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Federal Politics

Annamie Paul Is Still ‘Unpacking’ the Threat to Her Leadership

She discusses Green party turmoil, ‘character assassination’ and waging the next election in a Tyee interview.

Christopher Guly 22 Jun 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Guly is a frequent Tyee contributor and a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Federal Green party Leader Annamie Paul says she is still “unpacking” whether to obey a week-old demand from her federal council that she renounce statements slamming Green MPs made by her former top aide.

In the meantime, she has a fine working relationship with her predecessor Elizabeth May and had a good one with MP Jenica Atwin before she crossed the aisle, according to Paul, who says the defection took her by surprise. If she made mistakes that caused the rift, “I definitely want to learn from that.”

Now Paul is determined to steer Greens into an expected fall federal election, she explained in a lengthy interview with The Tyee — one of the last times, she vows, she’ll take questions from any media about threats to her leadership and party unity.

Last week, The Tyee reported that Paul and May held a tense meeting before the party’s federal council considered whether to order a leadership review following Atwin’s defection and the fallout. That article by Michael Harris said that Paul warned May, who stepped down as Green party leader in 2019, that there would be consequences if she did not fully support Paul’s leadership in the council.

Paul called the account “absolutely baseless,” adding that she was not contacted for comment before the story ran. The Tyee stands by the story.

“I invite anyone to offer any proof, any substantiation to the claim that I have done anything but support Elizabeth as an MP in our party,” said Paul. “I defy anyone to find anything but positive statements from me about our relationship, about her commitment and dedication to the Green party, and her ongoing role in the party.”

In a recent story relying on an unnamed source, the National Post reported that May has been unwilling to take direction from Paul as leader and those close to May have been pushing to oust the current Green leader.

Recuperating from knee-replacement surgery, May was unavailable for comment.

For her part, Paul rejected any suggestion that she feels threatened as leader by either May or her Green colleague in the House of Commons, Paul Manly, MP for the B.C. riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith.

Paul said that in fact May’s encouragement was “the reason” she chose to run for the Green party in the first place and then seek the leadership.

A ‘friction-free relationship’ with Atwin

The crisis facing the Green leader and her party was sparked by Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin’s June 10 departure from the Green caucus to join the governing Liberals.

The Tyee reported that multiple sources said Atwin tried unsuccessfully “to get Paul to listen to her” at a May 26 meeting “attended by several witnesses.”

Paul told The Tyee that the only meeting she recently had with Atwin involved the New Brunswick MP and her two caucus colleagues, along with their chiefs of staff.

“I don’t know who those multiple sources would be,” said the Green leader. “I choose not to believe that our caucus members or that their chiefs of staff would have provided details of a caucus meeting to a journalist.”

“In the time that I worked with Ms. Atwin, we had a friction-free relationship. We worked very closely together on many different projects,” explained Paul, who said the party supported the Fredericton MP’s private member’s bill, C-285, to ban a herbicide, as well as her lead in opposing the federal government’s pursuit of small modular nuclear reactors.

Paul added that she and Atwin co-hosted a virtual town hall Facebook meeting on mental health last month.

“She was very collegial and a great MP to her constituents,” Paul said of her former colleague. “We never exchanged harsh words between us.” When Atwin crossed the floor, it came as a complete surprise, said Paul.

‘The leader is not subordinate to council’

In her interview with The Tyee, Paul also addressed two major issues that emerged from her June 16 news conference in Ottawa, including a motion passed the night before by the Green party’s federal council calling on her to “repudiate” statements by her former senior advisor, Noah Zatzman, for his “attacks” on Green MPs and to “explicitly support” the two that remain in the Greens’ Commons caucus.

At the time, Paul told reporters that she had “not formally received the resolution.” She has since but is still “unpacking it” and has yet to decide on how to respond to it.

“It’s a complex document, which will set a precedent for me and for future leaders of the party,” said Paul, who is also a lawyer. “To my knowledge, this is the first time that anything like this has been proposed.”

The uniqueness is based on the council instructing the party leader to “take a particular action,” which for Paul is problematic since “the leader is not subordinate to or take direction from the council under our constitution.”

Elected by the Green party membership, the federal council’s role is “to govern between general meetings” and “ensure that the party follows Green values and promotes Green policies,” according to the party’s website.

If Paul fails to renounce Zatzman’s comments, a vote of confidence on her leadership would be held on July 20. Should that happen, she said she has “no evidence to the contrary” that May and Manly would support her remaining in the post.

