The historic election on Monday of a second federal Green Party MP shows that Canadians are taking the issue of climate change seriously and are looking outside traditional parties for solutions, say the leader of the federal Greens and the head of a public opinion institute.
Paul Manly won a resounding victory May 6 in a by-election for the Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith, capturing 37.3 per cent of the vote, 12 points ahead of the closest competition. The riding had been empty since January after former NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson resigned in order to run for the BC NDP in a race that she eventually won.
Manly, a documentary filmmaker, and son of former NDP MP and human rights advocate Jim Manly, is only the second candidate to ever win a seat as a federal MP under the Green Party banner, although there have been others who jumped to the party after winning.
His win comes two weeks after provincial Greens in P.E.I. captured over 30 per cent of the vote and secured eight seats. Since 2017, Greens have been elected in provincial caucuses in B.C. and New Brunswick and have elected their first Ontario MPP.
Canada is seeing an electorate that is “sick of the political classes” and is now putting climate change at the top of its priority list, said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute. The Green Party is benefiting from the fact that climate change is now a major issue in the minds of people, she said.
A May 3 poll by the institute showed the Green Party breaking into double digits among decided voters, at 11 per cent, and “environment / pollution” identified as Canadians’ top priority for the country. “The polling is showing that they appear to be having a bit of a moment,” said Kurl of the party.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told National Observer in an interview Tuesday that “increasingly there’s a sense of disillusionment, that the old-line parties — whether NDP, Liberal or Conservative — are capable of really doing what’s required."
“We’ve been having this discussion, which isn’t really a thoughtful discussion, about the impact of climate issues on politics, and the bigger parties have been treating carbon pricing as though it’s a wedge issue that they can claim for short-term electoral advantage,” she said.
“No one is talking about it being a climate emergency, that requires a fundamental shift in our economy. And I think that that resonated with people in Nanaimo-Ladysmith.”
Talking 'honestly' about the 'climate emergency'
Life on Earth is experiencing unprecedented levels of decline, with up to a million species of plants and animals threatened with extinction in the coming decades, according to a dire report released Monday.
That international biodiversity report is the latest in a string of troubling conclusions by scientists around the world.
The heat-trapping pollution made from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, and byproducts like gasoline must be cut to roughly half of 2010 levels by 2030 in order to lessen the more destructive effects of climate change such as spikes of dangerous extreme weather, and the spread of poverty and disease.
The Trudeau Liberals introduced a price on carbon pollution nationwide, offset by rebates sent to Canadians as part of their tax returns, part of a sweeping plan to cut Canada’s emissions that also includes phasing out coal-fired power plants, cracking down on methane leaks, tightening building codes, incentivizing electric vehicles and boosting the clean technology sector.
But pollution from fossil fuels in Canada, which has the world's third-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, continues to grow by large amounts, with the oilsands responsible for more carbon pollution than all of B.C. or Quebec in 2017.
The oil and gas industry is supported by generous public subsidies that the Liberals haven’t yet succeeded at phasing out. Last year, Ottawa moved to protect a key industry asset with its purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion project to the West Coast.
Meanwhile, both Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford and Alberta’s United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney rode to victory in their provinces on the backs of campaigns that relentlessly attacked Trudeau’s carbon pricing.
Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer has joined in at the federal level, calling the program a “cash grab” that won’t lower emissions, despite not yet introducing his own plan to tackle climate change.
“Canadians are not afraid of voting for a party that talks clearly and honestly about the climate emergency,” argued May.
“When things are as desperate as they are now, in terms of the climate breakdown, we can’t afford debates that are on the cutting-edge of the status quo. We actually have to talk about what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is quite a fundamental shift, much more than what other parties are talking about.”
With 98.8 per cent of polls reporting, Manly received 15,188 votes, representing 37.3 per cent of the turnout. That was well ahead of the Conservative Party’s John Hirst with 24.8 per cent. NDP candidate Bob Chamberlin came in third place at 23.1 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Party’s candidate Michelle Corfield only managed to attract 4,478 votes, or 11 per cent.
Trudeau says pick a 'government,' not 'just a party'
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the message he took from Manly’s win was that “Canadians are concerned about climate change" at a time when there's a rise of provincial premiers who don't believe in taking climate action.
“That is why we are proud of our plan that puts a price on pollution, which protects our oceans, which we will continue to push against premiers across the country who think we can do nothing,” Trudeau said in French before a federal cabinet meeting.
