Deborah Drever's political redemption

Sometimes a time-out works. Sometimes it doesn't. The MLA for Calgary Bow was suspended from the NDP caucus last year over her social media gaffes, but she used her second chance as a lifeline to political redemption.

Rookie MLAs return to the NDP from political exile might be a blueprint

Deborah Drever was ejected from the newly elected Alberta NDP caucus days after the May 5 election when social media posts came to light. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Sometimes a time-out works. Sometimes it doesn't.

Deborah Drever, the MLA for Calgary-Bow, was suspended from the NDP caucus last year over her social media gaffes. But she used a second chance as a lifeline to political redemption.

Her gaffes weren't minor slips.

There was the image of Drever posing for a band's album cover in which it appeared she was about to be sexually assaulted.

The post that pushed Premier Rachel Notley to suspend Drever was an Instagram image of former premier Jim Prentice and current interim PC leader Ric McIver with a comment from Drever that read "gay boyz".

The story of Drever's return from political exile is a valuable one because in future elections every candidate will drag their extensive social media record with them. 

But unlike the growing number of candidates who have their misdeeds highlighted before election day — often forcing them out before facing voters — Drever's happened after she won her race. 

Once she was suspended, Drever knew her priority was to get out of the penalty box. 

"I was elected as a New Democrat and I hold the same values as the NDP, so of course it was important for me to get back in but it wasn't my main focus. My main focus was my riding," she said.

The NDP house leader Brian Mason was her sherpa, meeting with the young MLA once a month during her suspension.

Drever says she gave him updates on what she was doing. "He would say 'you're on the right track' or 'I would do this differently.'  He gave very to-the-point advice."

But there were other key supporters to guide her.

Calgary-Bow MLA speaks to reporters, flanked by (from left) government house leader Brian Mason, Calgary-Varsity MLA Stephanie McLean, and Finance Minister Joe Ceci. (CBC)

Enter Bob Hawkesworth

Former Calgary alderman and former NDP MLA Bob Hawkesworth now works in Notley's office in Calgary.

Last spring, Hawkesworth was a private citizen. Out of the blue, he called the suspended Drever and offered to help. 

The political rookie had to get her constituency office up and running and the more experienced Hawkesworth outlined how to do it. He also dispensed advice.

Drever calls him a mentor. He labelled her situation "a gift wrapped in barbed wire."  

Hawkesworth was a regular (unpaid) presence during her early MLA days, but once he decided to make his ill-fated run in last fall's Calgary-Foothills byelection, he left the picture. 

The suspended Drever was spotted at Hawkesworth's HQ on byelection night with other NDP loyalists offering support even though Hawkesworth lost the race. That won her points.

Support... from Quebec

Shortly after Notley suspended Drever, there was another phone call. This one was from Quebec.

NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brousseau is another young woman who had a difficult start in politics.

Like Drever, she wasn't supposed to win when she was elected in Jack Layton's Orange Crush in the 2011 federal election.

Like Drever, she was widely criticized — in Brousseau's case because the former bar manager spent part of that campaign on a previously booked Las Vegas trip. 

Like Drever, there were calls for her to resign after being elected. In Brousseau's case because she didn't speak much French, which is kind of important in her rural Quebec riding. 

Drever says Brousseau was bullied and harassed. "She understood the kind of situation I was in and she just wanted to say 'Hey, I sympathize with you. I know what you're going through.'"

As for advice, Drever says the young MP told her: "You were elected just like every other MLA was elected and you have every right to be in the legislature, so just keep doing what you're doing and know that you have a lot of support."

It strengthened Drever's resolve as she realized she wasn't unique.

Deborah Drever, kicked out of the NDP caucus, on her challenges as an independent MLA 4:57

Politicians make laws

Drever knew she had to start thinking about legislation to show she belonged.

A member of her office staff found a bill in Nova Scotia which could inspire something similar in Alberta.

Drever's proposal, Bill 204, makes it easier for the victims of domestic violence to break a rental lease to escape their abuser. 

To gather support, Drever consulted extensively with shelter workers, police officers and justice officials. She engaged with the other parties in the legislature to build support.

Her bill passed unanimously in the legislature, which is a rare feat.

A month later, she was invited to rejoin the NDP caucus.

No accidental rehabilitation

Political strategist Stephen Carter says MLAs running into trouble due to social media misdeeds will be a bigger part of politics in the future. "Used to be you get 15 minutes of fame. Now it's 15 minutes of infamy," he said.

In this case, Carter figures the decision on whether Drever would be let back into caucus was made in the premier's office before she was suspended. 

It goes like this: You'll be suspended and here's what you need to do to get back in. If you don't deliver, you're out for good.

An NDP source says other parties might have been tempted to just bounce Drever and slam the caucus door permanently. But that's not the way this premier and not the way this caucus operates, according to the source.

'Genius' bill

Internally, Notley recognized Drever has a perspective that few other MLAs have and what Drever needed was a second (and final) chance to prove she could do the job.

By Carter's reckoning, Drever's return unfolded because she made good on that second chance.

He calls her private members' bill "genius". That's because it enabled her to lay out her personal story of a troubled upbringing (a mother who experienced domestic violence and her own time in foster care) which is personal and profound.

"When you bare your soul, when she tells her story, who doesn't want to be on her side? Does this happen by accident? No," said Carter.

Will Drever's political rehabilitation be fully completed with a re-election in 2019?

The answer to that rests with the voters in Calgary-Bow.

If she does win again, Drever will have provided a template on how politicians can recover after throwing digital mud — all over themselves.

About the Author

Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has been at CBC News for more than two decades across four provinces. His roles have included legislative reporter, news reader, assignment editor and national reporter. When not at Calgary's City Hall, it's still all politics, all the time.


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