Sitting and talking on the deck of her Shawnigan Lake home, BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau seems remarkably composed for someone in the middle of an election campaign that she had no opportunity to get ready for.
The day NDP Premier John Horgan announced the election, ending a government that had been stable for more than three years thanks to Green support, Furstenau had been leader for exactly one week.
She had won a leadership contest that was supposed to take six months, but was extended to nine months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the race she worked as an MLA through the intense summer session, participating as Green house leader and half of a caucus of two, and sat on the busy Legislative Assembly Management Committee.
In foot race terms she’d been running back-to-back marathons for months and wasn’t given a chance to tie her shoes back up, let alone rest, before Horgan and the NDP launched B.C. into the next race and started charging for the finish line.
“It’s hard not to take it personally,” Furstenau said, sipping ginger tea with honey, “but I’m rising above.”
Ahead of the election call Furstenau had written a letter to Horgan expressing continued Green support for the government, and she’d met with him to discuss it. He called the election anyway, arguing it’s never the wrong time to give voters a say, a move Furstenau has denounced as old-school cynical politics.
“It’s hard not to think, or believe, that this was done with the view that we were in a weakened state as a party and that it would make it very easy for the NDP to try to push us off the political scene in B.C.,” Furstenau said.
“I think it’s disappointing that the NDP’s desire to have more power prevents them from recognizing that we have been an important, effective, progressive voice and influence in the legislature and in politics generally.”
The Greens may be starting behind, but it would be premature to count them out. Furstenau has a competitive spirit and people who know her use words like “dogged” and “persistent” to describe her.
“It’s not my first time up against a much larger adversary in politics,” she said, noting that at every step she’s been told she couldn’t win. Furstenau was elected in 2017 in Cowichan Valley, a traditionally NDP riding, after a successful battle to stop dumping of contaminated waste in a quarry in the riding.
And as someone who was a top middle-distance runner as a teenager, specializing in the 800 metres, she knows what it takes to do well: “You go as hard as you can, and then you barf.”
Failure to build
On top of the challenges of the snap election, Furstenau inherited a Green party that was in worse condition than it should have been.
While it had been clear for some time that the Greens might have a difficult time avoiding disaster in the next election, the way former leader Andrew Weaver left hurt the party as well.
A University of Victoria climate scientist, Weaver became the party’s first MLA when he was elected in 2013. As leader he was instrumental in the 2017 breakthrough that saw the Green caucus grow to three seats and hold the balance of power.
For a party that has been working for decades to build a movement and gain credibility, it was a remarkable betrayal.
“To say I’m disappointed is a deep understatement,” said Adriane Carr, one of the party’s founding members and a former BC Green Party leader who is now a Vancouver city councillor.
“Everybody has the right to vote for whoever they want to, of course, but I think once you’ve been in a leadership position of a political party there should be a sense of responsibility around that,” she said, adding Weaver’s public statements have made little sense. “I don’t even know what his issues are.”
Furstenau said she sees the years under Weaver’s leadership as a missed opportunity for the Greens, one that she’s determined to learn from.
“In 2017 we emerged obviously as a very significant force in B.C. politics,” she said. “I think that what we didn’t do well as a party, after that vote and after that election, was to work to continue to build on that momentum. It flattened. A leader’s job is to keep trying to build.”
Key to that is supporting the people around you to do their best work, helping them focus and carry on even when they make mistakes, as they will. “I take away a lot of lessons of what I wouldn’t do as leader,” Furstenau said. “I want people who are working with me towards these very important goals to always feel valued and safe and recognized for their very important work.”
From her time working as a teacher, she said, she knows how much more powerful it is to reinforce the positive than it is to get angry and shame someone after something’s gone wrong.
She has a core team around her, but strengthening the wider party would take time, time that she’s been denied by the snap election call.
Better than expected
Despite the challenges, Furstenau said the party is already exceeding her own expectations.
In a little more than two weeks the party went from having no candidates nominated to having people ready to run in 74 of the province’s 87 constituencies. It might not be a full slate, but it’s a lot closer than it might have been.
It wasn’t easy to convince people to run on short notice, but the team did a great job getting candidates to say "yes," Furstenau said. “Many have said it’s because of me, that they’re excited about the direction that I am taking the party, the kind of leadership that I embody, and I’m blown away by all of our candidates.”
On top of that, over the first 10 days of the campaign $200,000 in donations flooded in and volunteers have been coming forward throughout the province, she said.
