The press releases from the Ontario Green Party HQ gush forth, as they have for months, long before the provincial election campaign officially began.

On March 30, seven; on April 29, a half-dozen; seven on May 2, a couple days before the campaign kicked off in the lead-up to Ontario’s June 2 election.

The subject lines blare:

“Ontario Greens will build clean & connected communities and stop Doug Ford’s expensive & polluting sprawl;”

“Schreiner to Ford: building highways is not a climate solution;”

“Greens have real solutions to clean up the patronage appointment mess of the old-line parties.”

The sheer volume is all the more remarkable given the Green Party’s press office consists of one person. (Press Secretary Darren Elias is quick to note he gets a helping hand from a couple of others when it comes to matters like graphic design.)

And the party’s presence at Queen’s Park consists of one seat, that of Leader Mike Schreiner.

The firehose of information is part of a strategy to force the larger parties to tackle issues close to Green hearts, like the climate crisis, urban sprawl, mental health and housing affordability.

But for all the press releases and campaign events and energy, does a party with one seat matter?

The press releases from Ontario Green Party HQ gush forth, as they have for months, long before the Ontario election campaign officially began. #OnPoli #OnElxn

Schreiner says yes.

“We've really put climate and environment issues on the table at Queen's Park and, I think, have had an outsized influence given the fact that we have one seat,” Schreiner tells Canada’s National Observer. “We’ve, I think, leveraged that seat to really support citizen movements.”

Greens, he says, helped lead the charge against a bill introduced early in Ford’s term as premier that would have opened the protected Greenbelt to development. Greens led the charge, too, against a ministerial zoning order that would have seen the construction of an Amazon warehouse on wetlands. Greens are leading the charge to stop urban sprawl and plans to build Highway 413.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner opposes the construction of Highway 413 north of Toronto, a project rekindled by Ontario's most recent Progressive Conservative government. Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn / National Observer

“And all of that has been in conjunction with citizen activists and organizations that are pushing back against the Ford agenda,” says Schreiner. “We’re really doing what we can to be their voice at Queen's Park and to help mobilize and amplify the opposition to the worst excesses of the Ford government.”

Schreiner, who represents Guelph, has no compunction about taking credit when bigger provincial parties share policies the Greens espouse. When Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca promised recently to reduce transit fares to $1, Schreiner issued a rapid-fire statement: “As the first party who announced a plan to significantly reduce transit fares, I’m happy to see other parties follow our lead.”

The party has former environment commissioner Dianne Saxe — whose office was axed by Ford’s Progressive Conservative government shortly after the party’s landslide win in 2018 — running in the left-leaning University-Rosedale riding in Toronto.

Saxe is a well-known and respected environmental lawyer, described by supporters as a “rock star candidate.” She says she has a genuine chance at adding a second seat to the Green contingent at Queen's Park.

The Greens have a fully costed platform, a climate strategy, a housing strategy, a local food and farming strategy, a Main Street strategy — the list goes on — and a full slate of 124 candidates. Schreiner has, in a first for the party, won the endorsement of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Service Employees International Union.

Schreiner grew up on a family farm in Kansas, moved to Canada in 1994 and eventually settled in Guelph, where he worked as an entrepreneur and small-business owner in sustainable agriculture and local food issues.

Wanting to make “a difference in the world,” Schreiner came to the conclusion that the best way to do so was through politics.

“It was clear to me that even though the Greens hadn't elected anyone at that point, they were the only party that had a serious plan and commitment to addressing the climate crisis,” says Schreiner. “And I was also really inspired by the party's policies around social justice issues and improving our democracy, and decided that that's where I would put my energy and my time.”

Mike Schreiner was defeated three times before finally winning a seat at Queen's Park for the Green Party in the 2018 election. The party hopes to add to its ranks at the legislature on June 2. Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn / National Observer

Schreiner got involved with the Greens in 2004 and, five years later, was elected leader of the provincial party.

He lost the first three elections he ran in under the Green banner, but succeeded in raising the party’s profile and increasing donations ten-fold in five years, from $50,000 to $500,000 between 2009 and 2014.

And then came 2018, when Schreiner won the Guelph seat with almost half the popular vote. The Green leader rues then spending much of the following four years resisting the Ford government.

