Jane Philpott: ‘We cannot ever be afraid of the truth’

The former Treasury Board president talks to Maclean’s about naivety in politics, what’s next in her career, and wishing Justin Trudeau well

Jane Philpott is an unlikely rebel. She exudes the calm, deliberate qualities anyone might hope for in a family doctor, which is what she was before entering politics. She first won her suburban Toronto riding in 2015, and soon emerged as arguably the most admired member of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, serving first in the Health portfolio, then Indigenous Services, and finally Treasury Board. She quit from that central role in the running of the federal government on March 4 over Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Philpott’s reputation is so formidable that her exit likely jeopardized Trudeau more than the resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould—the central figure in the saga—a few weeks earlier. And the two together represented the departure from traditional politics that Trudeau promised to bring to Ottawa. Along with having been a family doctor, Philpott had been chief of family medicine at Markham-Stouffville Hospital, near Toronto, and spent a decade in Niger, working in general medicine and training health workers.

Trudeau expelled her from the Liberal caucus on April 2, and she sat down with Maclean’s in her Parliament Hill office the following afternoon for this extensive interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. (To read our interview with Jody Wilson-Raybould, go here.)

Q: When you quit cabinet, you said there was no political plan behind it. There are rules about cabinet solidarity, and you couldn’t adhere to them over what you saw as political interference with Jody Wilson-Raybould. But that was awhile ago now. Do you have any thoughts on what you’d like to do next?

A: I think it’s too early to say. It’s been less than 24 hours since I was ejected from caucus. I would never have foreseen being in these circumstances. I don’t regret any of the decisions I made that have led to this and obviously not all the decisions were in my own control. So, I need to reflect and talk to my family and my constituents to hear their views.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to serve as a member of parliament. I believe I was able to work with my colleagues to accomplish things that have been positive for Canadians. If there is a way that I can serve in politics in the future, I’d be open to looking at it.

But I obviously have other things I could do with my life. I know that not everybody has the same opportunity, and I’m sensitive to the fact that for many people that’s one of the reasons why this has been so hard. All to say, I’m not sure what the next steps are for me. I know I’m going to need to make some decisions fairly soon about whether there is any way I can run in the next federal election. But check with me again in a few weeks.

Q: In your interview with Maclean’s that took place in late March, one thing a lot of people fastened on was that you said there’s more to this story that hasn’t been aired. Do you still feel there’s more that Canadians should know? And how do you respond to people who were harshly critical of you for saying that?

A: So, a few things. One is I think Canadians always want to feel that they hear the truth, that they hear a whole story, and nothing’s being hidden from them. I think we have an obligation to Canadians to make sure they have confidence, especially on a matter that’s as important as this.

The second thing I would say is that in reference to my previous comments, since that time obviously more information has become available. Probably the most important piece is the 43-page document that was tabled by the former attorney general.

I know many people have been focused on the tape [of a conversation between Wilson-Raybould and Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick]. But I hope that those who really want to understand this would read the document. Even the very first pages of the document provide some background to people who may not understand clearly the role of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Those were important pieces to put out there. Is there more to say? There are other pieces of information, parts of the story that I could add to, based on conversations that I had. At this point I’m not inclined to feel that there’s benefit in making a big issue of that, because I think there’s enough information out there now for Canadians to judge what took place.

Q: The Prime Minister has said he tried hard to find a way for you and Jody Wilson-Raybould to stay in the Liberal caucus. Can you say anything about conditions that were proposed, or ideas about ways that your position could be reconciled with staying? Do you think he tried hard?

A: I didn’t get a sense that there was a strong effort to try to make me stay. I did have a few conversations. I certainly was always open and available to have those conversations. But I wouldn’t say I found it to be an extraordinary effort to find that common ground. There were various people that tried to play a role of mediation. There’s a role for mediation, but one of the best things you can do is get the people involved in a room together.

Q: That didn’t happen?

A: That didn’t happen.

Q: Did you talk to the Prime Minister himself?

A: I don’t believe I had a conversation with him from the time I resigned from cabinet until he told me to leave [caucus].

Q: I want to try to get at something basic here. The Prime Minister’s Office wanted to save some jobs, the attorney general wanted to protect the justice system. Shouldn’t these things be reconcilable? One way to interpret what happened last fall was that it wasn’t a well-coordinated campaign of pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould, but rather a botched, improvised, disjointed effort by a bunch of people who often were not communicating well with one another.

A: I don’t think that there’s any value in me speculating on either the motivations or the strategy. Right now, I don’t know that I have enough information to understand either the motivations or the strategy. But the issue at stake here—the independence of the justice system—is one of the most fundamental pieces that hold our country together as a democracy.

People that rise to the levels of senior positions should be expected to hold the independence of the justice system with such solemn regard that stepping anywhere close to crossing the line, to potentially interfere with a criminal trial, should just be something that is absolutely not done, not contemplated, not experimented with. It’s a dangerous thing to try to use political interference or political motivation to interfere with justice.

Q: Let’s say that’s entirely true. The justice system is sacrosanct. It’s also true that there is potential for the attorney general to legally step in and direct the Director of Prosecutions. So, since that power exists, isn’t there room for someone to legitimately ask the attorney general, ‘Could you please reconsider this? Could you get some more advice on it?’

A: People that are making those suggestions should read the Director of Public Prosecutions Act, should read the provisions in the budget that added Deferred Prosecutions Agreements, should be well aware of the constitutional conventions, including the Shawcross doctrine [which codifies the independence of an attorney general from political pressure].

I’m not an expert on any of those things. But I’ve read those pieces to make sure that I understand. Obviously, most Canadians are not going to be familiar with all those details. But it is laid out very clearly, the importance of respecting the independence of the prosecutor.