On the day Atwin announced that she had joined the Liberal caucus, May and Manly issued a joint statement in which they said they were “heartbroken at the loss of our dear colleague” and blamed Zatzman for Atwin’s exit.

The two remaining Green MPs also said that “the attack against Ms. Atwin by the Green party leader’s chief spokesperson on May 14 created the conditions that led to this crisis.”

‘I’m a human being. I have a family’

The non-confidence motion considered at the June 15 emergency meeting of the federal council was prompted by a damning letter authored by two council members. It said, “Since her election as leader, Annamie Paul has acted with an autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority and rejection,” and “has attended few council meetings, and when in attendance, has displayed anger in long, repetitive, aggressive monologues and has failed to recognize the value of any ideas except her own.” The letter was signed by Beverly Eert, the council’s Manitoba representative, and Kate Storey, the party fund’s representative. Storey later asked that the letter be “rescinded” in “a spirit of reconciliation.”

Paul, who said in her press conference that such characterizations of her style are racist and sexist, told The Tyee that the Green party’s remaining two MPs were critical of the councillors’ allegations in the letter and an email chain, finding them to be “offensive and inflammatory and also riddled with all kinds of inaccuracies, factual and otherwise.”

“You can’t ask for more than that, and I felt really supported by them when they did that,” said Paul.

“During my time as leader, I have been very committed to modelling the kind of politics that I believe we need more of in Canada and that reflect our values as a party — and the kind of behaviour that I want my children to see,” explained the 48-year-old Paul, who has two sons, ages 17 and 20.

“They’re old enough to be able to follow everything that’s going on, but they’re also young enough so that what they see me do now in this role will affect them forever and give them lessons about how you live your life.

“I try to be honourable at all times, and that means not engaging in gossip and innuendo, and not doing anything that would damage the party.”

She said that stories about her relying on unnamed sources, “without facts to support them,” have been especially hard on her and her family.

“I entered politics eight months ago. I’m a human being. I have a family,” said Paul, noting that her mother, mother-in-law (she is married to international human rights lawyer, Mark Freeman) and one of her sons are “extremely stressed by what has been going on.”

“I’m willing to be accountable and to respond and recognize any errors I have made,” said the Green leader. “But the price of being in politics should not be reckless character assassination when you’re just trying to do good public policy.”

Last week, the National Post reported that six of the Green Party of Canada’s 18 federal councillors wanted Paul to step down as party leader (two of whom from Atlantic Canada have resigned).

Before the federal council meeting, more than 650 GPC members called for a special session to take “the first crucial first step in” removing Paul as a leader, according to the Toronto Star, which first reported on discord within Green ranks in April.

‘When I have something to say about an issue, I say it myself’

As the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict raged, the party issued a statement on May 10 calling for “an immediate de-escalation in the violence and a return to dialogue as a means to seeking a peaceful solution.”

“Violence and confrontation will not bring resolution, only more suffering,” tweeted Paul as part of that message.

She told The Tyee that statement, as with others, was shared with MPs for their feedback.

However on the day the Green party’s statement on the Middle East situation appeared on Twitter, Manly posted his own comment, comparing the planned removal of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to “ethnic cleansing.”

And the day after, Atwin called the party’s statement “totally inadequate” and said she stood “with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable air strikes in Gaza,” concluding with the words, “End Apartheid!” in a tweet that has since been removed.

On May 14, Zatzman replied on Facebook, denouncing the “appalling anti-Semitism and discrimination” from “Green MPs.”

At her news conference last week, Paul stressed with reporters that she has never sanctioned any party members “for their views on any foreign policy matter,” but said she also doesn’t “agree with many of the views that have been expressed by our MPs, but they, of course, [are] welcome to express them.”

Atwin, on June 14 after leaving the Greens for the Liberals, issued a statement that her “words regarding the conflict between Palestinians and Israel were intended to send strength and love to peoples” and that she regretted if her “choice of words caused harm to those who are suffering.”

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism are all “wrong,” Atwin said. “I am looking forward to sitting down with my new colleagues and stakeholders to continue my learning on this matter, and to continue to support a two-state solution.”

Two days later, at her press conference, Paul told reporters that she “never had a conversation about Israel and Palestine, one-on-one, ever,” and “did not know Ms. Atwin was someone who followed Middle Eastern politics closely, to be perfectly honest with you.”

Paul said she believes the Israeli-Palestinian issue was “a completely manufactured reason for leaving” the Greens.

