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B.C. mavericks have a long history of taking on their leaders

When Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould levelled damning accusations at some of her Liberal colleagues in Ottawa last week, she joined a time-honoured list of maverick politicians from B.C.
Brian Smith with then-premier Bill Vander Zalm.

When Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould levelled damning accusations at some of her Liberal colleagues in Ottawa last 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, the who 30 years ago took a similar path when he resigned 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 her testimony, 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.

> A look at some of B.C.'s political dissidents

Perhaps the closest 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, said 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 called then-premier Gordon Campbell a bully who was ruining the 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. “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.”

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, according to 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. He recalled 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.

One of the reasons behind Wilson-Raybould’s willingness to provide her bombshell testimony might be linked to the long-standing belief in Indigenous circles that leaders are obligated to speak truth to power, University of Victoria political scientist Jamie Lawson said.

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 said.

“We are certainly a province that is proud of that,” Lawson said. “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.