Jody Wilson-Raybould doesn’t like to refer to herself as a “celebrity.” But there’s a pretty good case to be made that, for a few months at the beginning of 2019, she was Vancouver’s most famous full-time resident.
We all know the story. A cabinet shuffle in Trudeau’s government moves her out of the attorney general post; Wilson-Raybould resigns from her new position as minister of veteran affairs; charges of inappropriate pressure arise; and, finally, she gets kicked out of the Liberal party altogether.
At the end of that year, she pulled off something perhaps more shocking than her formidable commitment to the truth against the government she served with as justice minister: she took a seat in the House of Commons as an independent, winning the riding of Vancouver Granville with over 32 percent of the vote, topping Liberal Taleeb Noormohamed (26 percent) and Conservative Zach Segal (22 percent).
It’s only been done once before in B.C., when incumbent Surrey MP Chuck Cadman won in 2004 after losing the nomination for the Conservative Party. He ended up playing a pivotal role in government, casting the deciding vote on a budget a year later that would keep the minority Liberal government in power. Time will tell whether Wilson-Raybould will be called into the spotlight à la Cadman—this is another Liberal minority government, after all.
For now, the former justice minister has a job that comes with a decidedly lesser profile: listening to residents and actually speaking for them, without a party controlling her voting hand. But that comes with complications too.
Vancouver Granville runs all the way from Second Avenue to the southernmost edge of the city between Main and Arbutus streets. It encapsulates some of the richest postal codes in Canada: in Shaughnessy, through massive swaths of tree-lined streets and single-family homes in Kerrisdale and Arbutus Ridge, and into stretches of Marpole and Main Street that are chock full of renters and relatively lower-income earners. In short, it’s one of the most socioeconomically diverse areas in the country.
So how does one person, particularly someone with a hard-earned reputation for fighting against injustice, represent all that?
It’s late February—a time when people are still meeting in person—when I first sit down to interview Wilson-Raybould at her West Broadway constituency office. She welcomes me into a chair at the back of her office and sits, listening intently to my questions and nodding along, her big eyes working just as hard as her mouth to convincingly answer each one.
“The issues that people care about, in spite of the amount of money in their wallets—whether it be around the environment or reconciliation with Indigenous peoples or ensuring justice and equality and inclusion, those issues are common to so many people,” she says, making the case that, inherently, citizens of the world—and, especially, Canadians—are a compassionate bunch. “People are people, no matter where they are.”
And Wilson-Raybould, who believes she’s more well known now than she was as the minister of justice, has certainly met her fair share of people. “I get approached all the time,” she admits. “Whether it’s on a plane, walking down the street, people sending me emails, direct messaging me on Twitter—it’s quite overwhelming.”
Her assertion that “people are people” goes against the common belief that folks will often simply vote for what’s best for them personally. But she may have a point.
In 2015, some of what she calls “influential community people” questioned her decision to run in her home riding of Vancouver Granville, making the argument that—due to the lack of Indigenous people in the area—she didn’t have a natural constituency. (Wilson-Raybould is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, and was the first Indigenous person to hold the minister of justice office.)
“What I said was that I believe in people and that people want to invest themselves in particular issues, and impact our community in the most beneficial way possible,” she recalls. “I, at the time, said I didn’t want to divide on racial lines or community lines, but I think I’m one of those examples where even if you don’t have a natural constituency you can still reach people on fundamental issues.”
Though she jokes about being friends with all 10 Indigenous people in the riding (the 2016 Census reports—probably coincidentally—that exactly 10 people in the riding claim an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue), she still seemed to have something of a natural support group in the election. According to data from Elections Canada, she dominated polls north of King Edward Avenue and in the very south of the region.
But polls in the tony areas between King Edward and Southwest Marine Drive were almost uniformly won by Conservative candidate Segal, often with Noormohamed in second.
Makes sense. Wilson-Raybould has spent most of her life advocating for poorer people, from her time as a provincial Crown prosecutor on the Downtown Eastside to being elected as regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations in 2009.
And when it was time to choose where to hold the announcement that she’d be running as an independent, she opted for Marpole Neighbourhood House on the southern fringes of the riding.
So is it really a natural fit for her to be advocating for the wants and needs of Canada’s richest? “I feel comfortable in representing people who have a lot of money that look for and believe in certain causes that they want to invest their time in,” she says, arguing that the issues important to the riding—housing, climate change, general affordability, health care and, yes, Indigenous issues—are genuinely significant to everyone. “Even in Shaughnessy, where people can’t afford to pay their taxes from year to year,” she adds with a wry smile.
Whether she’ll actually have the opportunity to influence policy in a meaningful way is another matter. She entered this parliament 67th on the private member’s bill list, and has been told that her time will likely come around winter 2021. In the meantime, she’s used virtual committees to ask the government pointed questions about mandatory minimum sentencing, which she hopes to reform, and Indigenous rights—she’s pushing for a formal recognition framework.
Though she recently headed back to Ottawa for the resumption of parliament, Wilson-Raybould spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic in Vancouver, talking to residents over Zoom and planning virtual town halls. When we speak again over the phone in mid-July, she talks about carefully expanding her interactions (she’s been to one restaurant, BierCraft on Cambie Street) and wearing her mask everywhere she goes (they should be mandatory, she thinks).
Even with her mask on, though, she’s always getting recognized and approached. Part of being a celebrity.