“Unfortunately, because the Ford government has done so much to dismantle Ontario's climate action plans and systematically is in the process of dismantling most of our environmental protections, we've been in more of a defensive mode,” says Schreiner. But, he insists, the Greens played a role in making sure it wasn’t worse.

If the two leaders’ debates on the campaign trail are any indication, Schreiner has honed his skills at holding Ford to task. Political strategist Kate Harrison says during the second and final debate May 16, Schreiner “did the best job of giving a contrast to Ford.” She singles out a heated exchange between the two regarding health care.

Ford had blamed the previous Liberal government for issues in the health system that became glaringly obvious — and deadly — during the COVID-19 pandemic and touted plans to build more hospitals, as Schreiner highlighted the government’s freezing of nurses’ wages at the height of the crisis.

“Have you talked to a nurse lately?” Schreiner asked. “Have you talked to a nurse about how disrespected they feel, how overworked and underpaid and underappreciated they are, how insulted they feel being called heroes and then essentially having their wages cut by having them frozen?”

That, says Harrison, was probably the best exchange of the night “in terms of putting Ford on his heels.” Schreiner’s question — “Have you talked to a nurse lately?” — became the stuff of headlines.

The Green leader also benefits from an amiability that continues to elude Ford’s other rivals, Del Duca and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

“Similar to Ford, there is a bit of a likability factor there,” she says.

After being relegated to campaigning from home due to COVID-19 last week, Schreiner is back on the campaign trail, making announcements, holding rallies and traversing the province in a bright-green electric vehicle. Polls show support for the Greens ticking upward to more than seven per cent.

With Ford running a strong lead in the polls heading into the election, it’s likely the Ontario Greens will spend another four years on the defensive. But they might just have another seat or two to do it.

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I have to admit that I’ve spilled a lot of ink begging Green voters to refrain from splitting riding votes in favour of candidates whose parties have the worst environmental records and policies, and to instead support their party by sending donations to select ridings where vote-splitting isn’t an issue, and by focusing on ridings where the party’s candidates have their best chances of actually winning—however many or few that kind of riding there are—or some combination of both criteria. And then, between elections, stay Greens, contribute to the parties’ growth, raise its profile, and develop green policy. It’s not a waste just because candidates don’t win seats: we’re gonna need those policies eventually—probably sooner than later.

I’ve been making this case since the BC Liberals almost wiped out the provincial NDP (the party I belong to) just over two decades ago, admittedly not so successfully at first—in both BC and federal elections—because many Green voters at the time apparently swallowed the partisan right’s rhetoric that one should always, always, vote one’s true preference and to never, ever vote tactically Because, otherwise, democracy and all that’s holy would be destroyed. Unfortunately, it became Green rhetoric too (believe me, I’ve been the subject of some strong vitriol from some Green voters for pointing that out, especially back in the early 2000s). But the facts speak for themselves— the vote counts, not arcane psephological philosophy or opinion: in many BC ridings (and across the country, as well, I think), vote-splitting between Greens and Dippers resulted in BC Liberal or federal CPC candidates winning their respective ridings—in other words, the worst choices, from an environmental point of view. I actually heard Greens offering the slogan: “I’m voting with my heart, not my head.” Seriously? Well, I guess the theory was that if the movement could increase its popular vote the party’s prospects would improve—but the reverse happened, at least for the first ten years of voting with Green hearts.

Not that I have any influence on federal Green election strategy, but it was probably mere coincidence of common sense that, in 2011, the first Green was elected to the HoC by way of concentrating effort on a single, BC riding where the party had polled its best, and then parachuting the highest-profile candidate, party leader Elizabeth May, into it for the win. By the time she won her first incumbency, the BC legislature had its first Green seat —pretty much by way of the same strategy—which expanded to three seats in 2017. In 2019, the federal Greens had three seats, too. The party was growing by focusing on winnable seats. And, very probably because of advocates like me, it appears many Green voters in unwinnable riding’s consciously refrained from splitting the votes —at least in BC provincial and federal ridings—and it probably contributed to terminating both the BC Liberals and the HarperCon federal government, reigning 16 and nine years, respectively—two of the most environmentally unfriendly parties in the land.