As for Zatzman, who has stepped aside from his senior advisor role prior to the July 4 expiration of his contract with the party, Paul declined to discuss him.

“Noah is a private citizen now. He’s not working with the GPC or my office,” said the Green leader.

She also clarified that Zatzman’s now-infamous Facebook post was not on her behalf.

“The Green party leader has never had spokespeople,” Paul explained. “When I have something to say about an issue, I say it myself.”

Blaming Trudeau

In her Tyee interview, Paul doubled down on another accusation she levelled in the press conference, elaborating on why she blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for undermining her leadership by poaching Atwin.

“By the direct account of his intergovernmental affairs minister, Dominic LeBlanc, he was kept in the loop the entire time and consulted about the approach,” said Paul. “He spoke with Ms. Atwin before she made her decision, and so this was something that was planned, co-ordinated and executed by minister LeBlanc with the total knowledge and sanction of the prime minister.”

In behind-the-scenes details of that arrangement, the Telegraph-Journal reported that former New Brunswick Liberal MP T.J. Harvey told LeBlanc that Atwin was unhappy, and the Fredericton MP confirmed to the Saint John-based daily newspaper what she had shared with friends that party infighting was consuming her.

LeBlanc held three in-person meetings with Atwin, and had a call with Trudeau and with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Atwin told the Telegraph-Journal that “it wasn’t about [LeBlanc] approaching me, or me approaching him. It was kind of organic.”

During their discussions, LeBlanc said he told Atwin that if she decided to join the Liberal caucus, she “would be in a better position” to pursue projects she wanted to advance in her riding. He also pitched the advantages of having him and the prime minster as caucus colleagues, and how Fredericton would “obviously benefit from government programs and government decisions.”

LeBlanc also told the newspaper that his first meeting with Atwin was on May 20 — after the social-media blowout over comments on the Middle East conflict.

New Brunswick Green leader David Coon told the Telegraph-Journal that Atwin spoke to him about Zatzman’s Facebook post.

Atwin did not respond to an interview request from The Tyee.

However, on CTV’s Question Period, she said that on a Zoom call with Paul, she presented the Green leader with an “ultimatum” on changes Atwin felt were needed for her to stay with the party, and that her departure “had everything to do with... irreconcilable differences.”

The newly minted Liberal MP’s website has yet to be updated to reflect her new political affiliation and still lists her Green party critic duties.

Yet May and Manly want Atwin to return to the fold, as The Tyee reported before Paul’s press conference, and May has said that Paul should apologize to Atwin and try and recruit her back to the Greens.

May and Manly also reportedly asked the federal council at its recent meeting to pass a motion formally asking Atwin to rejoin the Greens.

Paul’s focus, however, is on how the Liberals targeted Fredericton as a way to secure a riding in Atlantic Canada, where she said the party’s polling numbers have been rising since her election as leader.

“They absolutely would have known that proactively seeking to do this would be extremely destabilizing to our party and to my leadership, given the likelihood that we’re going to be in an election in the next couple of months,” said Paul. “It would be something that would require work to repair, particularly in a party as small as ours.”

In the 2019 federal election, the Greens captured 6.4 per cent of the popular vote.

Paul said she is “not seeking any special favours” and acknowledged that partisan loyalties shift. Two years ago, Quebec MP Pierre Nantel was dropped from the NDP caucus after it was revealed he was in talks to join the Greens. He ran as a Green candidate in the 2019 federal election, and lost his seat representing the riding of Longueuil-Saint-Hubert.

But the fact that the Trudeau-led Liberals wooed Atwin deeply rankles Paul. She believes the prime minister should know “how incredibly difficult it is for someone like me to win a role like this — and to break all of the barriers to arrive at this moment.”

Paul noted that she is only the second woman, after May, to lead a federal party over the past 15 years, and that the Liberal Party of Canada has never had a female leader.

Atwin ‘made her choice. It’s very disappointing. I accept that’

It was, Paul said, “a very sad and disappointing day” when she learned that Atwin had joined the Liberals.

“We’re a very small party,” said Paul. “Jenica still is someone who is very respected and quite loved amongst the membership of our party. She’s a very active, hardworking MP, so it was certainly a loss for her to go.”

“Certainly, I would have liked the opportunity, had I known she was in these discussions, to make the case. But she has her reasons and ultimately, this is a very personal decision, so I accept it,” said the Green leader, who has called for a byelection in Fredericton since voters in the 2019 federal election voted for a Green MP.

Still, she conceded that if there were something she “could have done differently or better” regarding her relationship with Atwin, Paul said, “I definitely want to learn from that.”

