By all rights, this should be the Green Party of Canada’s moment to shine. After winning three seats in the last federal election, including its first one outside of Vancouver Island, the party had the opportunity to pick a new leader who would take it further towards the political mainstream. And what better timing for that push than in the midst of an increasingly obvious climate crisis, one that is pushing the issue to the top of our shared list of priorities as Canadians.
Well, so much for that. Instead of rising to greater relevance, Canada’s Green Party is in danger of running itself into the ground. And new leader Annamie Paul, who was elected by the party’s membership to replace Elizabeth May, seems to be leading the charge there. A series of internal disputes that were set in motion by the conflict in Israel-Palestine and Paul’s refusal to repudiate senior adviser Noah Zatzman after he described Green MPs critical of Israel as “anti-Semitic” apparently pushed one of them to cross the floor. Jenica Atwin, who became the first Green MP outside of British Columbia in the last election, explained her decision by pointing to the “distractions” in her former party.
Those distractions have only intensified since she left. The Green Party’s federal council and board of directors continue to push for a non-confidence motion in their leader, one that will apparently be held on July 20. If 75 per cent of council members vote in favour, the non-confidence motion will be put to Green Party members at an Aug. 21 general meeting — right on the doorstep of a federal election, if not in the midst of it.
It gets worse, if that’s even possible. According to the Toronto Star, during a recent virtual staff meeting that covered the decision to eliminate nearly half of the party’s staff, Paul was actually muted by interim executive director Dana Taylor. “The attempt to silence the leader was met with shock and surprise from a number of staff members on the call,” the Star reported, citing a source who attended the meeting. “Paul was asked to speak again only after two attendees refused to ask questions until the leader was able to finish her remarks.”
This is surely not what former leader Elizabeth May had in mind when she stepped down in 2019 after 13 years on the job. But it shouldn’t be completely surprising, given May’s presence and personality had long defined the party for most people. In the absence of that sort of iconic leadership, the Greens have to pitch themselves to Canadians based on what they actually believe.
That’s not as easy as it might seem. Beyond their interest in protecting the environment, there doesn’t seem to be very much uniting the Green Party members living on Vancouver Island with those in downtown Toronto or the Maritimes. They aren’t, after all, a traditionally left-wing party, one that can outflank the NDP on issues like labour rights, tax policy and immigration. Instead, they’re solar-powered centrists, as Paul has made clear with her embrace of markets and carbon pricing, and May made clear with her willingness to work with Conservative governments in the past.
That position might have been tenable when May first entered federal politics. But now, with the Liberal government taking increasingly decisive action on climate change, it’s not clear why voters who prioritize the environment on their ballots would want to risk splitting that vote and allowing a Conservative candidate to win.
This is a familiar headache for federal Green Party supporters, who consistently watch their party build strength in the runup to elections and bleed it all out before they’re over. “In one election campaign after the other, upwards of 10 per cent of voters suggested to pollsters that they supported the Greens,” socialist writer and former Green Party member Paris Marx noted in a CBC opinion piece. “But when voting day came around, the support invariably melted away as many Green-leaning voters cast ballots strategically for candidates with a greater chance of winning.”
The Green Party's infighting with Annamie Paul is ruining its ability to take part in the climate conversation in this crucial pre-election period. #cdnpoli #climate
That’s a reflection of our first-past-the-post electoral system, which disadvantages parties with modest national appeal and rewards those with a more regional focus. In 2019, the Green Party received nearly 1.2 million votes Canada-wide, or approximately 200,000 fewer than the Bloc Québécois. And yet, while the BQ walked away with 32 seats and a meaningful presence in a minority Parliament, the Greens had just three.
But if those are the rules of the game, you have to play them a little better than Annamie Paul has so far. Shortly after winning the party’s leadership in 2020, she decided the best path for her to win a seat in parliament would be to contest the byelection in Toronto Centre for Bill Morneau’s seat. But his former riding of Toronto Centre is a long-standing Liberal stronghold, and Liberal candidate Marci Ien easily held off the Green leader. That left her without a seat and the Green Party without its leader in the one place she needed to be — Parliament.
Now, instead of fighting for a bigger piece of the national conversation, the Green Party is once again fighting for its political life. That may be particularly difficult in an environment where it no longer has the market cornered on climate policy in Canada. If the Greens get wiped out in the next election and the Liberals form the kind of majority government the polls are signaling, they can at least take comfort in the fact that their defining issue will have won it for someone else.