The last person to be elected to the House of Commons as an Independent was — ironically — now Liberal MP for Nova Scotia Bill Casey.

In 2007, Casey, then a member of the Conservative Party, was expelled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper after he voted against the budget, claiming that it broke the Atlantic Accord with his province and Newfoundland and Labrador. He was reelected as an Independent in the 2008 election and sat as such until he resigned his seat in 2009 to accept another posting, after undergoing surgery for cancer in 2008.

His 2008 electoral race was full of barriers, Casey said in an interview. According to election laws, Independent candidates have to start with zero monetary funds (members affiliated with a party have access to party coffers). That puts Independents at a disadvantage on signs, pamphlets and advertising, Casey said. And after the election, any money leftover in an Independent's campaign has to be put back into government coffers (as opposed to a party riding association, for example).

"The system is unfair," Casey said. "It is stacked against Independents."

Still, Casey won with 69 per cent of the votes in 2008 as an Independent. (His Conservative opponent garnered a mere nine per cent of the vote.) In the House of Commons, Casey sat with the opposition parties in a seat next to a Liberal backbencher named Justin Trudeau.

On Monday, former Liberal cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott announced their intention to seemingly follow that trajectory. In the fallout from the SNC-Lavalin scandal, the two women resigned from Prime Minister Trudeau's cabinet and then were asked to leave the Liberal caucus. Now, they have decided to run as Independents in the October federal election.

Jody Wilson-Raybould (left) and Jane Philpott (right) announce they are running for re-election as an independent in Vancouver and Toronto on May 27, 2019. Photo by Jimmy Jeong and Cole Burston

​"In this reality, there is less room for overt partisanship in our evolving democracy," Wilson-Raybould said during her announcement at a small community centre in Vancouver.

As an Independent, she said, she would "be truly free to take the guidance of the citizens of Vancouver-Granville and to represent you. I will not have to try and convince myself that just because [that's] the way it has always been done means that it must continue to be done that way."

"Please don't get me wrong, I take great pride in what we have accomplished over the last four years. Many important initiatives were advanced, both locally and nationally. But I wonder what more could have been accomplished on big issues, the big issues of our time, if it was a less partisan environment."

Simultaneously announcing her own decision, Jane Philpott struck a similar note at a small farm market outside Toronto.

"We are getting really tired of hyper-partisan politics," she said, describing the kind of feedback she's been hearing from constituents. "Can't we get beyond partisan politics? The system seems dysfunctional. It seems like all they're doing up there in Ottawa is fighting with each other and there's a disconnect. We don't feel like the people in Ottawa are connected to us, the people."

"Party politics," the former health minister concluded, "is a big part of the disconnect and the dysfunction."

Their goal to shake the core of central party authority that forms the basis of Canada's parliamentary system has raised concern from political experts across the country, who are now watching their races closely. All agree that there is, in fact, too much power in the party structure of federal politics, and hyperpartisanship has limited progress on the big issues of modern times.

"We’re seeing issues like the climate emergency requiring non-partisan agreement and behaviours. I think there’s a dawning realization in our population that maybe our partisan fighting isn’t getting us solutions, and that's one of the reasons why we all have concerns about the status quo," Penny Collenette, a former political official in Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, said in an interview. "Political parties are preventing us from non-partisan collaboration."

But the question remains, how do you change a centuries old political system effectively?

"Do you fix it by being two lone voices yelling in the wilderness? Or do you fix it by being part of a party and changing it from within?" Donald Savoie, a politics professor at the University of Moncton, asks. "The fact is, Independent voices do not have much of an impact in our system."

'Loose Fish'

Canada has not had a strong Independent movement since Confederation when there were several Independent politicians in government. They were called "loose fish" and operated separately of political structures, explains John English, director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International history at Trinity College.

When the party system began to take hold at the turn of the century under Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, these "loose fish" declined in numbers. The party structure became the main source of funding for candidates and also provided patronage appointments to important positions such as the railway or the post office.

Independents made a brief resurgence in the Second World War. When Prime Minister Mackenzie King broke his promise of conscription, Quebec Liberals declared themselves Independent (but still affiliated with the Liberal party for the most part).