Green parties also figured electorally in a number of provinces across the country and, although champions of the proportional representation electoral system, won or nearly won the balance-of-power in three provinces (BC, PEI and almost in NB) by way of “First-Past-the-Post.” For me, born and raised in Ontario before moving out West, the most surprising Green win was last time in Guelph. If there’s a trend, maybe the Ontario Greens will pick up another seat or two in a few days.

Although doubtlessly frustrating for many Green voters, I think focusing their resources on winnable —and hopefully not splittable —ridings while voting tactically (to avoid splitting the non-right-wing vote) in unwinnable ridings has benefited the movement in tangible ways. Even though I’m a Dipper whose seen a not-insubstantial number of our supporters switch to the Greens, I do not wish the movement ill on partisan grounds: we have a number of quite similar environmental policies important to our respective members and supporters —and, most of all, we have a common set of environmental enemies. We have been able to cooperatively deprive them of power and start the long task of changing many old bad habits.

But—there’s always a “but”—we are not politically identical (if we were, we’d amalgamate): the NDP is overtly a workers’ party, many of our supporters being unionized resource workers in industries many Greens are perceived to be against. Moreover, there’s something about the Green movement that voters generally suspect—like, why, when the environment either ties with or tops the economy as voters’ primary political concern, has the Green movement failed to capitalize by winning more seats? We know that, sometimes, Green parties waylay themselves by publicly airing their usually ideological intestinal squabbles —but the NDP has also done that a few times. And certainly the federal Liberals did themselves in during the decade when the HarperCons won minorities or a single, final majority by default (and, by the same default, the NDP became both the Loyal Opposition and, for the first time, the most popular party in Canada—yet the Greens did not, or could not share in this partisan default situation). And who can deny the Canadian neo-right is tearing itself apart ideologically in many jurisdictions? So, given all parties (including those unique to Quebec) have been through these pointless embarrassments, the Greens again stand out—not for avoiding them (the last federal election saw a controversial leader lose her own seat over the ideological and, frankly, personal squabbles within the party), but for that same old question that’s so hard for ordinary voters to answer: why don’t the Greens do better when environmental issues are fast becoming more urgent than any other?

It sounds hard to believe, but the Greens seem to be suffering from some kind of identity ambiguity —other than the silly scrapes which show party apparatuses as immature or even foolish. Like, how can it be said that voters aren’t exactly sure what the Greens stand for in this day and age? Is it because the larger, well established NDP is better known and seen as largely the same in environmental terms (when, as I mentioned, it’s not always —or even mostly—the case)? Or is it because there’s a conservative-like free-enterprise ethos of opportunism perceived in some Greens by some observers. Or is it because we’ve become too polarized to trust a party which shares policy with both left and right?

Whatever it is, my prescription for the Greens is to hold to the course which has been growing the movement, if slowly, over the last decade: focus dear resources on the best prospects, avoid vote-splitting (that is, Greens should vote tactically for whatever party has the best chance of beating the least environmentally-friendly candidates in a riding), avoid politically suicidal internal schisms by sticking to their environmental knitting (the federal Greens were hoist upon their own petard in the last election by engaging with hot-button, non-environmental, social and philosophical controversies—in other countries, no less), and stay on script with environmental issues which voters easily understand and feel—like climate change and how it affects public safety and finances.

Ontario Green leader Schneider is well-spoken, focused properly, and a steady plodder, building the provincial party up on a solid basis, heavy on the practical aspects of raising funds, less heavy on the more esoteric aspects of global ecological change. Accepting Green policy is a learning curve for most Canadians, and some will never support it. But the curve should start turning more sharply upward eventually, thanks to Schneider’s—and other Green leaders’—steady hand. I wish his party in my old home province all the best. A few more seats tomorrow would be the best thing for the party and the movement (I don’t mind wishing that another Green-Dipper alliance could be won—like we had in BC in 2017–but that’s just me, a lifelong NDP voter).

Meanwhile, whether there are lots of Greens in Canadian parliaments or not, Greens have plenty to contribute in meeting the challenges all of us face.

Good luck.