In July, before candidates were chosen for most of the major parties, Vancouver Granville resident David Leverton said he didn’t think the SNC-Lavalin affair would cast that large a shadow over the federal election in Vancouver Granville.
“Unless people are reminded, I think people will have forgotten about it when it’s time to vote,” he told HuffPost.
Leverton has lived in the riding now known as Vancouver Granville since the late 1980s. He says he believes Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau acted “poorly” last year when he allegedly pressed then-attorney general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to interfere in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
The scandal would lead to Wilson-Raybould — Leverton’s elected MP — quitting cabinet and being kicked out of the Liberal Party after speaking out.
WATCH: Wilson-Raybould: I asked PM if he was interfering in SNC-Lavalin decision. Story continues below.
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She ultimately decided to seek re-election as an independent in Vancouver Granville. But wooing voters like Leverton seemed likely to be a lot harder without the party infrastructure behind her.
“It’s very difficult for an independent to have a strong influence on anything,” Leverton warned.
He’s not alone in his caution. Cheryl Parker lives in the area and volunteered for Wilson-Raybould during the 2015 campaign. And while she says she, like Leverton, admires Wilson-Raybould’s conviction and integrity, she’s worried about the incumbent’s status as an independant.
“If she’d stayed as a Liberal, I would’ve had no qualms with voting for her,” Parker said. “That said, I’ll probably end up voting either Jody, Liberal, NDP or Green.”
Flash forward to the week before voting day on Oct. 21.
The independent has vastly surpassed her fundraising goals and many peoples’ expectations, rallying a movement behind her personal politics of “justice” and “integrity.” Wilson-Raybould is locked in a tight race for her seat with Liberal replacement Taleeb Noormohammed, and Conservative candidate Zach Segal is not far behind.
With as high a profile independent as there’s ever been in Wilson-Raybould, Vancouver Granville will be the bellwether of whether it’s possible to make that political mark, or if the power of the party establishment will win out. Voters such as Leverton and Parker are set to decide where the riding stands on the former justice minister and her five opponents.
The epicentre of Vancouver
Established ahead of the 2015 election and bordered by Liberal establishment ridings such as Hedy Fry’s Vancouver Centre to the north and Vancouver Quadra to the west — and the NDP strongholds of Vancouver East and Vancouver Kingsway on the other side — Vancouver Granville is still finding its political footing. Throw a high-profile independent candidate like Wilson-Raybould into the usual Liberal-Conservative-NDP-Green mix, and that’s a recipe for a high-stakes race.
Historical precedent for the area is hard to define, considering the riding has technically been around for only half a decade. Home to about 75,000 registered voter,, Vancouver Granville was redrawn in 2013 from sections of Vancouver Kingsway, Vancouver Centre, Vancouver Quadra and Vancouver South. It is quite literally the crossroads of the city.
The riding’s namesake, South Granville Street, is dotted with funky coffee shops and Pottery Barn and Anthropologie outlets. In the area’s central band, tree-lined lanes of heritage homes border bike-friendly streets. Along major thoroughfares, high density apartments meet Starbucks outlets and major bus lines. It’s an urban riding in every sense of the word, even sharing its geography with Vancouver City Hall.
It’s also the focus of one of Metro Vancouver’s largest planned infrastructure projects — a subway extension of the Skytrain. The proposed project, which has secured funding at the municipal and provincial levels — as well as from Trudeau’s federal Liberal government — would see six new high-volume transit stations built, five of them falling within the boundaries of Vancouver Granville.
It is easy to describe the riding as a microcosm of the City of Vancouver — transit woes, housing crisis, climate concerns and all.
If the riding had existed in 2011, redistributed results would have put it in the hands of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, with 35 per cent of the vote. And in 2015, Vancouver Granville elected its first MP in Wilson-Raybould, who took 43 per cent of the vote running for the Liberals, with the NDP and Conservative candidates each taking 26 per cent.
Wilson-Raybould was a high-profile candidate even then, as the regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and the daughter of Kwagiulth hereditary chief, Indigenous theorist and politician Bill Wilson. She was swiftly named to Justin Trudeau’s 2015 gender-balanced cabinet as attorney general and justice minister, becoming the third woman and first person of Indigenous background to hold the role
But Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould made international headlines in early 2019 when the latter alleged that she faced improper pressure from Trudeau and his staff to help halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec engineering giant.
Wilson-Raybould was demoted in cabinet and ultimately kicked out of the party in February 2019 after she released a 17-minute recording of a phone conversation she had with former Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick that she said backed up her allegations of inappropriate pressure on the matter.
