a-ballot candidate."

Brosseau wasn't the only placeholder in the 2011 election. There were dozens of them from every party. She was one of 11 NDP candidates in Quebec who didn't run any kind of campaign -- spending no money, erecting zero signs and shaking zero hands. Most didn't live in their ridings. Seven of them got elected.

But because of her mid-campaign trip to Vegas, discovered when a reporter tried to reach her for comment, Brosseau was the most famous among them.

Matthew Dubé, one of the so-called McGill Five, students at McGill University who volunteered to put their name on a ballot so the NDP could have a candidate in every riding, says Brosseau took the hit for people like him. "We always say she took so many lumps for us," says Dubé, 28, and running again in the South Shore riding of Beloeil-Chambly.

In 2011, Dubé thought maybe he'd make a real run for office down the road, but, as a 24-year-old university student, it wasn't on his immediate agenda.

Four years down the road, he is in love with his job and says campaigning for real is a lot of fun.

"There was a lot of hesitation in the beginning," Dubé says, during a break from campaigning at an affordable-lunch program for seniors in Chambly, Que. "People were rightfully cautious about me. But as we got more and more confident, they got more and more proud of us."

Both Dubé and Laurin Liu, running for re-election in the North Shore Montreal riding of Rivière-des-Mille-éles, were drawn to the NDP after hearing Tom Mulcair speak at a student event before he became party leader. Brosseau was attracted to the party because of then-leader Jack Layton. Mulcair took the party's reins after Layton died of prostate cancer in August 2011.

Liu says the last four years have had "a lot of ups and downs... I was a little overwhelmed at first."

But she has accomplished things in Parliament -- including pushing the government in 2012 to ensure seniors eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement get it automatically, without having to apply -- and wants to stick around for many more years if her constituents will have her.

Dubé, Brosseau and the majority of the 59 Quebec NDP MPs elected in 2011 -- all but Mulcair for the first time -- had to start from the ground up.

While most MPs had knocked on doors during the campaign, Brosseau, Dubé and Liu began doing so for the first time after the May 2011 vote.

They went to community events, met with local mayors, spoke at public meetings.

They were connected to veteran MPs as mentors, who guided them in those first weeks and months, advised them and helped them understand the baffling and oft-difficult world that is Parliament Hill.

Liu jokes the first piece of advice from her mentor, Halifax MP Megan Leslie, was to "always keep dental floss in my desk."

Many, such as Brosseau and Liu, who both grew up in Quebec, but had rudimentary French skills, had to work on their language abilities. Brosseau met with the same French teacher who schooled Layton, twice a week, every week for 2.5 years. Now, her French is so effortless she finds herself struggling for the English words at times.

They had offices to open both in Ottawa and in their constituencies, staff to hire.

Brosseau says the advice she got was to spend lots of time in her riding, and she has. (She rented an apartment there immediately.)

It was this daunting task that contributed to one of the NDP's biggest liabilities: the satellite-office scandal. Given how many new offices needed to be created, the party decided it would be more efficient to create shared office spaces. But in doing so, they brushed up against the rules about how Parliamentary resources can be used, and have been ordered to repay $2.75 million for the office expenses the Board of Internal Economy said were improperly billed.

The NDP calls the entire thing a politically motivated witch hunt and are challenging it in court. The Conservatives and Liberals say the NDP used taxpayer funds for partisan work.

The issue hasn't seemed to dampen enthusiasm for the NDP in Quebec. This week, a CROP Inc. poll put the NDP at 47 per cent support in Quebec, the Liberals at 20 per cent, the once-dominant Bloc Québécois at 16 per cent and the Conservatives at 13 per cent. Market research firm Leger put the NDP at 40 per cent, the Liberals and Bloc tied at 21 per cent, and the Conservatives at 17 per cent.

Before 2011, the NDP had only ever won one seat in the province in a general election -- Mulcair's in 2008.

Between 1993 and 2011, the Bloc Québécois dominated, winning between 38 and 54 of Quebec's 75 seats each time. But by 2011, with sovereignty no longer high on the agenda for most Quebecers, and a growing dislike for the governing Conservatives, Quebecers began to look at other options and settled on the NDP.

Sébastien Dallaire, vice-president of Leger, says the shift to the NDP came in part because of the popularity of Layton, and in part because of a desire to block Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He says Layton scored points in the French-language debate when he pointed out Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe could only play defence while the NDP could legitimately sell itself as an offensive player.

In other words, the Bloc would never be in government. The NDP could be.

Some thought Layton's tragic death just months after the 2011 vote might curtail enthusiasm for the party, but the NDP put Mulcair into the leadership role. He wasn't well-known outside Quebec, but he was very well-known within it.

Popularity for the NDP has ebbed and flowed. After Justin Trudeau took over as leader of the Liberals in 2013, that party took the lead in many polls. But it didn't last.

The Conservatives are strong in a handful of ridings around Quebec City and hope to maybe eke out a win in the Liberal stronghold of Mount Royal in Montreal. The Liberals are still battling the memories of the sponsorship scandal and Trudeau is mainly looking to hold on to seats in Montreal, and maybe make a few gains there.

The Bloc, which won just four seats in 2011, but was down to two when Parliament dissolved Aug. 2, is struggling with very little money and a lack of ground organization despite the return of Duceppe to the leadership earlier this year.

Dallaire says the NDP has become "the melting pot" for Quebec voters who seem to really want to have a strong voice in government in Ottawa after nearly 25 years in opposition.

The NDP rise in Quebec did not happen overnight. Rebecca Blaikie, a born and bred Winnipegger whose NDP roots stem from her father, longtime Winnipeg NDP MP Bill Blaikie, has spent most of the last 12 years helping lead the party's efforts here.

In 2003, after Layton won the party leadership, Blaikie was brought on board to help build what she says was Layton's biggest desire. "He had this dream of breaking through in Quebec," she says.

With no provincial party machine to draw from the NDP had to start from scratch across the province.

Recruiting Mulcair to the NDP in 2007 was seen as a turning point. A former cabinet minister in the provincial Liberal government, Mulcair was courted by all federal parties, including the Conservatives, before settling on the NDP.

The 2011 election was a surprise even to the NDP, but less so than it was to almost everyone else. The grassroots work, the kitchen table parties, the door-knocking, the community meetings, listening to the electorate, hearing what they wanted to see from the federal government -- it all went into the NDP success.

It is a different election for the NDP this time. Its candidates are the incumbents in more than half the ridings. It has money and name recognition like never before. But Blaikie says the party is taking nothing for granted.

"My team is working just as hard as if we were in fourth place," she says. "This is our chance to make history."

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca