Rogue page Brigette DePape still protesting Harper
Senate page who interrupted last throne speech with 'Stop Harper' sign still rallying against Tories
The most memorable moment in the last throne speech came when a young woman walked into the centre of the plush red Senate chamber filled with dignitaries and elected officials and held up a handmade sign that read "Stop Harper."
Brigette DePape, who had worked as a page in the Senate for a year, was then quickly hauled away by the House of Commons' sergeant-at-arms.
"I remember I was terrified," she said, recalling that moment on June 3, 2011, in an interview with CBC News from Vancouver last week.
We had gone to see a lawyer before and they said [the] worst-case scenario would be 30 years in jail for frightening the Queen.— Former page Brigette DePape
"[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper is sitting right to my left and then there's the Governor General, and then there are all the politicians, and I am so afraid. I am afraid about losing my job, I am afraid about what my parents are going to say back home in Winnipeg, and I am afraid about getting arrested."
On Wednesday, Canadians will see the first throne speech since the one DePape tried to interrupt with her protest. CBC News will carry it live at 4:30 p.m. ET.
DePape was one of 15 university students every year who suit up in a black uniform — with matching bow-tie — and serve as a Senate page, fetching coffee and documents at committee meetings and running messages between senators during Senate sittings.
Two years ago DePape was finishing up university and unhappy with the result of the election one month before. She was nearly finished her year as a page, and decided to use the chance to express her opposition to Harper.
DePape says she summoned the courage — many would say gall — by thinking about people affected by climate change, residential school experiences and job losses, all areas where she says the government is failing to do enough.
"And to think of their strength in the face of the Harper government, to continue to wake up another day and to get through it, and to provide for their families, those are the people who gave me strength to stand and walk where the pages are not supposed to walk [in the middle of the Senate floor], and to hold up the 'Stop Harper' sign," DePape said.
A page has the rare opportunity to move unimpeded through the halls of Parliament, though it's not unusual to run into former pages in the world that exists around the Hill. Senate pages can serve for two years while they're in university (meaning there are more like eight hired per year), while the House takes on another 40 pages for a single year.
DePape's protest was planned in advance, with a friend issuing a news release as soon as she was dragged out of the Senate. She was fired before the end of her contract, but had feared it would be worse.
"We had gone to see a lawyer before and they said [the] worst case scenario would be 30 years in jail for frightening the Queen," she said.
It was a controversial move for anyone who has worked at a legislature or Parliament. Clerks, pages, Library of Parliament researchers, tour guides and other non-political staff are supposed to function as non-partisan support, people on whom MPs and senators can rely to serve fairly.
The Conservatives called DePape a professional protester, while the Liberal leader Bob Rae and NDP leader Jack Layton criticized the stunt, saying the throne speech, and the Senate floor, weren't the time or place to protest the government.
Senate Principal Clerk Blair Armitage, writing in a 2012 edition of the Canadian Parliamentary Review, was harsh in his assessment of DePape's protest.
"The role of the staff of a parliamentary administration is to support the parliamentarians in doing their work, not to oppose, applaud or champion it. It takes an incredible amount of hubris to substitute one’s personal opinion on any matter for that of the hundreds of parliamentarians chosen to represent the country and to subvert that system from within," Armitage wrote.
Raised security concerns
She was also criticized for saying Canada needed its own Arab Spring, at the height of violent clashes in North Africa, when Canadians had just had their chance to cast ballots in a free election a month earlier.
A news release that day from Senate Speaker Noël Kinsella said DePape's actions constituted contempt of Parliament.
"All employees of the Senate are expected to serve the institution in a non-partisan manner, with competence, excellence, efficiency and objectivity," Kinsella said. "The incident raises serious security concerns which the Senate will fully investigate."
A spokeswoman for the Senate wouldn't say whether there had been any changes made to the page program or how the throne speech would run on Wednesday, though there don't appear to be any new protocols in place.
"The Senate respectfully declines to speak on security-related procedures," Annie Joanette said in an email to CBC News.
'Best decision I've ever made'
DePape, 24, giggles easily and leans into her laptop, her long brown hair swept to one side, as she answers a reporter's questions via Skype. While her precociousness makes her seem younger than her age, she has well-rehearsed lines about being inspired by others who agree with her about the result of the last election.
She now helps run a website, shd.ca, which stands for a more crude version of "Stuff Harper Did." She also speaks at demonstrations, and will be in Calgary to protest the Conservative Party at its convention at the end of the month.
"The decision to stand up to Harper was the best decision that I've ever made. It was incredibly empowering," DePape said.
Despite her family's initial concerns, they have come to terms with what she did.
"First my dad was really critical about the action. And he was also worried. He was like, how are you going to pay the rent? But he also sees how Harper is taking this country in the wrong direction, like, gutting environmental laws and building these spy castles. In the end, he said he was proud of me. But it took a while to come to that," she said.
No plans to run for Parliament
Being in demand for rallies and protests against pipelines and against the Conservatives puts her in a realm with social movement names like Council of Canadians national chair Maude Barlow, national union leaders and environmentalist David Suzuki (DePape says most of her protest work is unpaid).
Asked to name her favourite MP, DePape said she's more inspired by social movement leaders, and advocates people using civil disobedience to stand up for their values. She said she has no plans to run for Parliament in 2015.
DePape said she'll be watching this year's throne speech from a friend's apartment in Ottawa, probably with a bowl of popcorn. She hopes it will be a turning point.
"Because we know that Harper's going to use the throne speech as a way to distract people from a really poor record, like with the Senate scandal that has outraged so many people. But that they won't be getting away with it. We won't let them get away with it," she said.
"It's really exciting times right now because [Harper is] at his lowest point in popularity. Elected with 39 per cent of the popular vote, but right now there are only 30 per cent of people who believe him.
"I believe that this particular throne speech could be the one that Harper does not recover from, given the recent Senate scandal."