Q: Old-timers around Ottawa, including some veterans in the Liberal caucus, argue something along these lines: Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould don’t know how this game is played. The Prime Minister told caucus that when Liberals are divided, they lose, and the opposition wins, and he can’t have that. The argument is that these are ingrained values of loyalty and solidarity that politicians with more experience get. In a sense, they’re saying you’re naive. Do you ever think, wait—maybe I just didn’t understand what I was getting into in political life?

A: So, I have several things to say on that. First of all, I hope that people don’t think politics is a game. That’s highly offensive to me. Politics has a profound effect on real people’s lives and it makes a difference as to whether people live or die, in many cases. So, this is not a game.

Second of all, I’ve been accused of being naive in this by many people, whether they be politicians or journalists. In a way, that’s kind of charming because it’s like people think that there’s a big grand strategy here and that I calculate when I’m going to do interviews based on you know when it might, you know—

Q: Do the most damage?

A: Do the most damage. In that case, I actually don’t mind being called naive. I’m not conniving. I’m not strategizing. I don’t want to do damage to anybody. I just want the truth.

I would also say that there are lots of people out there that are saying I don’t understand the way things are done. Well, if this is the way things are done, then that’s why people want politics to change. And they want people who are new and fresh and haven’t been around forever that say, ‘What would my constituents expect of me?’ and, ‘What is the highest ethical standard that we can hold ourselves to?’

So, it’s true I haven’t been around to see the way things are done. But what I do know for sure is I know a lot of people in Markham-Stouffville, and I have listened to the people of Markham-Stouffville for over 20 years—thousands and thousands and thousands of them. I have a good sense, I believe, of what they would expect of me and what they think that their federal government should be like. And so maybe this isn’t the way things have always been done, but I believe that decisions I’ve made have been based on what Canadians would expect.

And the last thing I’ll say on that—this whole loyalty, solidarity thing? Those are important. Loyalty and solidarity aren’t a measure of what’s the right thing, though. There are few values that I think should be in higher regard for politicians than the value of the truth. It would be nice if we all agreed on everything, but we cannot ever be afraid of the truth.

Q: You’ve been careful, even today, to not be critical of the Prime Minister. But your view of him must have changed. What’s your perspective on Justin Trudeau now?

A: I have the utmost respect for the Prime Minister. He is doing probably the hardest job in our whole country, and he’s done a really good job of it. He has chosen really important policies to prioritize. And he has moved our country along in really positive ways. I don’t want to give a lot of details about the conversation that we had yesterday, but the last thing that I said to him was I wish you well.

Q: Polls show this controversy is damaging the popular standing of the Liberal government in an election year, and increasing the chances that a Conservative government will be elected next fall that doesn’t have a serious policy on climate change, might not be as devoted to reconciliation with Indigenous people, that maybe isn’t as focused on income inequality. Is the stand you’ve taken worth it?

A: I’ve certainly heard people say those things. I take those concerns very seriously, because I do want the progressive priorities that were part of our platform to go forward. But you have to make decisions on these really important principles based on what you believe to be right, and the independence of the justice system is so core to who we are as a country that I felt that I had to be able to defend that. No one should tamper with that.

I’m not actually responsible for the consequences that will come from trying to stand up for truth and justice. I will continue to fight for all those things. I’ve been clear in the past that some of the policies that are currently espoused by the Conservative party are problematic to me and I hope that—

Q: They don’t win?

A: I really don’t want to wish ill on anybody. But my goal in this is not to see Andrew Scheer be elected as prime minister. My goal is to stand up for truth and justice.

Q: There’s a lot of interest in the political partnership you’ve forged with Jody Wilson-Raybould. Can you say something about that? Do you expect to continue to work together in some way in the future?

A: I am not sure of my life going forward looks like, so we’ll see with that. But I do believe I would continue to have a connection to my colleague. Again, I just would stress that there’s nothing sort of conniving, there’s no grand scheme to this.

Having said that, I got to know Jody very well through some really important work we did together early on. My first few months in cabinet as health minister were preoccupied by a few things. The work that I did with [former immigration minister] John McCallum on Syrian refugees was hugely time-consuming. But the other thing that we [Philpott and Wilson-Raybould] had to get to work on right away was the medical assistance in dying. And we also started pretty quickly on doing some foundational work on cannabis legislation. And then, of course, both in Health and Indigenous Services, I worked closely with her.

I think what we found as we worked together was that we had similar kinds of perspectives. The other thing I would share is that Indigenous rights and reconciliation are some of the most important issues facing our country. It’s not just a matter of social policy in terms of closing socioeconomic gaps, but I actually think that the future economy of this country is dependent on us getting reconciliation right. I could talk at length about that.

I learned so much from Jody. I spent a lot of my life working internationally and I learned a lot about the drivers of socioeconomic challenges in sub-Saharan Africa. I hadn’t actually spent as much time thinking about those kinds of issues in the Canadian context and understanding the history well enough. She is an incredibly smart person and has added perspective on Indigenous rights and justice that is profound. When you learn from somebody, you tend to form a positive relationship.

Q: You were in the House for the Daughters of the Vote event. The group Equal Voice, which promotes women in politics, brought hundreds of young, politically engaged women into the chamber to sit where MPs usually do. You were in the gallery with Wilson-Raybould. What was that like?

A: It was like a balm to my soul to be there. The last few weeks have been incredibly hard. We went in part to hear [former prime minister] Kim Campbell’s speech, and then stayed on to hear a few of the [students’] speeches and then just couldn’t leave. The topics that they had chosen, the way they express themselves, and the passion that they had. I felt so much better, I felt restored. I felt invigorated. I felt hopeful for our country because those women are amazing. The country will be in good hands.



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