WATCH: A timeline of the SNC-Lavalin affair. Story continues below.
There was barely a question of whether Wilson-Raybould would run again; the greater focus was on “how.” With Liberals out of the question, many people wondered if the former star candidate would hitch her wagon to an established party or try to go it alone.
For months, there was speculation she — as well as fellow Liberal cabinet cast-off Jane Philpott — would join Elizabeth May’s Green Party. But in late May, the two announced that they would run as independents.
“I am confident that running as an independent is the best way to go about it at this time, and the best way to transform our political culture,” Wilson-Raybould told constituents during a rally at the time.
This year marks a crossroads for the riding. Voters are faced with a person they know on one side, and parties they know — but with relative political newcomers — on the other.
As eyes from across the country turn to the riding, other candidates are pushing to achieve the name recognition of their celebrity rival. Liberal Noormohammed, Conservative Segal, NDP candidate Yvonne Hanson, Green candidate Louise Boutin and the People’s Party’s Naomi Chocyk are all looking to unseat Wilson-Raybould.
The weekend before voting day, three candidates have a reasonable shot of winning, and five of the six parties are projected to possibly take at least 10 per cent of the vote, according to 338canada.ca. Only the Peoples’ Party is totally out of the conversation.
But in a riding where constituents herald Wilson-Raybould’s moral fortitude in handling the SNC-Lavalin affair — but up against the power of a party establishment — will the person or the party prevail?
A seat at the table
No candidate is more looking to step out of Wilson-Raybould’s shadow than the current Liberal candidate, Taleeb Nourmohammed.
Noormohammed met me at his campaign office immediately following a haircut. He’s trying to look fresh — based on how tight the race is among him, Wilson-Raybould and the Conservative candidate, come Tuesday, he could be an elected MP.
As we’re settling in for the interview, a staff member comments on how “aerodynamic” it looks.
“It’s fresh from the cut, I haven’t had time to do the post-flatten-it thing,” Noormohammed says with a laugh, trying to smooth down his hair.
We immediately address the Wilson-Raybould elephant in the room. While Noormohammed acknowledges that Wilson-Raybould’s departure from the Liberals has elevated Vancouver Granville into the national spotlight, he says the people that live there are still focused on local problems.
“They are concerned very much about making sure that we have a plan for climate change. They want to know that we’re going to do things on housing and affordability,” he said. “They want to make sure that the subway out here gets built and that they can live in this community and work in this community.”
He pushed the dependability of the Liberals’ platform as the only way to achieve those things, and argued that, without a party, Wilson-Raybould isn’t equipped to represent the riding at a federal level.
Noormohammed comes from a tech background and worked extensively on Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Olympics. He argued that the party establishment Wilson-Raybould has come out so strongly against is actually a good thing.
He stressed that as an independent, Wilson-Raybould will never be part of the government. Whereas as a Liberal, he has a chance to be “in the room” where decisions are made.
“It’s about making sure when decisions are being made about climate change, when decisions are being made on transportation funding, when decisions are made about how we’re going to think about Canada’s place in the world and housing, that we’re in the room,” he told HuffPost. “It’s always about making sure Vancouver Granville has a voice in that room.”
And while he acknowledges the similarities between Wilson-Raybould’s platform and the Liberals’, he said there are some key differences between him and her. He also says that if faced with the same situation Wilson-Raybould encountered in the SNC-Lavalin affair, he would’ve done things differently and sought a “second opinion”.
“We are asked to govern on what we want. We are asked to govern on the basis of what the citizens that elect us want,” he said. “And to make sure that I don’t put my personal agenda ahead of the agenda of the people that I represent.”
While Noormohammed says he doesn’t believe in the “scare people into voting for you theory,” he does argue strongly in favour of strategically voting against the Conservatives.
It’s always about making sure Vancouver Granville has a voice in that room.Liberal candidate Taleeb Noormohammed
“If we do split the vote, you end up with Andrew Scheer, potentially, as the prime minister and with the balance of power being held, we don’t know where,” he said. “And so my approach to Green voters and NDP voters is to say, ‘we may not agree on 20 per cent of things, but we do agree on the other 80 per cent. And if we can move forward on 80 per cent together, we can learn from each other through that process’.”
Ultimately, Noormohammed says, voters in Vancouver Granville have the choice of party stability or what he calls “uncertainty” with the independent candidate.
“When you vote for me, you know what you get,” he said. “With an independent, you think you might, but you actually don’t.”
