This Parliament Hill office spat could get messy

Jody Wilson-Raybould has lost her ministerial job and her place in the Liberal party. But the now-Independent MP from Vancouver Granville has not lost her ability to polarize debate on Parliament Hill.

The polarizing issue this time is far less explosive than the SNC-Lavalin drama of last winter, though.

While Andrew Scheer’s surprise resignation consumed much of the oxygen on the Hill last week, one totally unrelated story managed to punch through the wall-to-wall Conservative leadership coverage.

It was the revelation, courtesy of CBC News, that Wilson-Raybould was refusing to leave the large suite of offices she had been assigned when she had a bigger job and title.

Rank matters when it comes to Parliament Hill real estate — offices are allocated on the basis of which party holds the most seats and which MPs hold the most significant positions within their parties.

Wilson-Raybould, as an Independent, is now at the bottom of the pecking order for office space and is not pleased that this means a downgrade in her working conditions.

“It seems a little bit petty to me,” Wilson-Raybould told CBC News. “It makes no sense to remove me from my MP office. So I don’t understand why they’re wanting to do it.”

The office “suite” in question is actually six adjacent offices and a private bathroom in the Confederation Building, CBC reports, which is a lot for just one MP and a few staff. (Ministers have a lot more staff than backbench MPs, naturally.)

It’s certainly larger than the office that a backbench MP named Justin Trudeau occupied from 2011 to 2013, when the Liberals were a lowly, third-place party on the Hill. Trudeau was one of the roughly three dozen MPs, including interim leader Bob Rae, who got bounced to smaller digs when the New Democrats won official Opposition status and bumping rights to the best offices on Parliament Hill.

I did a couple of interviews with Trudeau in his tiny office while he was running for Liberal leader. As I recall, it was actually two or two and a half rooms. Trudeau’s staff worked in the larger space, while the MP installed himself in a room just barely able to accommodate a desk and two chairs.

Trudeau shrugged when I remarked on the size of the office. “I’m never here,” he said. Which was true. Even before he became leader, Trudeau wasn’t all that keen to hang around Parliament Hill more than necessary.

Which bring us back to the current impasse with Wilson-Raybould. Clearly, this request is causing the former minister some distress. She has said she’s willing to talk about giving up some of the space, but not all of it.

As the CBC also reported, Wilson-Raybould called in an Algonquin Elder, Claudette Commanda, to perform a blessing and “cleanse” of the office space, which included a prayer for it to remain her domain.

This does introduce a whole, Indigenous narrative to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill story about the petty power dramas on Parliament Hill. The mere suggestion of an Indigenous woman being ousted from her land (in this case, six rooms of office space) makes this whole drama somewhat freighted — and polarizing, just as the SNC story was.

Once again, there are going to be people eager to portray Wilson-Raybould as a victim of white privilege in the political corridors of power.

There’s a complicating wrinkle to that story though: the minister who is supposed to move into Wilson-Raybould’s space is also Indigenous: Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, a newly elected Metis MP from Winnipeg.

So who’s playing power games in this little saga?

Some interesting perspective was introduced to the tale last week, when the report from the CBC’s David Cochrane first started buzzing around on Twitter. It came from the Rae household: Bob Rae, and his wife, Arlene Perly-Rae, who tend to practise diplomatic silence on political dramas of the Liberal sort.

Perly-Rae was blunt in her assessment of Wilson-Raybould’s intransigence: “What a strange thing for her to fight for. Petty. Not principle or helping people. Canadians don’t care where her office is. Swapping happens after every election. Ministers need bigger suites. There’s a priority to office assignment. An Independent MP is low on the list. Move.”

Rae, for his part, confirmed that he had also been shuffled down the real-estate ranks in his time on Parliament Hill, but reminded people: “There are no bad seats in the House of Commons, or bad offices either.”

All true. But this is politics, and a story involving Wilson-Raybould. If this tale goes anything like the SNC drama of earlier this year, few will remain neutral, and it may end messily.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.

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