By the 1960s, Independents became especially rare in Canadians politics, limited only to "those candidates who got kicked out of their party or decided their interest didn't align with party values or the party leader," English said.

The debate over the strength and influence of central party power in politics isn't new, either. Collenette says this discussion has been occurring within parties for years, but "the question now is larger because its not contained in the party anymore."

"The problem is Independents don't have power to effect that change, unless they can be a bridge between all parties," she said. That depends on the personalities at play. Casey was a good example because he was able to easily cross party lines, she notes. In his words: "I've been a backbencher, a minister, an independent, but I've always been centre-left. I've always found somewhere I fit."

"If these two women can make a breakthrough on this it will be quite something," Collenette says, but history doesn't suggest this will happen, "unless there’s a real change in the electorate."

A cynical interpretation would say Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are only questioning central party structure because "they’re on the losing end of someone using party discipline and party power," said Melanee Thomas, a University of Calgary political science professor. "Nobody benefiting from the system will say the system is failing."

Jane philpott
Jane Philpott announces her intention to run as an Independent candidate in the upcoming federal election, at a farmers market in Markham, Ontario, on May 27, 2019. Photo by Cole Burston

​​​​In this context, Savoie doesn't understand Wilson-Raybould and Philpott's decision. The number of people who "fly solo" in the Canada's parliamentary system is not significant because it is riddled with limitations. Being an Independent member of Parliament offers fewer opportunities to make impact, either in the House of Commons or for one's constituents, according to several political experts. You don't get placed on committees, you rarely speak in the House and you sit by yourself. Casey explains that most of the work of an MP is done in party caucus to garner support and influence for causes from colleagues.

"I was surprised. I would’ve thought it was in their interest to join a party," Savoie said. "I would’ve thought the Green Party would have welcomed them with open arms, and they would have welcomed getting the support of a political party."

"I can understand why they left cabinet. I can understand why they were (kicked out) from caucus. What I do not understand is why they are running as Independent."

'How do you strike the balance between independence and effectiveness?'

The main reason Canada doesn't have more Independent politicians is because "they don't win," Thomas said. Before campaign finance legislation changes were created in 1974, local electoral campaign officers would identify supporters and then get supporter to learn the name of the candidate. Now, voters are more likely to recognize party labels than individual names.

"Normally, we don’t see more independents...unless they are the most famous local person they don’t have the individual recognition to overpower party labels," Thompson said in an interview. In this case, everyone now knows Jody Wilson-Raybould's name, but not everyone knows Jane Philpott's name.

For example, former Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber resigned from the Conservative caucus in 2013 and sat as an Independent, and subsequently ran as an Independent candidate in the riding of St. Albert—Edmonton in the 2015 federal election, but was defeated by a Conservative candidate.

In his book "Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada," Rathgeber notes the difficulties of running without a party structure. As a Conservative in 2011, he'd won 63.5 per cent of the vote in his Edmonton riding. Running as an Independent in 2015, he finished a distant third, with 19.7 per cent of the vote.

David Moscrop, political scientist and author of "Too Dumb for Democracy," agrees that central party authority needs to be loosened but worries about the tradeoffs. First, it'll require a lot of cooperation from parties, civil service, staffers, leadership and media. ("I don't think that is going to happen," Moscrop says.) Then you have to balance loosening party control while maintaining party cohesion. ("How do you do that?" he asks.)

"Joining a party is a trade off between effectiveness and independence," Moscrop said. "You are effective deep inside the (political) machine, but far less independent." He gathered how frustrating that tradeoff, and that restraint, could be from Wilson-Raybould and Philpott's announcements on Monday.

It won't be as easy as Wilson-Raybould and Philpott described to effect change in the political system, Moscrop said. There won't be an "I am Spartacus" moment for Independent candidates across the country. "I don't think we should overestimate the impact they're going to have," he said.

"For government to work in this country you need some level of restraint and cooperation, otherwise it doesn’t work," Moscrop said. "The question is how do you strike the balance between independence and effectiveness? And I think we can adjust a little towards independence without upsetting the whole thing."