Conservative Zach Segal wants to challenge the idea that all Vancouver Granville voters lie on the left and are choosing among multiple brands of Liberals.
“This riding has potential to go Conservative — lots of small-business owners who are upset about taxes, lots of homeowners who don’t think things have gone the right way,” he told HuffPost. “There’s so much opportunity here.”
He pointed to relative similarity between the four “leftist” candidates, and how he as self-described “centre-right” voice can differentiate himself.
“They’re very divided. And we feel that centre-right people, moderate centre-right people, are very aligned,” he said.
He’s not wrong. While Noormohammed and Wilson-Raybould are leading in most projections, Segal isn’t far behind. A strong showing from Conservative voters could send him to Ottawa next week if the cards fall his way.
We met at Segal’s West Broadway campaign office ahead of the final weekend of the campaign period. His spirits were up as we spoke about his volunteer orientation planned for later that evening — there were plans for Halloween candy to be involved, which Segal joked is key to luring in volunteers during a big federal campaign.
He immediately said the introduction of another “progressive” candidate, in Wilson-Raybould, to the usual Liberal-NDP-Green landscape can only spell good things for the Tories.
They’re very divided. And we feel that centre-right people, moderate centre-right people, are very aligned.Conservative candidate Zach Segal
“Certainly, adding another candidate on the left doesn’t hurt. And it has certainly helped us I think,” he told HuffPost.
Segal, who grew up in Vancouver Granville, says his family has lived in the area for more than 100 years. This year marks his first foray as a candidate, but Segal worked as a staffer for Manitoba Conservative MP James Bezan in Ottawa and actually ran Bezan’s campaign in 2015.
Segal says he approached the party to run in the riding even before the SNC-Lavalin news broke, and that the scandal only motivated him further to entire the tight three-way race for the nomination this summer.
“I was steadfast,” he told HuffPost. “I said no matter what, this is my home, my roots, and the issues I’m interested in. And I just had to stay focused.”
With Wilson-Raybould’s departure from the Liberals, the Conservatives see an opening in the riding. The incumbent’s running without party support — and potential vote-splitting on the left — could spell an opening for the right.
While Conservative strongholds exist in the suburbs, Vancouver Granville is likely the Tories’ best shot for breaking through in the City of Vancouver proper, with the city’s other ridings fairly evenly split between the Liberals and NDP.
“I think the main message of our party is so relevant in a city like Vancouver,” Segal said. “Cost of living, wages, helping small businesses, real solutions around housing. I mean, this is, this is what people want to talk about here.”
Earlier this week, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart issued a stark condemnation of the Conservative Party and leader Andrew Scheer, calling them a “disaster for the city” if elected.
“I want to be clear,” Stewart said, “I’m not telling people who to vote for, but I do want to let people in Vancouver know that if you care about these top issues — housing, opioids and transit — and I know most people do, Andrew Scheer would be worse than Stephen Harper.”
Segal rejected Stewart’s criticisms, arguing that the Tories weren’t cancelling the Broadway Skytrain extension, because no money had even been committed to it yet, so it couldn’t be cancelled.
Segal says that while conversation around Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin has dominated talk about Vancouver Granville, it “rarely” comes up at the doors compared with conversations around transit, housing and the environment. He said voters care about what their MP will do for them.
“I think that on Election Day, people will vote for who they feel will actually make life better in a tangible way, and that’s what I think this election is all about,” he said.
The fact that this is a two- or three-person race is a reality Green candidate Lousie Boutin knows all too well. She admits as much during a phone conversation in the final week of the campaign.
“It doesn’t look like I’m going to win, of course,” she told HuffPost with acceptance in her voice.
Earlier this week, Green Party candidate for Edmonton–Strathcona Michael Kalmanovitch dropped out of the race dramatically and endorsed the NDP, warning that vote-splitting on the left could lead to the Conservatives’ taking power.
Boutin says that despite knowing she won’t win, she isn’t ready to do the same thing in Vancouver Granville, because she believes it’s still important her party’s message gets out there.
WATCH: Five things you may not know about Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. Story continues below.
“I want to support the visibility of the Greens,” she said. “If we keep working at it and people see what we’re doing and what we stand for and keep electing people, eventually it will happen, we’ll become as robust as the other parties.”
Boutin has run for the Greens federally in the past, in the nearby riding of Vancouver Kingsway, as well as provincially and municipally. She initially planned to run in Kingsway again this year, but lost the nomination and decided to run in Granville instead because that’s where her office is.
