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.
“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.”
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.