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Federal Politics
Election 2021

This Was Supposed to Be the Green Party’s Moment

For years its main focus was the climate crisis now clearly arrived. Will noisy divisions rob it of candidates and votes?

Christopher Guly 2 Sep

Christopher Guly is a Tyee contributing reporter covering Parliament Hill.

David Suzuki has thrown his weight as Canada’s iconic defender of the environment behind some surprising candidates this election. He has endorsed, for example, Conservative Michael Chong for re-election in the Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills.

What’s jarring about that decision is that not that long ago, Suzuki would have exclusively promoted the Green Party of Canada as the first choice for voters, as he outlined in a 2018 podcast.

But this year he’s also backing New Democrat candidate Avi Lewis in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.

Granted, Suzuki is campaigning for the re-election of Canada’s two Green members of Parliament — former federal leader Elizabeth May in Saanich-Gulf Islands and Paul Manly in Nanaimo-Ladysmith — along with climate scientist Devyani Singh, the Green hopeful in Vancouver Quadra, the riding in which Suzuki lives.

But Suzuki told The Tyee that one reason he is casting his net more broadly is that although “this is a moment when the Greens are desperately needed,” in his opinion the party has been “fatally weakened” by internal controversies made highly public.

Another motivation for Suzuki — who cosigned a public letter calling for a leaders’ debate on the climate emergency — is the fast closing window to deal with the crisis.

Impending global catastrophe prompted Suzuki to set aside partisanship, he explained. His criteria is the politician’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis, pure, plain and simple.

Suzuki’s hope is that come Sept. 20, “climate champions will be elected from every party” to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to addressing the climate emergency — similar to the way Canadians rallied during the Second World War.

Although the issue of climate action advanced the federal Green party as a viable alternative for voters and secured its first Commons seat for May a decade ago, it can no longer be viewed as “a Green issue,” Suzuki told The Tyee in a recent interview.

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David Suzuki says the controversy that led to Green MP Jenica Atwin joining the Liberals ‘has shaken confidence and caused tremendous grief’ among Greens and kept him from campaigning for party leader Annamie Paul. Photo by by Jennifer Roessler.

Suzuki is hardly alone in worrying that infighting has ruined the Greens’ chance to seize a prime opportunity this election. The party is roiled by challenges to Paul’s leadership and a lack of campaign funds, along with hefty bills associated with a legal battle between the party and its leader.

But the party's first MP, Elizabeth May, says there is too much media attention to such matters. She believes the party she put on the map in Canada brings a crucial perspective to the election.

She is unsparing in her criticism of Justin Trudeau’s performance as Liberal prime minster, blasting him for subsidizing fossil fuel infrastructure while pledging a $500-million plan to train 1,000 community-based firefighters and purchase new equipment “to continue to fight the impacts of climate change across the country.”

“He’s got hundreds and hundreds of men and women in B.C. building [the] Trans Mountain pipeline [expansion] who could be diverted to help fighting fires and taking that heavy machinery and building fire breaks,” said May.

The Green platform this election calls for stopping the building of pipelines, ending all oil exploration including fracking, a major overhaul of the tax system, a guaranteed livable income to eliminate poverty, and rejecting “unending economic growth as a goal," for "a goal of maximizing human and environmental health and well-being.”

Annamie Paul, who replaced May as the Green Party leader, admitted at a Wednesday press conference in Toronto that “it’s no secret that we’ve had our own distractions internally” and said it was a reason the party would not be able to field a full slate of candidates.

“Anything that isn’t focused on election readiness has the potential to be a distraction or to be a resource draw from that work.”

Paul, who says she has received threats online while campaigning, noted there was an effort to ensure diversity and inclusiveness among those running for the Greens.

“We had enough candidates step forward for a full slate, and then we ran into challenges in terms of collecting signatures in all of the ridings — particularly remote ridings or ridings where we’re dependent on seniors who volunteer with us who are very nervous in Alberta and out west where COVID numbers are spiking.”

Natural disasters, such as forest fires and droughts plaguing parts of the country, have shifted the “preoccupation” away from the election campaign, Paul added.

She said the Greens face another disadvantage in an “election cycle designed to favour, first and foremost, the incumbent party and larger parties.

“Our system is deliberately difficult for smaller parties to establish themselves.”

Most of her attention will be focused on winning a seat in her Toronto Centre riding rather than barnstorming nationally.

“It’s no secret to say that she’s chosen a riding where the climb is very uphill,” said May, who noted that after Paul was elected Green leader last October, May offered up her seat to have Paul run in Saanich-Gulf Islands.