After initially involving herself with climate activism through Greenpeace in the 1970s and continuing that work in the decades since, the Vancouver realtor says she’s found a natural home in the Green Party.
“For most of my life I have been fighting for climate,” she said. “And that’s why I wanted to run, because it seems like we’re all sitting there waiting, and not not making those, those tough decisions, and we need to really do what’s best and show and be the world leaders on there.”
Admittedly, Boutin faces a harder uphill battle than most candidates from her party, because her party leader has, to be blunt, abandoned her.
A week after the writ dropped, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May made a surprise appearance at a rally hosted by Wilson-Raybould and fellow independent Jane Philpott, where the longtime Green leader seemed to endorse the two independents.
Standing at a lectern with a “Re-elect Jody Wilson-Raybould” sign, May delivered a rousing speech in favour of the two independents, touching on her own experience as the longtime lone elected member of the Greens.
“I’m here to honour the highest level of ethical conduct,” May said to cheers at Vancouver’s Hellenic Community Centre. “I’m here to honour courage. I’m here to honour integrity.”
Following the rally, May told reporters Boutin was aware she was there and supporting Wilson-Raybould.
“[The Green Party] constitution requires we have a name on the ballot,” May said simply.
Boutin said she knows May and Wilson-Raybould have a personal relationship — Wilson-Raybould attended May’s wedding earlier this year — and that she harbours no hard feelings towards the Green leader or the party.
Boutin also rejects the notion that she’s a “paper candidate” — on the ballot only to meet the Greens’ national quota.
“I’m a strong Green, I believe in Green values, I believe in being part of the Green Party, … promoting the Green Party,” she said. “I’m running in the riding, I’m talking to people, I went to all of the debates.”
The young gun
Unlike Boutin, NDP candidate Yvonne Hanson won’t concede defeat quite yet, although she realizes the chances of her besting the three front-runners are slim.
“I think, I think there’s a chance,” she told HuffPost with a grimace. “I won’t lie to you, there’s not a huge chance, but it’s there. And it’s absolutely worth fighting for. And my team believes it.”
Polls project the optimistic Hanson as a distant fourth behind Wilson-Raybould, the Liberals and the Tories but ahead of Boutin and PPC candidate Naomi Chocyk. Four years ago, the NDP came in a virtual tie with the Conservatives for second-place in the riding behind Wilson-Raybould.
Hanson met me at her campaign office on West Broadway, which, according to the NDP candidate only just got heating.
“It was like a refrigerator for a while here,” she said. “We had space heaters and everything.”
I won’t lie to you, there’s not a huge chance, but it’s there.NDP candidate Yvonne Hanson
Unlike Wilson-Raybould, the first-time politician has the backing of a party, and the long, narrow office space is littered with signs and banners showing Hanson and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. But she’s still an underdog. At only 24 years old, Hanson is the youngest candidate in the race by far. But she argues that her age isn’t a detriment, but rather, an asset in enacting change.
“I’m 24, so I’m facing the climate crisis,” she said. “My best interests include making life affordable for average people, raising wages, building homes, ensuring that everybody has access to housing, and taking really bold measures to combat the climate crisis, because Jody, bless her, is not going to have to face the climate crisis like I am and my generation is.”
Hanson says she was inspired to go into politics when, while studying biology, she realized the scope of the climate crisis. She says she took a hard pivot into a political science degree at the University of British Columbia, and started getting involved in environmental activism on the side.
“I wasn’t really planning to run when I was 24, I was hoping to have a good 10 years to build up my political career and my clout and all that,” she said. “But [with the climate crisis], I don’t know if we have 10 years left for people who really want to get involved to get involved. So I decided to get involved now.”
Hanson says concerns about vote-splitting on the left come up at “every door” she’s knocked on during the campaign. She cited Singh’s push for a coalition as a reason voters shouldn’t be afraid to vote NDP.
“Trudeau is, you know, not my first choice for a variety of reasons, but he’s way better than Scheer,” she said. “So in the worst-case scenario, if the Conservatives do win [the most seats], we’re going to form a coalition and we’re going to get a lot of sh*t done — sorry, a lot of stuff done.”
She said both she and Boutin have been asked by constituents to drop out and support Wilson-Raybould as a progressive candidate.
“And you know, I think that’s just not fair to the people who really believe in NDP values or really believe in Green values,” she said. “Because then you’re robbing them of their or the ability to vote with their heart and vote for the party that they love.”
Hanson pointed to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s late surge in the polls as motivation to keep moving forward and evidence that the party’s message was having an impact on a national level.
