The many ways Rona Ambrose differs from Stephen Harper

Jennifer Ditchburn profiles the Alberta MP who scaled the heights of the Conservative party

Photograph by Blair Gable

Photograph by Blair Gable

OTTAWA — Rona Ambrose is not flashy, she’s guilty of being media shy, and as a cabinet minister she carried the can for the Conservatives on some of their most controversial policies.

The easy shorthand about the interim leader of the Conservative party is that she’s just another message-track Stephen Harper foot soldier sent in to take on charismatic, progressive Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

And yet Ambrose is a departure from the outgoing leader in myriad ways, starting with her approach to parliamentary politics.

“We talk about tone being substantive and not petty, and I said tone was important, to be strong, but not angry,” Ambrose said in an interview Friday.

“Tone is also about respect, and it’s about how you treat one another in caucus, outside of caucus, and also how you treat other people in the House. If you want tone to change, it starts with respect.”

The 46-year-old’s win at Thursday’s caucus meeting came as a bit of an upset. She beat heavyweights Diane Finley and Rob Nicholson, as well as younger colleagues such as Michelle Rempel and Erin O’Toole, to become interim leader.

Ambrose’s entry into politics was an upset too. The former Alberta bureaucrat won the 2004 Conservative nomination in her Edmonton area riding in the most hotly contested race in the party.

“Canadians are very receptive and ready for women’s leadership because we see it all across the country, but I was really humbled that my caucus felt the same way,” she said of Thursday’s win.

Ambrose grew up in different countries, the daughter of an oil executive. She speaks Portuguese and Spanish from nine years spent in Brazil as a child, and also lived in Borneo, Singapore and Egypt before returning to Canada in her mid-teens.

Those years abroad seemed to plant the seed of adventure. She’s an avid outdoorswoman who hikes, skis, rides horses, climbs mountains (including Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania), and is certified to skipper large sailboats.

“I like to be very active. It’s a great contrast from the work that I do,” said Ambrose, who is married to private investment businessman and former rodeo bull rider J.P. Veitch.

Michele Austin, an Ottawa consultant who has known Ambrose since 2002 when they met at a conference, said the new leader loves to delve into policy but also is extremely social.

“What this party needs, which she can deliver brilliantly, is a human touch,” said Austin, who worked as Ambrose’s chief of staff at Public Works.

“She will reach out to people. She doesn’t mind actually having a laugh with someone, and it’s a genuine laugh. She doesn’t mind having a quick conversation about the state of the begonias in the garden, and it’s not false.”

When the Conservatives won power in 2006, she became the youngest woman in Canadian history to be appointed to cabinet as she took on the environment portfolio.

In much the same way that Liberal MP Catherine McKenna has been named environment minister on the eve of an international climate change conference, Ambrose stepped into the job before the 2006 conference in Nairobi.

She was sharply criticized for declaring there that Canada would never meet its obligations under the Kyoto greenhouse-gas emissions protocol. She was shuffled out rather brusquely a year later, with Harper saying “Canadians expect a lot more” from the climate change file.

Ambrose is sanguine about that first tough year. At the time, sources around her told The Canadian Press that she was a victim of intense micromanagement by Harper’s communications team, who didn’t let her chart her own course in the portfolio.

“I was a brand new politician, and let me tell you, I was really good at policy, but I wasn’t very good at politics in my first year,” she said.

“I learned very quickly, a tough lesson, but I’m better for it. I never took any of it personally, and I’m glad I went through it, to be honest.”

Over the years, Harper moved Ambrose between a number of mid-range portfolios, most notably Public Works and Health.

Her public profile was muted compared to colleagues who entered cabinet at the same time as she did — John Baird and Jason Kenney being two examples. She very rarely spoke to the media outside of scheduled appearances, and avoided the political talk show circuit.

Ambrose courted controversy a handful of times when she waved the government’s flag on ideological issues — saying she was outraged that the Supreme Court expanded the definition of medical marijuana, for example.

She said she’s most proud of overseeing the independent procurement process for the federal shipbuilding program, and for shepherding in United Nations recognition for the International Day of the Girl.

“She just went into this roomful of UN ambassadors, mostly men — 99 per cent men — and you know how petite she is … she just worked that room,” Plan Canada president Rosemary McCarney said of Ambrose a year after the international day became reality.

“I don’t think they knew what hit them. She was just a force. You can just see her know her file, take a deep breath, and plunge.”

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