Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin’s defection from the Green Party to the Liberals is reviving old fights about what the Green Party should stand for, and whether it’s possible for the party to compete for seats until that question is settled.
When Annamie Paul became Green Party leader in October, one challenge she faced was how to define the party after it was led for more than a decade by Elizabeth May. After all, in May’s 13 years steering the ship, she became the Greens’ first elected member of Parliament, and the caucus grew to three in 2019 — albeit chopped down to two as of last week.
Even though climate advocacy is what the party is best known for, the Greens organize around several values, including non-violence, participatory democracy and social justice. At a time when other federal parties are flexing their climate credentials, the Greens are increasingly making the case they’re more than a single-issue party.
“I do believe that part of the reason members elected me is because I opened up the opportunity for the Green Party to begin a new conversation with people in Canada about those other policies,” said Paul.
“Given who I am, my lived experience and my professional experience, and my identity, it's not hard for people in Canada to imagine that I am as equally interested in things like racial and social justice, in the need for a guaranteed liveable income, the need for affordable housing, etc., exactly because of who I am and how I grew up.
“So in my case, it's actually been sometimes more of a challenge, to be honest, to remind people… that I'm committed to the climate and environment, because people tend to see politicians that look like me and think only of social and racial justice issues,” she said.
Paul described herself as the party’s spokesperson but said a historic strength of the Green Party is that as long as everyone is committed to the same core values, there is room for ideological disagreement.
“It's not a top-down party where everything is centralized and the policy direction is just set by the small inner circle of people,” she said. “As long as it’s said in a way that's respectful, then there should be room for differences of opinion.”
Paul’s vision of the Green Party championing progressive values beyond fighting climate change was severely tested last month when her senior adviser, Noah Zatzman, threatened to work against sitting Green Party MPs who spoke out against Israel bombing Gaza. One of those MPs was Jenica Atwin, who on May 11 called Paul’s statement on the violence “inadequate” and accused Israel of a policy of “apartheid.”
“Appalling anti-Semitism and discrimination from a range of political actors, beginning with (NDP Leader) Jagmeet Singh and Dimitri Lascaris, and many Liberal NDP and, sadly, Green MPs... We will work to defeat you,” Zatzman wrote on Facebook three days later.
In what’s now ancient history, Atwin — who has since walked back her remarks — joined the Liberals and dropped responsibility for floor crossing at Paul’s feet, calling their differences “irreconcilable.” That has since sparked a massive fight in the party over its future and Paul’s future in it.
After Jenica Atwin's defection, the Green Party is in open revolt. Can Annamie Paul hold on? #cdnpoli
“What I found a bit surprising about what was happening was the intemperance of both Atwin's comment about her leader, but even more so the adviser's attack on her, and to have all this public, what were they thinking?” said University of Prince Edward Island political science professor Don Desserud.
“It just didn't sound like a party that was thinking clearly in terms of what their image is going to be and how they present themselves to the public,” he said. “It's not going to end well, I don't see anybody coming out of this ahead.”
It could be a major blunder for Atwin, who, on the day after jumping ship to the Liberals, saw that the federal government was convening an emergency summit on antisemitism in direct response to criticism from Conservative MPs and a former Liberal MP that she was joining the caucus. It’s almost certainly a blunder for Paul, who is now facing open challenges to her leadership from the party’s ranks.
Paul’s top rival is Dimitri Lascaris, the Montreal-based eco-socialist who finished second in the 2020 Green Party leadership race. Paul and Lascaris were the two front-runners for all eight rounds and represent competing visions for the party’s future.
Lascaris said the Israel-Palestine issue creating conflicts in political parties is not an issue exclusive to the Greens, pointing to similar splits in the U.S. Democratic Party, the Labour Party in the U.K. and even the NDP.
“There's a lot more going on than just the Israel-Palestine issue,” Lascaris said. “The context is Israel-Palestine, but it's raising a philosophical question about the role of the leader, and in theory, in the Green Party, the leader's supposed to be a spokesperson… Annamie says that she thinks the leader is the spokesperson of our party, but I don't believe that's how she's acted, and this is a clear example of that.
“If Annamie is serious about courtesy and mutual respect then she should have unequivocally rejected what (Zatzman) said and identified that as an example of how not to communicate when we have sharp differences of opinion about policy,” he said.
Lascaris’ vision for the party, along with others like Meryam Haddad, who pitched the Watermelon Revolution — a one-time alliance with the NDP to avoid splitting progressive votes — aims to centre workers in the climate movement.
“Our natural constituency is the progressive community,” said Lascaris. “People who tend to vote Conservative or Liberal are never going to come over en masse to a party that's talking about things like bringing an end to the fossil fuels industry, demilitarizing, bringing in a wealth tax, eliminating preferential treatment for capital gains, the kinds of things that the progressive community wants.
“This idea that if we move to the centre, which is so crowded now with the Liberals and the modestly progressive agenda of the NDP, and even O'Toole is trying to, or at least appear to, move his party to the centre… There's no prospect of us growing the party there.
“We need to be champions of eco-socialism,” he said. “That's our place in politics today, that's the promised land for us.”
It’s a topic that has clearly been on the mind of party members in recent weeks, too. 350.org is calling for a climate alliance between the NDP and the Green Party for the next election, and in a May 31 meeting where Green Party members flung questions at Paul over Zatzman, one topic of interest was whether an alliance was in the cards.
“We are in a desperate climate crisis so desperate measures are needed to avoid climate champions in both parties trying to defeat each other,” one member said, asking leadership to share the party’s position on the alliance. Another member wanted to know if a third-party poll was taken asking Green Party members whether they supported the alliance, would that affect Green Party leadership’s position.
“The Green Party of Canada will continue to field candidates in every one of Canada’s 338 ridings,” was the official response.
“I think (Atwin) was open to collaboration with the NDP in the next election, which is not something well welcomed by the old guard of the party, I would say,” said Haddad. “I think that's why me and Dimitri were such targets during the leadership contest; there's no other explanation than that one.
“The leadership, or the elite of the party itself, is completely disconnected from what the membership wants,” said Haddad, adding the base is further to the left and wants to see collaboration.
Desserud suggested there could be a third way if the national party took a closer look at the Maritimes, where David Coon’s Green Party in New Brunswick has essentially iced out the NDP as the progressive option, and Peter Bevan-Baker’s Greens in Prince Edward Island have formed the official Opposition since 2019.
“What Peter has been able to do with the Green Party here is talk about conservation in a very broad sense, so it's still part of the environmentalism of the party but it also includes making sure we're particularly prudent about the way in which we manage our economy, very prudent in the way in which we manage our farmlands but the farm economy as well, and how we deal with social issues,” said Desserud.
“What they've been able to do is broaden out their appeal of their party from starting with their core values, and not basically doing things that you don’t know why that would be the case or you don’t know how that fits into the overall messaging of the party,” he said. “I think that's the problem that the national party has had is that they're trying to find an identity that is beyond simply — and I shouldn't say simply because the environment affects anything — but beyond simply that issue.”
John Woodside / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer