When Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould levelled damning accusations at some of her Liberal colleagues in Ottawa this week, she joined a time-honoured list of maverick politicians from B.C. who have publicly challenged their leaders — and, in doing so, risked their political futures.“I have huge respect for the way she conducted herself as a neutral attorney general,” said Brian Smith, who 30 years ago took a similar path, resigning as B.C.’s attorney-general over allegations of interference from the premier’s office.“I know how she felt, because she gave up the job that she loved most, being attorney general. And it is a terrible emotional shock.”In explosive testimony this week, Wilson-Raybould said she was fired as attorney-general in January because she refused to give in to “political interference” in a court case against construction giant SNC Lavalin, a large employer. Although she still sits as a Liberal MP, she broke from party ranks and accused 11 officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, Privy Council Office and Finance Department of trying to sway her decision as the country’s top lawyer.In B.C., where politics is at times defined as a blood sport for the often-feisty dramatics at the legislature in Victoria, other politicians have taken similar stands that captured headlines. For some, the fallout killed their political careers, while others rose up from the political ashes to find success again as elected officials.Perhaps the most parallel story to Wilson-Raybould’s took place in 1988, when Smith suddenly resigned, alleging he had confrontations with Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm’s office over two cases. Like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who denies any wrongdoing in the Wilson-Raybould affair, Vander Zalm insisted in 1988 he had not tried to interfere with Smith’s job.Smith, though, argues both he and Wilson-Raybould took principled stands: “It’s pretty tough to uphold the neutrality of criminal investigations against the push of politicians. And the two come into a clash from time to time. And she was caught in an impossible vise.”A former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, Bill Bennett, launched a similar fight in 2010 when, just after being fired as energy minister, he famously called then-premier Gordon Campbell a bully who was ruining their party by not stepping down as leader.“The need for loyalty to the leader, the need for loyalty to the party, at some point has to be sacrificed for what the individual believes is morally right. And obviously that is the place (Wilson-Raybould) got to. And it’s a horrible place to be in,” Bennett recalled today. “It’s absolutely a no-win situation other than the person who does it knows in their heart it is the right thing to do.”This phenomenon of outspoken B.C. politicians has crossed all party lines. Joy MacPhail, who had been the NDP’s finance minister, quit premier Glen Clark’s cabinet in July 1999, and would later say it was because Clark’s government had lost the trust of British Columbians. “I did this to save my party,” MacPhail said then.B.C. has historically had a two-party system — typically a right-leaning free-enterprise party and the left-leaning NDP — which has led to polarization here, unlike in provinces with three dominant parties, said a University of B.C. political scientist, Gerald Baier.“Because of (B.C.’s) polarization, it leads to rough and tumble politics, without much middle ground to fight over. That might mean that we have more characters and tolerance for people who are colourful because they can get away with it,” he said.When B.C. politicians go to Ottawa, they can “bristle” at the way things are done in the more traditional central-Canada system, Baier said, recalling NDP MP Jim Fulton slapping a dead salmon on prime minister Brian Mulroney’s House of Commons desk during a 1985 debate about the sockeye fishery in B.C.“Prime ministers always want to have a regionally representative cabinet, they work hard to have voices from different parts of the country. But the understanding is that the economic driver and the population driver is at the centre of the country — and the centre will win,” Baier said.One of the reasons behind Wilson-Raybould’s willingness to provide her bombshell testimony this week may be linked to the long-standing belief in Indigenous circles that leaders are obligated to speak truth to power, said University of Victoria political scientist Jamie Lawson.While other parts of the country have also created unique political figures, B.C. has bucked the Central Canada trend of “soft-spoken, diplomatic Lester Pearson”-type leaders, he added.“We are certainly a province that is proud of that. It is kind of part of the self-identity of the place, and one of the consequences is people can come into leadership with the reputation of being mavericks. That’s something that goes right back to pre-Confederation times. It’s not every province that has a guy who calls himself Amor De Cosmos,” Lawson said in reference to B.C.’s renegade premier of 1872, who legally changed his name from the more bland William Smith.Here is a look at some of our other political dissidents:
1952: W.A.C. BennettW.A.C. Bennett, a businessman from Kelowna, was elected to the provincial legislature as a Conservative in 1941, but twice his bids to lead the ruling party were rejected. Disgruntled, he resigned to sit as an independent in 1951, and then joined the Social Credit Party, which made a surprise breakthrough, forming government the next year.Bennett was chosen to lead the party, and became the longest serving premier in B.C. history, from 1952 to 1972.“Campaigning on a shrewd populist platform of fiscal restraint, fervent free enterprise, anti-socialist zeal, western chauvinism and unrepentant Ottawa-bashing, he developed a chameleon-like ability to adapt policy to either and sometimes both sides of any contentious issue,” Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume wrote about Bennett.“Bennett — journalist Bruce Hutchison described his ‘fixed neon smile, the bustling salesman’s assurance, the relentless torrent of speech’ as representing a revolution in provincial political style — spent his time in power remaking B.C.,” Hume wrote.Bennett, who died in 1979, was known as Wacky to friends and foes.
