Wilson was born in Vancouver, spent his early years in Kenya and returned to British Columbia in the 1970s. He has a BSc from the State University of New York, and a Master's degree from the University of British Columbia in Resource Economics.
He raised two children with his wife Elizabeth in the Middlepoint area of BC's Sunshine Coast, dabbling in pig farming before teaching Resource Economics and Economic Geography at Capilano College (North Vancouver), where he also served as president of the faculty association.
In 1987, Wilson took over as leader of the BC Liberal Party, a moribund party that had not elected a member in over a decade. In the 1991 general election, Wilson's profile skyrocketed after his highly successful performance in the campaign's televised leaders debate. During a nasty squabble between BC Socred leader and Premier Rita Johnston and BC NDP leader Mike Harcourt, Wilson famously said, "Here's a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia." It would become the campaign's most successful sound bite.
As a consequence, he led the Liberal Party to win 17 seats, its highest total since 1949. He was largely helped by moderate Socreds crossing over to vote Liberal. The Liberals vaulted from no seats to the Official Opposition in the legislature, relegating the ruling Social Credit Party to a distant third with seven seats. Wilson won his own seat in Powell River-Sunshine Coast.
In 1993, Wilson's leadership of the Liberals was challenged after it came to light that he was having an extramarital affair with fellow Liberal MLA Judi Tyabji, whom he had recently named as the party's House Leader. In a Liberal Party leadership review that had been called soon afterward, Wilson was defeated by Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell. Within weeks, he and Tyabji left the Liberal caucus and formed a new party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance (PDA).
In the 1996 provincial election, Wilson retained his seat, while Tyabji, whom he later married, lost hers.
In 1999, Wilson shocked many in his party when he disbanded it and crossed the floor to join the governing NDP. As part of the deal, he joined Premier Glen Clark's cabinet as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Minister Responsible for BC Ferries. He was later appointed Minister of Finance after the resignation of Joy MacPhail, and then Minister of Education.
He ran for the NDP's party leadership at a convention in February 2000, but pulled out of the race shortly before the voting began. He threw his support to candidate Corky Evans, who in turn lost to Ujjal Dosanjh. In the 2001 provincial election, he lost his seat to BC Liberal candidate Harold Long, previously a Social Credit MLA whom Wilson had defeated in 1991 when running for the BC Liberals.
After endorsing the BC Liberals in the 2013 provincial election, Premier Christy Clark appointed Wilson to a position titled LNG - Buy BC Advocate to promote for the development of an LNG industry in the province. The position was ended by the newly inaugurated NDP/Green government on August 1, 2017, a position for which he had been paid $150,000 per annum since 2013.
He has written A Civilized Revolution (1994) about his views on politics and public policy, and wrote, directed and produced Serving Thyme, a television comedy based on the west coast. After leaving politics, Wilson settled back in Powell River, and became chairman of the board of a software company. He is chairman of Blackberry Coast Capital Inc.