“Probably a lot of people thought in those first few days that we would be written off and that we wouldn’t stand a chance in this election, and I think our first two weeks have shown we’re nowhere near being written off and that we are that very important voice.”
As of Oct. 8 the party is polling at 13.4 per cent, only a few points off its 2017 election result. Tonight’s televised debate will give Furstenau an opportunity to introduce herself to British Columbians who may know little about her and contrast her ideas and leadership style with Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson.
The party has been making daily policy announcements and gradually releasing its platform, talking about how to fix long-term care, make communities more resilient, cut carbon emissions and build a more sustainable economy.
It’s important to build and maintain the social supports that make people feel secure in their communities, Furstenau said, adding there are so many holes in the social safety net that people feel scared and afraid to take chances, and therefore can’t fulfill their potential.
During the campaign the Green party has set itself apart as the only one that would immediately stop construction of the Site C dam — a project that is already over budget and facing serious geotechnical challenges — and in its opposition to fossil fuel industries.
“Fundamentally, when those two parties agreed to give $6 billion to LNG Canada, we’re really the only party that is fully grappling with what is needed in the face of climate change,” Furstenau said.
The completed project will become the biggest single point source of carbon emissions in Canada and supporting it puts the NDP and Liberals in the same camp as climate change deniers like U.S. President Donald Trump, she said.
“That is the opposite of transition. That is doubling down on some very backward looking ideas about economy, about energy, and about the future.”
Former Green leader Carr said that with both the NDP and BC Liberals backing LNG, a strong Green party is needed.
“This is the time we need a government that understands the exigencies of climate change and the need to move radically forward in a way that saves us and our kids from a disastrous future,” she said. “It’s smart economically, it’s smart environmentally, it’s smart in every way.”
Considering how recently the leadership race concluded, the party has done an impressive job getting its messages out in the early days of the campaign, Carr said. “I’m blown away by just how well organized they are given what they have just come through.”
But ultimately success will be measured in whether the party can add to its seat total in the legislature, she said. “Winning more, that’s real success.”
The challenge for the Greens is the same as it has always been, Carr added — getting people to vote for what they really want instead of holding their noses and voting for a party they don’t really like just to avoid one they think will be worse.
Overcoming that takes a lot of hard, on-the-ground work, she said, exactly the kind of work that’s been made more challenging by both the pandemic and the snap election.
Carr offered one argument that could help persuade voters to go Green. The parties will receive public subsidies based on the number of votes they receive in the election, a policy the NDP government introduced when it banned corporate and union donations. People can vote Green knowing that at the very least their vote will help fund the party, she said.
Carr said she doesn’t know Furstenau well, but first met her when both were at Union of BC Municipalities meetings when Furstenau served as a Cowichan Valley Regional District director. “I was impressed from the beginning,” Carr said. “She’s got firebrand spirit and real social acumen.”
Energized for the race
Like any good runner, Furstenau is pacing herself and doing what it takes to stay well. She’s going to bed early, avoiding alcohol and using the Insight Timer meditation app to help herself focus.
With election day set for Oct. 24, the campaign end is already in sight and Furstenau is enjoying where she is, even if she’d have liked to have a little longer as leader before launching into a campaign.
“To have the agency I have right now is highly energizing,” she said, adding she feels she can be fully herself. “It is very liberating.”
Asked how she would measure success in the election, Furstenau avoided setting expectations for herself and her party, but said “I think success for the province is nobody has a majority.”
The Green influence on the government has been really good and hopefully will continue after the election, she said. “Majorities don’t deliver anywhere near the benefits that minorities do,” she said. “The vast majority of people in B.C. have been happy with this minority government and the balance of responsibility.”
So having been burned by Horgan and the NDP breaking their agreement with the Greens and the spirit of the fixed election date law, which both called for a vote a year from now, what happens if the Greens come out of the election with the balance of power again?
“I won’t be limited by what’s come in the past,” Furstenau said. “We can have a wider range of possibilities of both how the negotiations are done and the outcomes of the negotiations.”
The key, she said, will be focusing on outcomes the party believes are really important and how to get to them. It won’t necessarily be about any specific policy, but may simply be about how things work.
Furstenau said many of the countries doing best in the response to COVID-19 have proportional representation electoral systems that deliver governments that are frequently minorities but able to co-operate and collaborate, and many of them are led by women. “It’s countries where parties have matured to the point that they are absolutely capable of working together.”
It’s entirely possible this election could result in that kind of government here, she said.
“I think we’ve already exceeded expectations in this election and we’re going to continue to exceed expectations.”
Read more: BC Election 2020