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Scandal sidelines 'high-maintenance' Liberal MP

Ruby Dhalla, defended by supporters as a hard-working woman, flies home denying complaints that she mistreated foreign workers

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA and TORONTO — Four days after she was pictured hoisting Leader Michael Ignatieff's hand in triumph at the Liberal coronation convention, Ruby Dhalla was in hiding from public politics for a second straight day. And Mr. Ignatieff wasn't talking about her at all.

Allegations that Ms. Dhalla mistreated two foreign live-in caregivers have tainted two Liberal parties with the whiff of scandal, forcing her to quit her post as the Liberals' youth and multiculturalism critic, and hitting Dalton McGuinty's government with allegations of a cover-up. Ms. Dhalla has denied the allegations and said in a statement Wednesday she will work to clear her name.

One of the party's high-profile MPs, she travelled widely to speak at public events, briefly flirting with a run for the leadership, and showed up at the convention in a white stretch limo.

But after a meeting with Mr. Ignatieff on Tuesday, she flew home to Mississauga to regroup, with colleagues wondering if her political career is over. “She's devastated,” a friend said.

The MP for Brampton-Springdale is glamorous, energetic and career-oriented. She's also viewed by fellow caucus members as a “high maintenance” self-promoter, unwilling to do parliamentary drudgery, and demanding with her staff.

“I don't get the sense that too many people are feeling all that sorry for her,” one MP said.

Two women have alleged that Ms. Dhalla and her family had hired them under the federal Live-in Caregiver program for foreign workers to care for the MP's mother. They say they were paid $250 a week for 16-hour days of household chores – from shining shoes to shovelling snow – and cleaning the family's chiropractic clinics.

One, Magdalene Gordo, 31, compared the job with slavery; the other, Richelyn Tongson, 37, said Ms. Dhalla withheld her passport for weeks.

In the Ontario Legislature, Labour Minister Peter Fonseca faced accusations that he protected a fellow Liberal when he took no action after he first learned about the allegations from the employees themselves, in a town hall meeting two weeks ago hosted by Education Minister Kathleen Wynne.

“Will you penalize Ruby Dhalla? Will you put Ruby Dhalla in jail?” New Democrat MPP Cheri DiNovo asked in the legislature.

Mr. Fonseca said he gave the women information on filing a complaint, and a minister should not direct investigations. An embarrassed Premier Dalton McGuinty stood by his ministers, but conceded both Mr. Fonseca and Ms. Wynne exhibited a bit of a tin ear.

“There's obviously a perception issue, no doubt about it,” he said.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said Wednesday Ms. Dhalla wants to be able to clear her name.

“She feels very strongly that the allegations against her are not true. And she has a right to defend herself and there will be full investigations I'm sure at both the federal and provincial level,” Mr. Rae said.

Those investigations are likely to include an Ontario Labour Ministry probe, and possibly a federal Immigration investigation.

In this year's annual light-hearted poll of parliamentary staffers in the Hill Times, Ms. Dhalla was voted second-sexiest female MP, but also the worst MP to work for.

“It's everything starting with making sure she's in every photo-op with the leader. I often hear of events where she calls the organizers and says ‘I want to speak,' even though she wasn't invited,” one former caucus colleague said.

“… And she's also difficult to work for. She probably has more [staff] turnover than anyone on the hill.”

That's sour grapes, suggested MP Judy Sgro, a friend who served as Ms. Dhalla's mentor in her first few months in Parliament, and saw a young politician eager to prove herself as the first Sikh woman elected to the Commons.

“She's a good-looking, single, hard-working woman,” Ms. Sgro said. “She spends all her time working. And there are always people around who are fast to cut you down when you're one step ahead of them.”

And despite the Hill Times raspberry, at least one of the people who has worked for her said he always gets along with her.

“She does work her employees very, very hard. Yes, sometimes I was there until 11 p.m. or midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning. But so was she.”

A chiropractor with a string of Toronto-area clinics, she worked as a young Manitoba Liberal on Paul Martin's failed 1990 leadership bid, briefly flirted with acting in a low-budget Canadian version of a Bollywood film, and then was thrust into a messy squabble when she entered electoral politics.

Hand-picked as a Liberal candidate by then prime minister Mr. Martin in 2004, she essentially began her elected political career as a pawn in a bitter battle between Liberal factions.

The sitting MP in Brampton-Springdale, Sarkis Assadourian, was facing a stiff challenge for the nomination from a leadership organizer for John Manley, Andrew Kania.

Mr. Martin's team bumped Mr. Assadourian, promising a federal job, and appointed Ms. Dhalla as the candidate.

It prompted Mr. Kania, now a Liberal MP for a neighbouring riding, to support the NDP candidate. Mr. Assadourian is still bitter: “This is Paul Martin's legacy to the Liberal Party, and to Canada,” he said of the current scandal.

In the Commons, she's not known for many close friendships with Liberal colleagues, despite her ebullient personality and ready smile.

And though she was Mr. Ignatieff's campaign co-chair in 2006, she was demoted from relatively major critics posts she held under Mr. Dion to the less coveted post as critic for youth and multiculturalism.

Ms. Sgro said Ms. Dhalla has been passionate about children's issues and the concerns of immigrant women – and the allegations don't ring true to her.

“I know her mum and I know her brother … I've always found them to be a very caring family. These assertions just don't seem to connect with the people that I know.”

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