Cross Country Checkup

Free from party line, Jane Philpott campaigns on her version of the truth

The former Liberal cabinet minister and now independent candidate says truth is at the centre of her campaign, and her decision to become a political free agent will give her greater freedom to speak for constituents.

'To hold public office is to be trustworthy,' says the former Liberal cabinet minister

Jane Philpott announced in May that she would run as an independent candidate in the Oct. 21 federal election after being expelled from the Liberal caucus. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Just days into the election campaign, after knocking on thousands of doors in her Toronto-area riding, Jane Philpott says she senses deep distrust in the party system that's become the bedrock of Canadian democracy.

"What I hear from people in Markham-Stouffville is they don't necessarily want a member of Parliament who's just going to say and do and vote the way the party tells them to," Philpott told CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup.

"They want a member of Parliament who … speaks what they believe to be true."

The former Liberal cabinet minister acknowledges she's in an uphill battle this election, running as an independent after resigning from cabinet last March over Justin Trudeau's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair and subsequently, being removed from the Liberal caucus

I know my constituents trust me to speak the truth. That's what it means to hold public office, is to be trustworthy.- Jane Philpott

But she says truth is at the centre of her campaign, and her decision to become a political free agent will give her greater freedom to speak for constituents.

"I know my constituents trust me to speak the truth. That's what it means to hold public office, is to be trustworthy."

Party system on trial

A recent report card by the Samara Centre for Democracy, a non-partisan advocacy group that champions citizen engagement, suggests that Canadians' trust in politicians is slightly higher now than it was five years ago.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's relationship with Philpott soured after allegations that he pressured then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to drop the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The centre's research director Michael Morden speculates Canadians' increased satisfaction with the state of democracy has to do the current strength of the country's economy.

But one of the contributing factors to Canadian voters' distrust of MPs is how they're controlled by party whips, Morden said.

"Our elected representatives actually aren't empowered to really represent us in Ottawa. They typically have to toe the party line and that interferes with their ability to be independent and responsive to their constituents," said Morden.

"That can be a real driver of distrust."

If you feel strongly about something, you should certainly be able to describe that to Canadians, in your own words, and not be spewing the lines that you're given.- Jane Philpott

Morden says Canada's party system helps make it easier for citizens to vote, by grouping MPs under broad political ideals. But he says the practice of party discipline and centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has created a situation where MPs often feel handcuffed.

"There are MPs in caucuses now who are chafing against the limitations," he said.

"It's always useful to have voices that are a little bit freer, to challenge other MPs and say, 'You know, this isn't working the way it's supposed to.'"

Need 'team approach'

Helena Jaczek, who is the new Liberal Party candidate in the Markham-Stouffville riding, says Philpott's independent campaign may be "well-intentioned," but won't benefit her constituents.

"The reality is that we are in a party system, and you need that kind of team approach in order to get things done," Jaczek said.

"An independent — one of 338 MPs — is going to have an incredibly difficult time … to actually be at the table and to speak on behalf of the residents."

Helena Jaczek, former minister of Community and Social Services in Ontario, is running as the Liberal candidate against Philpott in her Markham-Stouffville riding. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Jaczek says Trudeau's trustworthiness has been praised on doorsteps in her riding.

"The instinctive response from the majority of people is that they like him, they believe he's trying to do his very best for Canada, and they feel there is a track record there they can trust."

Philpott, however, says she found it impossible to speak favourably about Trudeau's ethics after allegations first surfaced that the PMO had pressured then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to drop the criminal case against engineering giant SNC-Lavalin of Montreal.

"I felt like if someone confronted me and said … 'Do you agree with what the prime minister has said?' that I couldn't honestly answer that and remain in solidarity with cabinet," Philpott said.

Last month, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion found that Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by improperly pressuring Wilson-Raybould.

Campaigning independently

Philpott hopes her decision to run as an independent sends a message to other MPs.

"If you feel strongly about something, you should certainly be able to describe that to Canadians, in your own words, and not be spewing the lines that you're given."

Philpott and Wilson-Raybould — who is also running as an independent candidate in her Vancouver-Granville riding — are a thorn in the side of Team Trudeau, serving as visible campaign reminders of the prime minister's handling of the SNC-Lavalin case.

Independent MPs Philpott and Wilson-Raybould, right, speak before question period in the foyer of the House of Commons in April. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The two are teaming up, each making campaign trips to the other's riding to offer public support. 

Philpott's campaign posters have replaced Liberal red with black, white and gold and the slogan "Colour outside the party lines." While many of her campaign volunteers defected from the Liberals, she recognizes winning won't be easy without the support of a party apparatus.

In a May Mainstreet Research/338Canada poll, Philpott ranked third behind the Conservatives and the Liberals.

"If you speak to the pundits and experts and pollsters, they will say that I don't have a chance."

But she has no regrets about running as an independent, win or lose.

"When we believe that what is good for the country is different than what is good for the political success of a party, then our obligation lies first with the country."

With files from Sheyfali Saujani

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

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