Brian Smith with then-premier Bill Vander Zalm.
Peter Battistoni /
1988: Brian SmithB.C.’s first attorney-general to resign over differences with the premier was Sir Richard McBride, who left James Dunsmuir’s government in 1901.Smith quoted McBride in his resignation speech in 1988, saying: “When Richard McBride resigned on a point of principle in the Dunsmuir administration in 1901, his father said: ‘My boy, resign everything but your honour.’… I am resigning as an act of honour.”At the time, Smith complained Vander Zalm had a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the need for an independent attorney-general in relation to two cases he was handling, including a legal investigation into one of the premier’s close friends.“I had all kinds of threats around me that I should back off that investigation, but I didn’t. And as soon as that investigation was finished, I stood up in the house and resigned,” Smith recalled today. “It was a terrible thing to have to give up the job you loved.”He remained in the Socred caucus for more than a year, secretly trying to convince enough backbenchers to leave as independents so they could force Vander Zalm out and reform the party. The ploy didn’t work, and Smith left politics to become the chair of CN Rail.Smith believes Wilson-Raybould will be given a rough ride if she tries to remain in the Liberal caucus, and predicts she has a bright future as a significant leader — but perhaps not one involving politics. “She is principled, and she ain’t no pushover. That is what the Trudeau government found out to their surprise.”
Grace McCarthy with Bill Vander Zalm
1988: Grace McCarthy“Amazing Grace” McCarthy was the backbone of the Social Credit Party for decades, and became Canada’s first female deputy premier. But McCarthy publicly broke with then-premier Vander Zalm in 1988, alleging political interference by the premier and his principal secretary in the sale of the Expo lands in Vancouver.McCarthy quit her post as economic development minister as soon as the bidding was complete and set about trying to bring down Vander Zalm before he could fatally damage the party. She urged other cabinet ministers to resign as a way to weaken the premier.McCarthy coined the term “independent Socred” as a way to distance herself from the party, while staying close enough to take the reins if the opportunity presented itself. When Vander Zalm finally self-immolated in a scandal in 1991, McCarthy ran for the party leadership but was narrowly defeated by Rita Johnston.A Vancouver park commissioner in the early 1960s, McCarthy had been recruited to provincial politics by W.A.C. Bennett, who was keen to encourage female leaders.“At a time when female leaders were hard to find in Canadian politics, Grace McCarthy was an agent of change,” said former premier Christy Clark when McCarthy died in 2017. “When she was first elected, women could not even apply for mortgages without a male guarantor — until she worked with the provincial and federal governments to fix it.”1991: Gordon WilsonGordon Wilson was a master at changing his political spots, serving as leader of the Liberal party for six years, as a cabinet minister for the New Democrats, and the creator of a now-defunct new party.Today, Wilson declines to discuss his own past, but notes B.C. has several leaders, including Bennett, Vander Zalm and Dave Barrett, who built support for this province by picking fights with Ottawa.“If I were to use a Western analogy, because of the polarized left-versus-right extremes in B.C., it is as if the majority of British Columbians are caught between two gunslingers on the main street of Dodge,” he told The Vancouver Sun. “As spectators, we try to speak truth to power before the gunfighter who is fastest to the draw slays the other and governs from the saloon.”Wilson assumed leadership of a moribund Liberal party in 1987, with no elected members in the legislature. Nonetheless, he secured a spot in the 1991 campaign leadership debate and rocketed the party to prominence with one of the greatest sound bites in B.C. history.As Social Credit premier Rita Johnston and NDP leader Mike Harcourt squabbled during the televised debate, Wilson interjected, “Here’s a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia.”The Liberals elected 17 MLAs in 1991, placing second and effectively ending the Social Credit Party’s 39-year reign as the dominant political force in B.C. Despite his surprising success, his time as party leader would end two years later when his extramarital affair with Liberal MLA Judi Tyabji was revealed.Wilson would be deposed by Gordon Campbell, and he and Tyabji would form their own party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance. Wilson was re-elected in 1996 as the only MLA of the party.Three years into his term, Wilson crossed the floor to join the New Democrats as a cabinet minister and assumed the finance portfolio after the resignation of Joy MacPhail. When Glen Clark resigned in a scandal, Wilson took a run at the leadership of the NDP, but quickly aborted that mission.He returned to the Liberal fold in 2016, when then-Premier Christy Clark rewarded him with a $150,000-a-year contract to promote opportunities for B.C. businesses in the liquefied natural gas industry.
