OurWindsor with Melanee Thomas 23 October 2019
Former Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould walked into in Hellenic Centre in downtown Vancouver late Monday evening to Elton John’s, “I’m Still Standing,” as the first Independent MP elected in more than a decade.
Booted from the Liberal caucus last spring after she raised ethical concerns about Justin Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, she told supporters in her urban riding of Vancouver Granville she will “work with all members of Parliament,” and would “certainly work with the incoming government.”
“This win means it is OK to stand up for what you believe in. To speak your truth, to act with integrity,” she told the cheering crowd.
It will be a tough road ahead for the We Wai Kai First Nation woman who was Canada’s first Indigenous attorney general, say experts and those who have been there before. But it’s not impossible to make a difference, even all by herself.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May was that party’s lone representative for eight years, before being joined by Paul Manly after he won a byelection in Nanaimo—Ladysmith in May 2019. They are now a group of three, with the addition of Jenica Atwin, who was just elected in Fredericton, New Brunswick. But without the money and resources that comes with twelve seat official party status, they are in a similar situation as Wilson-Raybould.
“The system is geared against independents,” said May in a phone interview Tuesday from her home in Sidney, B.C., calling Wilson-Raybould’s re-election an “enormous accomplishment”
Without official party status, she won’t have party staffers do to research, faces limited time during question period and can’t be a member of committees. But she can put forward private members bills, as May has done successfully on two occasions, and propose amendments to bills.
“You can make laws, you can make changes, and as an Independent MP you have your own voice,” May said.
There was some speculation during the campaign that Wilson-Raybould would join the Greens. May said she’s very much in favour of working together but doubts she’ll change her mind on that.
Still, she doesn’t doubt that Wilson-Raybould will be a “powerful force” on Indigenous rights and other issues important to her.
“She has literally a strong voice. She has great credibility and she’s a hero for those of us who want to see ethics and integrity in government,” May added.
Just getting back to the House of Commons without being a member of any party is quite rare in recent Canadian political history, said Semra Sevi, a PhD Candidate in the department of political science at the Université de Montréal.
Sevi has compiled a database of every candidate who has run in Canadian federal elections from 1867 through 2017, and found only 74 MPs elected under a party banner who then switched to Independent. Of these only 24 were successfully re-elected.
“But when it is a local famous person and their individual recognition overplays the party’s label, then that’s when an Independent person can shine,” said Sevi.
“And maybe this is probably what she wanted to do herself to show that she could fly solo and still win.”
Sevi noted that Jane Philpott who didn’t have the same name recognition, tried the same strategy in Markham—Stouffville and lost.
It will be tough for Wilson-Raybould, without the party support and resources others enjoy. But she also “ won’t be tied down in the same way that other members of parties are.”
That’s something Bill Casey, the last Independent MP to be elected in Canada, relished.
“I found it refreshing,” he said.
“I just looked at each piece of legislation is this good for my riding or not.”
Casey was re-elected in 2008 in his Nova Scotia riding, after leaving the Conservatives.
He found the access he had in parliament to ministers made his role doable, and did his own research, with the help of the Library of Parliament. Still, there were downsides.
“When the day’s over nobody gathers anywhere,” he said.
“You’re all alone.”
Unlike Casey and some other past independents, Wilson-Raybould has more of a national profile, says Melanee Thomas, an associate professor in political science at the University of Calgary, and might be less locally focused.
She’s primarily been known as the “linchpin” in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, but she remains the highest-profile Indigenous Member of Parliament.
And although being an independent means “sitting in the corner” by herself, it’s no different than what she’s been doing since the spring, when she was expelled from the Liberal caucus.
“Jody Wilson-Raybould does have a lot of agency here,” Thomas said. “I’m curious to see how she decides to craft her space.”
Melanee Thomas is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.