“It’s never easy to win a seat as a Green, and it’s particularly difficult to break through in downtown Toronto. She’s running in a Liberal stronghold, so it totally makes sense for her to stay put and knock on as many doors as possible,” May said.

Paul’s bid to represent Toronto Centre is her third attempt to win the federal riding, following her run in the 2019 election — in which she placed fourth — and her candidacy in last year’s by-election prompted by Bill Morneau’s resignation as finance minister and departure from Parliament. In that outing, Paul placed a relatively close second behind former CTV broadcaster Marci Ien, who kept Toronto Centre in the Liberal camp.

Continuing restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic is another reason the national campaign is being conducted more online than with in-person meet-and-greets, added May.

And in her view, that’s not such a bad thing.

“I ran national campaigns in 2008, 2011, 2015 and 2019, and we did not get national media coverage most days.” As the federal Green leader from 2006 to 2019, she shuttled across Canada by plane (Air Canada economy), train and electric car during those past electoral outings. “I might as well have stayed at home for as much coverage as I got travelling the country,” said May.

Still, May said the federal party’s focus during the federal election campaign must be on running a national slate of Green candidates. One effect, she says, can be to pressure non-Green MPs to commit to climate action.

“It’s never been so clear to so many Canadians that we’re in a climate emergency,” said May, who is seeking her fourth term as MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands since she was first elected in 2011.

Which is precisely why many Green supporters are dismayed at the financial and political black eye the party has delivered itself in recent months.

Quebec Green Party Leader Alex Tyrrell exemplifies the diversity — and division — among Green member viewpoints. A fierce critic of federal leader Annamie Paul, the self-labelled ‘eco-socialist’ has yet to meet her. Photo via Green Party of Quebec.

In a May 14 Facebook post, Noah Zatzman, then a senior advisor to Paul, accused “a range of political actors” — including Green MP Manly and then-Green MP Jenica Atwin — of “appalling anti-Semitism and discrimination” over their Twitter comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and vowed to work against their re-election.

Earlier in May, Atwin had tweeted that she stood “with Palestine (to) condemn the unthinkable air strikes in Gaza,” and called for an “end (to) apartheid.”

Manly tweeted during the recent Israel-Gaza conflict that, “Last month, Human Rights Watch called the Israeli occupation apartheid. What is happening in East Jerusalem right now is ethnic cleansing.”

Members of the Green federal council demanded Paul renounce Zatzman’s attacks on elected party members, but she has not done so. Atwin crossed the aisle to the Liberals, citing the ruckus as the reason, though Paul claims Atwin used it as a mere pretext for what she’d already decided to do. May has blamed Paul’s handling of the situation for Atwin’s departure. "It was deeply unacceptable. That's why we lost Jenica," May told The Tyee.

“The controversy has shaken confidence and caused tremendous grief, and the pain among loyal Green members is terrible. Only one of the people I’ve called so far said they would vote Green,” said Suzuki. Had Paul taken a more unifying approach since the Zatzman flap, Suzuki said, he would have offered his help in getting her elected in Toronto Centre.

The federal Greens’ internal strife has been “one of the greatest disappointments” for Mike Nagy, a former three-time federal Green candidate, who joined the party in 2002.

“Many of us who were early Greens worked hard to build the party, including [May’s leadership predecessor] Jim Harris, who had 308 candidates run in the federal election in 2004” — the first time the federal Green party had a full slate of candidates.

“I believe the Greens have lost that positiveness, which I know we can regain to give people a reason to vote Green,” said Nagy, a onetime federal Liberal supporter who expects that party to remain in power come election day.

Further controversies erupted during the first weeks of the Green campaign. Rana Zaman, the Green candidate in the Nova Scotia riding of Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, was removed by the NDP from her run in the same riding in the 2019 election, following pro-Palestinian comments she posted on social media — including one comparing Israel's actions in Gaza to Nazi Germany's actions in Europe during the Holocaust.

Kerri Coombs, running for the Greens in the Alberta riding of Red Deer-Lacombe, wrote a recent tweet — which she later regretted posting — that compared B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, to “a serial killer with an 'Angel of Death' psychological profile.”

The party’s recent turmoil is still having an effect, said Nagy, a former Green environment critic who ran in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 federal elections in the Ontario riding of Guelph, which at the provincial level is held by Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner.

“People are disappointed with the in-fighting and don’t understand how it happened and became so public and acrimonious, and why it got so far out of control,” said Nagy, who holds a master’s degree in environmental studies focused on sustainable fisheries. “We’ve lost donations and members, and an MP as a result. It’s extremely disappointing because the ground we have gained over the years is being lost very quickly.”

