Inside a packed synagogue in the riding of Vancouver Granville, nominees at an all-candidates meeting laid out their parties’ ambitious plans.
The NDP hopeful said her party would build 500,000 affordable homes. The Conservative promised to scrap the carbon tax. The Liberal vowed to ensure that a national housing strategy delivers local benefits.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Independent incumbent with the highest profile of them all, didn’t offer the same boasts about setting Ottawa’s policy agenda. She instead focused on her belief in non-partisan politics and the types of policies she would favour.
“We need to make sure that we are providing opportunities to every individual Canadian,” she replied to a question about lowering the unemployment rate.
“There are many tools the federal government can use to ensure that there are more well paid jobs in the public service,” she continued, adding that it can also provide tax incentives for small and medium-sized businesses and charge corporations higher tax rates.
As in her other answers during the evening, Wilson-Raybould appeared to take a realistic approach to what an Independent MP would be able to achieve. Herein, experts say, lies the challenge for her campaign: While she is popular and offers an inspiring message of doing politics differently, some constituents might be cautious about electing a representative who would be banished to a back corner of the House of Commons and seldom called upon during question period.
At the all-candidates meeting, several undecided voters express admiration of Wilson Raybould’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, when she accused the prime minister of improperly pressuring her to intervene in a criminal case against the corporation. The Liberals ousted her from caucus and leader Justin Trudeau denied wrongdoing.
But some of these same voters are also uncertain where she stands on the issues they care about: climate change, affordable housing, tuition costs, taxes.
“Because she is an Independent, she would have to work with other parties. I think that’s a good thing,” said Jenn Jay, a 43-year-old law firm employee. “But some of the things the other parties are proposing are a lot more attractive as well.”
Darlene Cripps, a grief and trauma counsellor who has lived in the riding for 20 years, said she was disappointed by the Liberal government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and doesn’t know enough about Wilson-Raybould’s position on the project.
“I want to hear her views, because she doesn’t have to mouth a party line now,” Cripps said.
In an interview, Wilson-Raybould said she believes she’s made her positions on key issues very clear. She said she’s been knocking on doors and she has published policy statements on her website that assert, for example, that she supports universal pharmacare and opposes proceeding with the Trans Mountain project now.
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“I am unencumbered by the dictates of parties,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with parties necessarily, but having to hastily flip through platforms… and recite lines that you’re told to say is one way that people can represent themselves.
“But I believe that voters … want people to represent them based on values and based on principles.”
She said the view that Independent MPs lack power in Parliament is “pessimistic.” One of her priorities would be updating the standing orders, which govern how the House of Commons operates, to ensure that every member can represent his or her constituents in a more robust way, she says. She doesn’t specify exactly how she’d like the rules changed.
Wilson-Raybould also says she would participate in a lottery for private members to introduce bills and could work with other MPs on their private-member’s bills.
If the government puts forward legislation that is progressive and important to the constituents of Vancouver Granville, she will support it, whereas if it isn’t adequate she’ll try to improve it or oppose it, she adds.
“I’m an optimistic person,” she said. “I actually don’t believe that being Independent means you’re alone. Being Independent means that you have the opportunity, like I hope any member of Parliament, to work with other MPs who share similar views.”
“Just because politics is done one way and the party system is deeply ingrained … doesn’t mean that it can’t improve.'”
Taleeb Noormohamed, her Liberal rival in the riding, has seized upon opportunities to remind voters of the limited capacity of Independents. He said in an interview that he believes the traditional party system can – and has – produced collaboration and change.
“My view is that the people of Vancouver Granville should have a voice in government,” he said.
“It’s well and good to say you’re going to be an independent voice. But you want to be a voice inside the tent, at the table, in the room when difficult decisions are being made, so that you can speak out on behalf of your constituents.”
Wilson-Raybould has advantages because she was well-known for her leadership in the Indigenous community before she ever ran for federal office or became the talk of the country during the SNC-Lavalin scandal, says Mario Canseco, president of Vancouver polling firm Research Co.
But even if she wins the seat this time, she might face challenges next time, he said.
“Are you still going to be able to knock on those doors and say, ‘We were a force and we helped you out and we were here to look into the issues you cared about?’ Without having a caucus it’s very, very complicated to do something like that,” Canseco said.
Gerald Baier, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said a lot of people vote along party lines.
But Wilson-Raybould is so admired by progressives at this point, he said, that even some traditional New Democrats might cast ballots for her.
He added that many voters don’t have a strong sense of how little Independent members can accomplish in Parliament.
“I don’t think people are saying, ‘Well, I can’t elect an Independent because they can’t do anything,'” he said. “People are probably overlooking that.”