Jody Wilson-Raybould
Former Attorney-General and Justice Minister Jody WIlson-Raybould testifies in front of the House of Commons justice committee about the SNC-Lavalin affair on February 27, 2019. Photo by Andrew Meade

There is one big exception to this discussion, English says. Current polling data is predicting a minority government in the federal election. In this case, "where two votes could matter most, then you have more power than any backbencher."

This happened in 2004 when former Canadian Alliance MP Chuck Cadman from British Columbia won reelection as an Independent after losing a nomination race in his own riding. At the time, he was the only candidate not affiliated with a party, and remained as such for his remaining political career, refusing several offers to rejoin the Conservatives. He was also the only Independent in the then minority Liberal government, and thus held considerable power.

On May 19, 2005, Cadman cast a deciding tie vote to save a minority Liberal government (supported by the NDP) that the Conservative party at the time was trying to defeat to trigger an election. Reports surfaced later that showed the Harper Conservatives offered a million-dollar life insurance policy to the Cadman two days before the critical vote.

Harper denied doing anything inappropriate, but it was clear that Cadman had a significant amount of influence since he was holding the balance of power in a minority government.

Wison-Raybould and Philpott would be "blind not to see this kind of opportunity," English said. The two women have already spoken of a de facto alliance with the Green Party and leader Elizabeth May, who said she offered Wilson-Raybould the leadership.

Savoie believes that after making much noise, the two women will be elected and then decide whether they want to join a political party or not. "If they want to make impact, they'll join one," he said.

"This may be where it ends up," English agreed. "It’s an uphill climb, for sure, but there are possibilities for them at the end of the road that are exciting."

Editor's note: This article was updated at 8:03 p.m. ET to correct some typographical errors, as well as to correct that Bill Casey announced he was resigning in 2009 to accept another job. It also corrected the electoral results in Casey's riding in 2008 as well as to correct the spelling of the name of Sir John A. Macdonald.

Keep reading

First, most independents can't get elected because the media people pay attention to is national or, at smallest, outfits like the Vancouver Sun that cover the whole greater Vancouver area of dozens of ridings--and even there, big city newspapers spend a lot of their space on provincial, national and international news. Even if there were funding, how is an independent in one riding supposed to get the word out? It's just structurally not going to happen.

Second, all this raging against "partisanship" and in favour of independents who can make their own decisions for their particular constituents is wrongheaded. The MP of a riding can do very little in that riding; for local concerns you go to local government which has local powers. The MP of a riding assists in making decisions in the nation's capital about national issues. Further, independents can only be elected on their perceived personalities--they stand a chance when a lot of people know who they are and have formed opinions about their likeability and such; they are never elected based on policy platforms. A flood of MPs elected solely on the basis of personal appeal and dedicated to parochialism would not be good for the country.
What is needed is not less partisanship--far from it. What is needed is partisanship with more content. The point of a political party is that it has an ideology--a viewpoint about how government should be working, how the economy should be working, about what is important and what needs doing; I vote for a political party in hopes that the programme and values they claim to stand for will get enacted. One problem with modern politics is that the campaigns tend to become personalized around the figure of the leader, who becomes a sort of independent candidate writ large instead of a speaker for the party's viewpoint on governing the country.
Another problem is that, among other kinds of damage it does, the first-past-the-post system restricts the accountability of parties for policy. With proportional representation, if a party talking centre-left (as the Liberals do) refuses to govern centre-left, it is easier to vote for some alternative party with a similar platform but more credibility even if that party is not expected to win pluralities of the vote--easier, in short, to hold parties to account for their broken promises, since one need not switch to parties one finds repugnant to register disaffection.

My husband has an excellent question for you: are you purple? Or is the library purple?
That's the English language for you: so much ambiguity: :-)

The system is unfair in a lot of ways, not just for independents. It's unfair that a party can get a majority of seats with just 38% of the vote (or less in some situations; see NB's most recent election). It's unfair that we have to worry about vote-splitting. It's unfair that we are supposed to give up on small parties that better represent us and attempt to find a fit in "big-tent parties" that will continue to disappoint and betray us over and over again. And yes, it's unfair that independents have a built-in disadvantage. All of these problems could be alleviated if not solved with a good system of proportional representation.