“This is a very critical time with climate change and fires, and a lot of the Green message is going to be lost,” said Nagy, who wishes Paul would campaign for candidates in other ridings beyond her bid to win Toronto Centre.

He also wants to see an end to the lawsuit hovering over Paul’s head and would like the party to hold an “internal healing circle” following the election.

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As former federal Green leader Elizabeth May seeks re-election in Saanich-Gulf Islands, she urges voters to ignore ‘meddlesome’ voices tearing at her party and look at the big picture. ‘It’s never been so clear to so many Canadians that we’re in a climate emergency.' Photo via Green Party of Canada.

Alex Tyrrell, who has led Quebec’s Green party since 2013, hoped that Paul would have campaigned in provinces like his, which he said have been neglected by the federal party in the past.

According to a recent CBC poll tracker federal Green support in Quebec was at 3.3 per cent, about even with Ontario, and higher than for the Prairies and Alberta. However, on Sept. 2 when this article was published, the party had only 23 candidates on its Quebec website in a province with 78 ridings. The slate had grown to 58 by Sept. 6.*

In 2019, the Greens under May’s leadership secured 4.5 per cent of the vote in Quebec.

But Tyrrell was at odds with the federal party on several issues under May’s leadership, including the lack of what he believes was a clear position on Quebec’s religious-symbols ban, Bill 21, during the last federal election campaign. Quebec’s Greens are opposed to the law, “and would have appreciated less ambiguity from the federal party on the issue,” he explained in an interview.

More recently, Tyrrell has been a fierce critic of Paul and the two have yet to meet. In June, Tyrrell — along with the federal Greens’ Quebec wing — called for Paul to resign when the federal council was preparing to hold a non-confidence vote on her leadership.

With the election campaign now underway, Tyrrell — who survived a challenge to his own provincial leadership in 2019 — is pouring his efforts into campaigning for Green candidates in Montreal, where he lives, while remaining aloof from Paul.

“It’s certainly hard to rally around a leader who’s not present in the province and who’s made it clear that people who criticize Israel, and more broadly, who are from the left wing of the party, are not welcome,” Tyrrell said.

Despite the Green platform’s decidedly left tilt, Tyrrell is not satisfied. A self-described “eco-socialist” who leads what he describes to be “the left wing of the Canadian Green movement,” Tyrrell believes “people are looking for something more radical” this election, he told The Tyee. “It’s a race for the centre with political parties — which is not healthy for Canadian democracy — and the Green party is missing a real opportunity to be a voice for the left.”

Tyrrell has tried and failed ten times to win a Green seat in Quebec’s National Assembly and cancelled his bid for the party leadership last year, citing interference from May and her supporters.

For her part, May says the party remains committed to both winning seats and taking climate action. She told The Tyee she hopes party members and supporters can move past the internal squabbling sparked by “meddlesome unnamed sources and some meddlesome named sources.”

“No matter how much the media wants to concentrate on the notion that the party is fighting with itself, we want to make sure we have candidates in every riding,” May said. “We’ve never been a top-down party. The leader is not the boss; the leader is the chief spokesperson. And we really need to emphasize that a Green MP is different from any other party’s MP in that we are not whipped. We stick to our values and principles.”

Suzuki agrees it was a strength of the Greens under May that MPs were allowed to express “a diversity of opinion” on a range of issues. But federal Green Leader Annamie Paul has “totally destroyed that one thing,” he argued, by failing to fire Zatzman when he vowed to work only to elect “Zionist” Green candidates.

Elizabeth May, however, retains David Suzuki’s enthusiastic support. He wishes the veteran MP, who served as the Greens’ parliamentary leader in the House, would play a more active role in the national campaign. But he also understands the need for his longtime friend not to eclipse Paul as leader.

“She is a sensational and fantastic politician, and supported Annamie when she got in as leader because she thought it would bring diversity into the movement,” Suzuki said of May.

It is “tragic,” he added, that the longtime familiar face of the Greens is not more involved at the national level, especially given May’s legacy of “years fighting alone” to raise the profile of the federal party and her non-partisanship by “working really hard to try to reach across to Conservatives and Liberals.”

In fact, in this election, May urged Canadians to scrutinize all candidates in their ridings, since they are choosing their MP and “aren’t voting for the leader” of the party. Paul delivered a similar message in a recent YouTube video.

* Story updated Sept. 6 at 11:20 a.m. to reflect new numbers of Green party candidates in Quebec.  [Tyee]

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