In swing riding, ex-Liberal Jane Philpott hopes to defy odds and win as Independent

Sitting inside her Stouffville , Ont., campaign office after a soggy morning of door-knocking, Jane Philpott makes one thing clear — she's not running against the Liberal party.

"They're running against me," says the incumbent Independent MP. 

"I worked extraordinarily hard on behalf of the people of my riding and Canadians under the banner of a Liberal government for three and a half years.

"They are the ones who chose to run someone against me, having known what I did to serve the country as a Liberal. So it's unfortunate that they felt that they had to do that. But that was their decision."

That decision is part of the fallout from the SNC-Lavalin affair, which Philpott will likely forever be associated with, but has also magnified her political fame.

Her run has certainly added a twist to this local race and drawn a deluge of journalists to the Markham-Stouffville riding of 90,000 potential voters, located just north of Toronto.

Riding bounces back and forth

Normally, the swing riding bounces back and forth between Liberal and Conservative and, as a Liberal, Philpott narrowly won the seat in 2015. But her candidacy now raises questions as to whether voters, who supported Philpott in the past, will follow her and choose candidate over party.

Or, as a candidate who generally shares the same views of her Liberal opponent, she may just split the progressive vote and ensure a Conservative victory. 

Michael Wilson/CBC

It's been more than six months since she, along with her former fellow cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould were booted out of the Liberal caucus by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said their lack of confidence in the government and him as leader necessitated their removal.

Both had resigned from their cabinet posts over the prime minister's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. The scandal  centred on accusations by Wilson-Raybould that Trudeau and senior officials from his team had pressured her, when she was justice minister, to overrule a decision by the director of public prosecutions to not grant a deferred prosecution agreement to the Quebec-based engineering firm.

Now, both are running as independent MPs, hoping they can parlay what they believe were principled stands against their former party into victory. 

Just days before the election, more than a dozen volunteers have gathered at Philpott's campaign headquarters, having a quick bite of lunch before they, along with Philpott, head out again.

Campaign data scrawled on a white board under the heading "Canvass Results" includes number of doors knocked on (31,291), number of phone calls (14,058) and number of lawn signs (1,425). Most of her campaign team are from the riding association she was part of as a Liberal. 

Her team says that she has twice as many volunteers as in 2015 and that about half come from the riding, while others have come from all over, including Vancouver and Winnipeg. 

"I followed the whole SNC thing," says one volunteer who has just arrived from St. Catharines. 

"People are excited about being part of something that's new and different and positive and has a potential to improve the way we do politics," Philpott says.

But if history is any indication, a victory on Oct. 21 won't be easy. According to research, only about one-third of incumbent MPs who ran as Independents after leaving their parties have ever been re-elected. Since 1974, only four MPs have successfully been re-elected as Independents after leaving (or being booted from) their parties.

Michael Wilson/CBC

However, Philpott's riding is in an area that is one of the few that has chosen an Independent MP in the last 50 years — Tony Roman won York North as an Independent in 1984.

Phillpot, however, doesn't believe the historical expectations of Independent candidates has particular relevance in her case. She's already well known, she says, both as a politician and as a family doctor in the area, where her kids also grew up. 

'Name recognition'

"Not everyone who runs as an Independent has the privilege of having that kind of name recognition and public awareness," she says. 

In a pitch to voters to consider voting for an Independent MP,  one of her campaign slogans is "Colour Outside The Party Lines."  However, she acknowledges her party-less status is raised the most while campaigning door-to-door: What can she, as an Independent MP, do for me?

"We have that conversation over and over again," she says. 

"I reassure them that, this is actually a great opportunity for us, because there will not be a party leader or party staffer telling me what to do, what to say, what to think, how to vote."

And now, with the possibility of a minority government looming, Independents will play an outsized role and could hold the balance of power, she says.

As for SNC-Lavalin, once in a while she will encounter angry Liberal voters who aren't happy with her decision and how she handled the situation.  And while the specifics of the scandal rarely come up, many people, she says, offer their thanks, or praise her for showing courage.

"I would say almost every outing while knocking on doors, someone will say, 'Thank you so much'."

Michael Wilson/CBC

But the candidate who replaced her on the ballot for the Liberal party says SNC-Lavalin  is never raised at the doorstep.

'Basically feel sorry for her'

"Never, never, never," says Helena Jaczek, a former Ontario MPP and provincial health minister, and, like Philpott, a physician.

She characterizes Philpott's supporters as "a core group of people who basically feel sorry for her, feel she was hard done by."

Yet there are also a number of people who feel that Philpott let them down, says Jaczek.

"This is something that we've been hearing at the doors consistently. They elected her as a Liberal and she isn't any more. And they wanted a Liberal as their representative in the riding."

Jaczek seems to be more focused on Theodore Antony, the Conservative candidate, as her main competition.  The Ontario Progressive Conservatives secured a 22-point margin victory in the riding provincially in 2018.

"We all know that the Conservative base is usually at about 30 per cent. Markham-Stouffville has a tradition of being pretty strongly conservative, both provincially and and federally. So the base is there."

For some residents of the riding, Philpott's decision to resign from cabinet is enough to secure their vote. 

"I really admire her for sticking to her guns and being so ethical," said Evelyn O'Connor, sitting inside The Kings Landing Bar and Grill restaurant, near to Philpott's headquarters.

Michael Wilson/CBC

But Justin Shim, manager of the restaurant, said he hears from some customers that while they admire Philpott, they have concerns about how effective she will be as an Independent MP.

"There's rumblings of 'Even if we do put her into office, is she going to do anything because she's not attached to anybody'?"

Harold Couch said while he was proud of Philpott and Wilson-Raybould, SNC-Lavalin is not a deciding factor in how he votes.

"I look at the whole picture."