Joy MacPhail with then-premier Glen Clark.
1999: Joy MacPhailJoy MacPhail resigned from her post as B.C.’s finance minister in 1999, when party leader and premier Glen Clark had become politically radioactive. Even when Clark himself resigned over his handling of a friend’s casino licence, MacPhail’s path to redemption was far from clear.She cited “personal reasons” for quitting, in part because Clark’s hold on the party was so strong he could easily have shut her out even in his own disgrace. While she avoided direct confrontation at the time, she would later blast Clark’s ruinous style of governing.“I do not believe in confrontation as a standard way of doing business,” she said at the time. “The old way of doing things under a Glen Clark government was to pick favourites and thereby create losers. … People have rejected that method of governing and that way of doing things. We must change.”MacPhail would later abandon her own bid for the party leadership to back Ujjal Dosanjh in order to keep Gordon Wilson — Clark’s chosen successor — from gaining control. Dosanjh brought MacPhail back to cabinet as labour minister the next year, but that government was short-lived.In 2001, the New Democrats were swept from office, leaving MacPhail with one of just two NDP ridings in the entire province. She served her final term as the party’s de facto leader in the legislature.MacPhail, chair of the ICBC board of directors, was not available Friday for comment.
Bill Bennett with then-premier Gordon Campbell.
Jason Payne /
2010: Bill BennettWhen Bennett left Gordon Campbell’s Liberal cabinet in 2010, he made the rare move of airing the party’s dirty laundry in public, alleging there was “almost a battered wife syndrome inside our caucus.” Taking that stand put him “in a very dark place,” but he strongly believed Campbell, who was in his third term as premier, should step down to save the party, which had slumped in the polls.Bennett rose again in the Liberal ranks when Christy Clark took over the party the following year, but he still wears the scars from speaking out.“In party politics, the pre-eminent value is loyalty to the leader. There are still many many people in British Columbia who hate my guts, because I set that one aside one time and chose to do something that I thought as an individual was right,” added Bennett, who hopes Wilson-Raybould’s career is not ruined by taking a stand.“I hope Jody Wilson-Raybould doesn’t feel like she is done yet either … She is at the beginning of what should be a stellar career and a career that’s important to Canada.”Bennett believes the federal Liberals would be “crazy” to not let Wilson-Raybould run again under their banner.
John van Dongen
ADRIAN LAM /
PROVINCE TIMES COLONIST
2012: John van DongenJohn van Dongen, a one-time Liberal solicitor-general, shocked British Columbia in 2012 when he defected to the tiny B.C. Conservative party, and on his way across the floor blasted premier Christy Clark and his former Liberal colleagues with a long shopping list of ethical violations.“What I believe people expect from political leadership are core values that include integrity and a genuine commitment to public service,” he said at the time.Van Dongen was incensed when the Liberals wrote off $6 million in legal fees racked up by the Liberal aides accused in the Basi-Virk corruption trial ignited by the bargain-priced sale of B.C. Rail.“Every week, constituents question government actions and issues that I am not able to defend,” he said.His former colleagues in the Liberal caucus were quick to savage Van Dongen as self-serving, nasty and self-aggrandizing.His tenure with the Conservatives lasted only a few months and he soon lost his seat altogether while running as an independent.Postmedia could not reach Van Dongen for this story, but the person who was elected in his former riding in 2017, Darryl Plecas, has high praise for the man.“He was so trying to do the right thing. And he just got beaten up by the system,” Plecas said. “I had so much respect for John.”
Mike Bell /
2017: Darryl PlecasPlecas is the most modern example of a maverick B.C. politician. Elected as a Liberal in Abbotsford South, he was booted from the party after taking the speaker’s job, which effectively allowed the NDP and Greens to form government and relegated the Liberals to opposition.Plecas defended the move as “the right thing to do.”He has gone on to ruffle more Liberal feathers, releasing a bombshell report in January that alleges massive misuse of taxpayer dollars by the legislature’s two top officials, mainly while the Liberals were in power.Plecas, who does not think he will run again in the next election, said he knew when he took the speaker’s job he would be “pummelled” by his Liberal colleagues, but was guided by his “moral compass” — as he believes Wilson-Raybould is.“I say three cheers for her. However difficult it might have been doing what I was doing, it’s a thousand times more difficult for her. She would have known all along that you do not do that without a consequence. That is the way the system works. You will be punished. But I’m sure for her there must be an enormous sense of peace,” he said.“To see her have the courage to stand up and do what she did, I think let her be a lesson for all Canadians.”firstname.lastname@example.org/loriculbert