“We will work even harder in the coming months to ensure that Canadians choose a government that will be able to fight climate change and not just a party.”
Trudeau’s framing of Manly’s win as a response to voters concerned about climate change was echoed by members of his caucus.
Treasury Board President Joyce Murray, a former British Columbia environment minister, said “it sends the message that British Columbians care about the environment which is exactly what our government knows and understands.”
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodríguez said “the clear message yesterday is about the importance of climate change. This is a clear signal for all parties and all parties should listen to this, including the Conservatives.”
Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said byelections “are a time when people get an opportunity to make a choice that doesn’t affect who’s going to govern the country.” He said Canadians would have a choice in the fall “between two parties that are competing for government,” only one of which had released a climate plan.
Wilkinson added it was “hard to say” how much the Trans Mountain pipeline contributed to the Liberals’ bad result in the by election. “I was on the ground in Nanaimo campaigning with the Liberal candidate there. I never got one question about the pipeline,” he said.
“But certainly in British Columbia the issues around the pipeline are important and there are certainly folks in the lower mainland and on the island that have concerns with respect to the pipeline. There’s no question about that.”
Kurl said it would now be Trudeau’s task to “re-convince voters” that his government is worth voting for when it comes to climate action.
The prime minister was "casting it as, people are reacting and choosing the Greens because they’re upset about Conservative premiers in other parts of the country. I would also suggest that the purity of the Liberals on this file is not quite there,” she said.
“Although they are bringing in carbon pricing in provinces that don’t have it...at the same time, this is a government that bought a pipeline, and for many climate change purists, for many people who really put environment and climate change at the top of that list, that dilutes the purity, and that dilutes the cleanliness of the Liberals on this topic.”
May encourages minority Parliament
May said Trudeau’s pitch to voters leaves out the possibility of a minority Parliament, “within which people of conscience can hold other parties to account” on big issues, from climate change to cannabis, pharmacare and guaranteed local income, among other topics.
“With six parties in contention to elect MPs — and I think there will be six parties with elected MPs after the October election — it increases the likelihood of it being a minority Parliament,” she said.
“If enough Green MPs are elected, that minority Parliament will function well, because we’re more committed to having effective government and really fixing a number of issues.”
She said this kind of co-operation didn’t necessarily have to mean a formal coalition.
“It could (also) be a confidence and supply agreement,” she said, referring to when independent MPs agree to support a minority government on votes that would trigger an election, but vote their conscience on other legislative matters.
“It could be even as informal as the fact that...there have been times when the third party in the House has managed on a vote-by-vote basis to negotiate keeping the government from falling,” said May.
“In our constitutional democracy, Westminster Parliamentary system, there are a wide range of options for how you form government...I think, and certainly hope, that we’re well-positioned as Greens to elect a lot of Green MPs who share that conviction that it matters more to accomplish what needs to be done, than to get the credit for doing what needs to be done.”
Manly faced issues trying to run for NDP
Manly, who was born on the island and grew up in Ladysmith, has been involved in several documentaries, including “You, Me and the SPP,” or Security and Prosperity Partnership, the former security and trade talks between Canada, the United States and Mexico that morphed into a leaders’ summit and “North American perimeter” security pact.
He faced issues trying to run for the New Democrats in 2015, ultimately being blocked from the party. Manly has said the arrest and subsequent release of his father by Israeli officials on board a ship that was travelling to Gaza was raised as part of the party’s concern that he was “running to make Israel and Palestine an election issue.”
He was then courted by May to switch party allegiances. “The NDP could have had him, pretty easily as the NDP member of Parliament, but they didn’t allow him to run in 2015,” May said Tuesday.
“It took me quite a while — because we were old friends — to persuade him that he was naturally a Green Party kind of guy. So I’m just over the moon about the results. He’s a terrific person and will be a very strong MP, and has a really deep background in the issues that matter to people in Nanaimo-Ladysmith.”
The Green Party itself faced controversy over Israel when it became the first federal party to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement at a party convention in August 2016. The move followed a House of Commons motion rejecting BDS in February that year.
May, who personally opposed the movement, mused about leaving the party after that. "I'm struggling with the question of whether I should continue as leader or not, quite honestly," she said at the time. Months later the Greens issued a statement saying it rejected the goals of BDS given that it does not include support for the right of Israel to exist.