According to a recent Angus Reid Institute poll, Singh’s favourability rating is 64 per cent, up 25 percentage points since the start of the campaign.
“I think people’s implicit biases were really getting in the way of seeing him as a true leader,” she said. “And he’s tackling that, and he’s doing a really good job and showing people that absolutely he’s an amazing leader and absolutely genuine.”
On Wilson-Raybould, Hanson says she respects her rival immensely, but she doesn’t believe the former attorney general needs to be heralded as a “holy figure.”
“People infer that because she did her job very well, that she’s like this political holy figure that supersedes all corruption and supersedes all self-interest and is ultimately progressive,” she said. “And she says things that infer that she is that person, but I think she’s just a regular person. She’s got her own politics.”
And then there’s Wilson-Raybould herself. Who very much has her own politics.
When announcing her candidacy as an independent in late May, she said she’s not a “party person” and it’s not her nature to “take a square peg and fit it into a round hole.”
This summer, she elaborated on that perspective in a conversation with HuffPost’s Althia Raj.
“I am running as an independent because I have deep roots in this community. I feel that there’s some significant public policy issues on the federal landscape that I want to be able to contribute towards and bring the voices of the people in this riding to the discussion,” she said.
Wilson-Raybould said she hopes to use her position as an independent to spark conversation about party dynamics in parliament.
“I think that … now being an independent, I have the great opportunity of talking to people across all party spectrums and talking about issues as opposed to talking about positions,” she said.
WATCH: Jody Wilson-Raybould announces she’ll run as an independent. Story continues below.
And she recognizes the celebrity she now carries as a result of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“People come up to me — and this is what I love, not only about the people from Vancouver Granville, but across the country that have sent me letters or emails — and they talk about integrity,” she said.
One voter we met on the ground in Vancouver Granville, Maureen Bayless, says integrity and a willingness to have conversations are at the core to her support for Wilson-Raybould and that she “absolutely adores her.”
“I was cooking one day, not thinking about politics or the election and there was a knock on the door, and it’s [Jody]. And I said ‘I can’t really talk about the election, I’m cooking’,” Bayless said. “And she said ‘but do you have anything on your mind.’ And I said ‘I have so many things on my mind.’ And so she came into the kitchen and helped me cook supper. She was chopping eggplant!”
With a laugh, Wilson-Raybould said she can still remember exactly where Bayless lives. She argued that there’s a hunger for an independent, listening voice in Parliament, not just in Vancouver Granville, but across the country.
I think that … now being an independent, I have the great opportunity of talking to people across all party spectrums and talking about issues as opposed to talking about positions.Independent candidate Jody Wilson-Raybould
“People are really talking about it now, and what it means to ensure that we maintain our democracy and the institutions that we have,” she said. “And I hope it’s a discussion that people have right across the country and that people do actually think about how we can engage in a political process that’s more representative and that’s more real.”
Wilson-Raybould wouldn’t deny grander political leadership ambitions, but said her focus for the time being is representing Vancouver Granville.
“You don’t necessarily have to be the leader of a party or the prime minister, although it helps, of course, to change the way things are done,” she said. “I think that everybody has a role to play, and for me, this is the one that I’m engaged in right now.”
With current polls trending towards a minority government for either the Liberals or Conservatives, Wilson-Raybould, if elected, may hold a surprising amount of power for an independent.
Last week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh floated the idea of a coalition government with the Liberals and possibly Greens. And Wilson-Raybould has said her ideal situation is a Liberal minority government — with her holding them to account as an independent, of course.
“There is an opportunity for us to be more co-operative and recognize that one political party doesn’t hold a monopoly on all the solutions to the issues that we’re facing as Canadians,” she told Global News earlier this week.
For her part, Wilson-Raybould told HuffPost she has no regrets as to how matter led to her independent candidacy.
“I never anticipated that I would be in the position that I’m in right now,” she said. “But I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason. And ‘the universe unfolds as it should’ sounds cliché, but I believe it.”
On Monday when the votes role in, the universe will unfold as it will. One way or another.
With files from Althia Raj.
This story is a part of the federal election edition of HuffPost Reports. This summer, the HuffPost Canada politics team spread out across the country to take a look at some of the ridings that could make a real difference in the outcome of this year’s campaign. Ridings To Watch is an ongoing series that looks at the people and politicians in those communities and the role they might play as Canadians head to the polls.
CORRECTION: an earlier version of this story noted that the SNC-Lavalin affair broke in late 2018. The Globe and Mail first reported the story in early 2019.