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From no-name policy wonk to leader of the Official Opposition: Rona Ambrose on her 13-year career in Ottawa

By Christina Leadlay      

First published in August 2016, outgoing interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose reflects on her time in politics, from becoming the youngest female member of Cabinet in 2006 to leading the Official Opposition.

'It was a huge upset and no one expected that I would win,' Rona Ambrose says of her first election to the riding of Edmonton-Spruce Grove, Alta. in 2004. The Hill Times file photo

From no-name policy wonk to leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose has had an impressive 13 years in Ottawa. She became the youngest female member of Cabinet in 2006 at the age of 36, and says she had the most portfolios of anyone in the Harper-era government. In a summer 2016 interview, the Conservative Party’s outgoing interim leader took The Hill Times’ magazine, Power & Influence, on a candid reflection back on her career.

2004 — First elected 

Ms. Ambrose recalls the night she was first elected in the riding of Edmonton-Spruce Grove, Alta. as a really exciting time. “I ran against almost a dozen people … I had no political experience and no name recognition,” she says. “It was a huge upset and no one expected that I would win.” The Conservatives were in opposition when Ms. Ambrose first arrived in Ottawa, and leader Stephen Harper immediately assigned her to his shadow cabinet as Intergovernmental Affairs critic. “I am a policy wonk, and I wanted to get the opportunity to write, develop, and implement policy,” she recalls of those 18 months in Opposition.

2005 — Don’t tell us what to do

“I was just asking good, tough questions, and he lost his temper,” recalls Ms. Ambrose of her headline-making exchange in February 2005 with then-Social Development minister Ken Dryden over the Liberal national childcare plan. “He is such a lovely man, but at that moment he lost his cool,” she says. “He said something really condescending to me, and I said, ‘look, young working women like me don’t need old white guys to tell us what to do.’” She smiles, recollecting: “We made up and we became friends again.”

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The Hill Times file photo

2006 — Environment Minister

Ms. Ambrose says her first portfolio was the most challenging. “I did a ton of policy work behind the scenes, including the Clean Air Act … But I was a terrible politician,” she admits. “I did not know how to handle myself in the media, I didn’t know how to really do well in the House of Commons,” she says. Adding to the stress was her conflicted role regarding the Kyoto Protocol, having to chair the UN climate change convention whilst criticizing the Kyoto Accord. “I had my life threatened by environmental groups,” she recalls. “I had to have security for a while.”

Ambrose environ. minister 2006 photo by Sgt Eric Jolin, Rideau Hall.t5762a723.m800.xf131b90e

P&I Photograph courtesy of Sgt. Eric Jolin, Rideau Hall.

2010 — Off the radar on Kilimanjaro

“I do a lot of hiking,” says Ms. Ambrose. That’s why, when she was minister of Public Works, she continued to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, unfazed that the emergency phone that the Department of National Defence had given her didn’t work at such a high altitude. She recalled trekking to the summit, “but little did I know, Helena Guergis had her meltdown right when I decided to not have the phone access,” she tells P&I of the spring 2010 drama, when Ms. Guergis, then-minister for Status of Women, left cabinet and was suspended from caucus. “They literally looked for me for two days because they needed me to say I would take her position … [and] needed to swear me into this new portfolio to remove her from cabinet,” she says. “They thought they had literally lost a minister.” Ms. Ambrose recalls being met by a barrage of officials, racing down the mountain to the airport, and arriving at Rideau Hall in a little more than 24 hours. “It was a crazy experience,” she says.

Rona Ambrose hiking Kilimanjaro photo courtesy Rona Ambrose.t5762a74d.m800.xfded976a

P&I Photograph courtesy of Rona Ambrose.

2011 — Day of the Girl Child

Among the many government policies she’s helped put in place, Ms. Ambrose is particularly proud of the UN resolution she helped to pass regarding International Day of the Girl Child, October 11. “That was something I wanted to do on a personal level and the prime minister supported me,” she says. “I wasn’t the Foreign Affairs minister, so it was quite an interesting experience to go through, but it was fun.” Ms. Ambrose recalls how hard it was to get the resolution passed, and the endless lobbying the Canadian delegation had to do with the other UN member nations. “I learned all the intrigue of how some countries will try to undermine other countries.” She received an award from the United Nations for her work, and gave it to Malala Yousafzai.

Visual CV Day of the Girl no credit photo.t576ad3f7.m800.x98cfc812

P&I Photograph courtesy of the office of the opposition leader.

2015 — Leading the Opposition

While Ms. Ambrose easily won the riding of Sturgeon River-Parkland (created from part of her old riding) during the last election, her party fell into Opposition and was left looking for a new leader. “We had seven candidates. It was a competitive race, an incredible field of people,” she says of the Nov. 5, 2015 ballot for the Conservative Party’s interim leader. “I ended up getting the nod from my caucus which was great and I love it,” she says. As interim leader, Ms. Ambrose is not allowed to run for the permanent job, but that didn’t stop a contingent of supporters from trying to change the rules during the party’s national convention last year. She also finds it fitting to be back in the Opposition position, as that’s where she started back in 2004. “I just wanted to work hard, do policy, be a team player. And I have done all of those things and it has led to leadership,” she muses. “I am privileged to have been elected to this position. It’s very cool.” p-and-i-graphic-copy

Ambrose as leader May 2016 photo by Jason Ransom.t5762a6f9.m800.x16c2c58f

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