Atwin’s departure also compounds the uphill battle the Greens will face in gaining seats when Canadians go to the polls — a situation, Paul said, the Liberals promised to address in 2015 when the party’s platform committed to making that year’s election the last under the first-past-the-post system and “the prime minister promised to change the system because he recognized that it was unfair and damaging to our democracy.”

Paul reflected on departures from Trudeau’s Commons team during his first prime ministerial term. Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott stepped down from cabinet in protest over his handling of the SNC Lavalin affair and were subsequently tossed from caucus.

May tried to convince both women to join the Green team during the 2019 federal election campaign, but they opted to seek re-election as Independents. Wilson-Raybould held onto her Vancouver-Granville seat; Philpott lost hers to Liberal Helena Jaczek in the Ontario riding of Markham-Stouffville.

In 2018, the Trudeau Liberals experienced their first floor-crossing since forming government in 2015, when Toronto-area MP Leona Alleslev joined the Conservatives.

A year later, the Liberals lost another Ontario MP, Celina Caesar-Chavannes — as Paul highlighted, “the only Black woman in Parliament who felt so out of place with the party that she left the caucus and sat as an Independent.”

The Green leader also remembered the leadership woes the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh experienced when in 2018 several caucus members announced they would not seek re-election — before he won a House seat to represent the B.C. riding of Burnaby South in a 2019 byelection.

Paul said that she has not personally heard from any of the opposition leaders in the Commons.

Official Opposition and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, however, reportedly said that he has “great respect” for Paul and finds her “very intelligent” and said that his “interactions with her have been very engaging.”

Paul said she has also not been contacted by Atwin since the latter left the Green caucus.

“Neither I nor the party ever received any formal notice of her decision, either before or after,” said the Green leader, who underscored that something “basic” as a letter would have been expected, “given the importance” of Atwin’s leaving the GPC.

“I don’t know how her office is running. I understand that her chief of staff, [Shannon Carmont], has stepped down,” Paul added.

Carmont did not respond to a request for confirmation from The Tyee, which also learned that she participated in the Greens’ recent federal council meeting.

When asked whether Paul would follow her predecessor and reach out to Atwin directly, the Green leader said that she could not “comment on whatever Elizabeth has done about that.”

“I’m very strict about commenting on anything that’s internal,” said Paul. “It’s so important for me to model the behaviour that I think is important for us to have as a party — one that is disciplined and professional, and where we can have confidence that [what] we speak about in-camera actually stay that way.”

Green federal council meetings are open to the public, she added, but “any future conversation that I have with Ms. Atwin would be between myself and Ms. Atwin, unless we were to agree otherwise. I’m not the kind of person to transmit messages to a former Green through the media.”

Still, Paul acknowledged that Atwin “made her choice and made it clear that [the Liberal party] is where she feels most at home.

“It’s very disappointing, but I accept that,” said the Green leader.

The election battle ahead

Paul is now looking to hers and the party’s future.

She said her campaign platform for the Green leadership was focused on diversity, building on her work with the Canadian Centre for Political Leadership, which she established early in the century to train women and under-represented minorities to run for elected office, along with volunteering with Operation Black Vote Canada and serving on the steering committee for Equal Voice Canada.

Operation Black Vote released a statement last week that said while “trailblazing journeys are never easy, and breaking barriers always comes at a cost,” what Paul has recently experienced is “inexcusable” and “unlike the experiences of her federal counterparts or predecessor in the Green Party of Canada.”

Paul emphasized with The Tyee that she received a strong mandate from Green party members, 70 per cent of whom voted in the leadership election.

On the eighth round of voting, Paul received 12,090 ballots or 54.5 per cent of the vote to become the ninth Green leader on Oct. 3, 2020.

“I ran as who I am,” said Toronto-born Paul, who will make her third attempt at winning the Toronto Centre riding in the next federal election. “I am a woman, I am a woman of colour. I’m a Black person. I’m a Jewish person. All of these things were well known to our members, and they voted for me and my platform.

“Our members are extremely committed to making sure that over time we become the most diverse party in Canadian politics.”

To that end, she explained, the Green party’s “Time to Run” campaign has attracted hundreds of applications from people seeking the party nomination — 67 per cent of whom represent “equity-seeking groups,” including from the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, to people of low-income.

Paul remains hopeful that the federal Greens will be able to weather the hurricane that has ripped through the party.

“If we can unify and rally together as members,” she said, “we can get through this.”  [Tyee]

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