By: Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press
June 3, 2010
OTTAWA - Paging all protesters!
A 21-year-old Senate page put her job on the line Friday in a silent call for Canadians to give some sober second thought to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's majority Conservative government.
Brigette DePape staged an unprecedented protest on the floor of the Senate chamber, walking out into the red-carpeted centre aisle carrying a red "Stop Harper" sign that she'd pulled from beneath her skirt as Gov. Gen. David Johnston read the new government's speech from the throne.
The University of Ottawa graduate stood silently holding her hand-painted sign for at least 20 seconds — while the vice-regal made a barely perceptible hitch in his address and a stunned room full of dignitaries and invited guests stared in mute astonishment.
With Harper, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk — among others — looking on, the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons finally escorted DePape out of the Senate.
Six seated justices of the Supreme Court of Canada sat in their ermine robes with their backs to DePape, seemingly oblivious to the drama unfolding three paces behind them.
DePape was nearing the end of her year-long job as a page, and the Senate communications staff said her employment has been terminated.
The stunt was well planned, with a news release popping up in the emails of Parliament Hill reporters minutes after the event.
"Contrary to Harper's rhetoric, Conservative values are not in fact Canadian values," DePape, calling herself Brigette Marcelle, said in the release.
"How could they be when three out of four eligible voters didn't even give their support to the Conservatives? But we will only be able to stop Harper's agenda if people of all ages and from all walks of life engage in creative actions and civil disobedience."
In an interview later, DePape said she was "extremely nervous."
"But, I don't know, there was something inside of me that said, 'You have to do this.'"
Reaction from senators and MPs was decidedly cool, although Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, a Progressive Conservative, noted that the Senate floor is supposed to be a place of free speech.
"One of the principal rules is free speech," Nolin shrugged. But he noted the security staff "are scratching their head today."
Being a page is highly coveted part-time job in which university students run errands for MPs and Senators in parliament — everything from fetching a glass of water to exchanging messages.
Veteran Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett called the protest by a security-cleared employee "an abuse of parliamentary privilege."
"That's lots of room for that out on the lawn, or whatever," she said.
And Green party Leader Elizabeth May lauded DePape for her bravery but suggested that by interrupting the Governor General she'd used it in the wrong venue.
"Essentially, in theory, we're in the presence of Her Majesty, that is the sovereign," said May. "That isn't Stephen Harper's room. That's somebody else's room."
It's not the first protest for DePape, who graduated this spring after an award-winning four years studying international development at the University of Ottawa.
She worked as a summer intern last year for the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Winnipeg and took part in last June's G20 protests in Toronto.
Afterwards, DePape wrote an op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press where she opined about the impact of protesters.
"My dad told me that protesting at the G20 was unproductive and ineffective. I was crushed. Suddenly, riding in my parents' car, I felt powerless ... But my question for him and his generation is: what will change things, then? If protesting is meaningless, as he suggests, what can we do to create a more just society?"
She also made the environment a prominent feature in a one person play she performed at an Ottawa youth event last March. At one point she expressed her frustration with political leaders.
"Our government needs to change," she said in her skit performed at Ashbury College last March.
DePape exhibited no signs of remorse when speaking of her latest exploit.
"I've been learning a lot about politics and being on the Hill, I really got to see first-hand the politics of Harper and his agenda going forward," she said, adding "I decided that I could not just sit idly by any longer and decided this was a good time to take action."
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau said DePape had stepped on the "sense of respect and decorum" that goes with a throne speech and he'd rather the protest hadn't happened.
"Dissent is part of our democratic system," added Trudeau.
"I don't think she'll be too badly punished for it, either — concretely here, or in her future endeavours."
In fact, the buzz on social networking site Twitter was largely positive, and DePape appeared to have a job offer from someone at the Public Service Alliance of Canada before the day was done.
"Brigitte Marcelle contact me for a job at the #PSAC," said the message. "We are looking for gutsy organizers."