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Can the federal Green Party reshape Canadian left politics?

There has always been a gap between how the Green Party of Canada is framed by the media and how it’s perceived on the left

Canadian Politics

The Green Party has always been a mix of conflicting politics and their statement on their own political place on the left-right continuum often reinforces this understanding. Photo courtesy of the Green Party of Canada.

There has always been a gap between how the Green Party of Canada is framed by the mainstream media and how it’s perceived on the left. The media consistently frames both federal and provincial Green parties as left-wing. Leftists know that it is a far more complicated story.

Although founded in 1983, it wasn’t until 2011 that the Greens would secure their first seat in Parliament when leader Elizabeth May won in her riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands. It is partly May’s previous political role as an environmental advisor to the Progressive Conservative government from 1986-1988 that leads many on the left to refer to Greens as “Conservatives who recycle.”

The Green Party has always been a mix of conflicting politics and their statement on their own political place on the left-right continuum often reinforces this understanding. The party stated in 2019 that “the whole idea of a left-right dichotomy is something of an anachronism.” Their statement goes on to argue that,

Regardless of perceived placement on a tired political spectrum, Greens appeal to those who have traditionally voted conservative, those who used to vote NDP and those who used to vote Liberal. Our largest potential pool of new voters may be those who have stopped voting altogether. While the common political discourse still categorizes parties of the ‘left’ or the ‘right’, Greens believe we have more in common once we reject those labels.

Despite belonging to a party that claims to be above labels, the current Green Party leadership contest features two candidates—Meryam Haddad and Dimitri Lascaris—who clearly identify as eco-socialists and, with a ranked ballot, they have a real potential to become the next leader of the party. Another candidate, Dr. Amitta Kuttner, has released a platform that can reasonably be called a left platform but has not identified themselves as a socialist.

According to his candidate bio on the Green Party website, Dimitri Lascaris is an ex-corporate litigator who became a force for good as a securities class action lawyer and “led a team that has recovered more than $450 million from corporations and executives engaged in illegal financial practices, human rights abuses, and environmental destruction.” In his interview with Canadian Dimension, Lascaris made it clear he is an eco-socialist. Most recently, he has been a board member on the Unity Project for the Relief of Homelessness as well as Pro Bono Ontario and has been the Justice Critic in the Green Party’s Shadow Cabinet.

Meryam Haddad is straightforward about being a socialist. Her candidate bio states that she was born in Syria and immigrated to Canada in 1993. She is also a lawyer with a degree from the University of Ottawa in 2012 and was accepted as a member of the Quebec Bar in 2013. One of Haddad’s campaign posters sums her up in her own words. In an answer to the question, “What makes you different from other politicians?” she displayed her honesty: “I’m a woman of colour. I’m 32-years-old. I’m a lesbian. I’m an immigrant. I’m a socialist. Everything about me is different.” During the last federal election, Haddad was a candidate for the Green Party in the riding of Châteauguay—Lacolle. She has also been a member of the Shadow Cabinet as Immigration Critic since 2019.

Even with two socialist candidates in the running, the composition of the rest of the field bears out claims of ideological heterogeneity. Former Winnipeg mayor, Ontario Liberal MPP and provincial cabinet minister Glen Murray is clearly a centrist candidate, as is candidate Andrew West who self identifies as a moderate and has said he would like to bring more conservatives into the party. The CBC recently quoted West as stating that “he wants the party to remain in the centre.” West has also said he “would court Liberal and NDP voters while continuing to pursue socially progressive ideals and fiscally conservative policies.” The rest of field ranges from social democratic to left liberal.

Why, then, should socialists, democratic socialists, or any manner of leftists, concern themselves with the federal Green Party at all? In an increasingly fractured extra-parliamentary political landscape that relies on social movement groups and labour unions to advocate for the left, the parliamentary field has been abandoned to pro-capitalist parties. A socialist Green Party leader could be the rallying point that we need on the left. It is possible that the party’s leftward shift could be a building block to start creating a viable federal party that seeks alternatives to capitalist exploitation of both labour and the environment.

Some would argue that this party already exists in the form of the NDP but all existing evidence suggests this is simply wishful thinking on the part of its members. Hope is important in any political movement but so is some manner of strategic awareness. The federal and provincial NDP have consistently shown a desire to govern from the centre and adopt pro-capitalist positions when in power provincially. While there are socialists in the party, the NDP is demonstrably not a socialist party. Nor is the Green Party at present. However, this leadership contest could represent a way to change this course.

A leadership race for the Greens is a rare occurrence. The party not had a leadership contest since 2006 when Elizabeth May was selected. With May stepping down in November of last year it opened up a race that has the potential to represent a positive turn for the future of socialist politics in Canada over the next decade. However, the Greens, even with a socialist leader, would have to battle the perceived middle class bias of green parties and environmental groups. At times, the professional managerial class base of mainstream environmentalism is incompatible with working-class alliances. Greens in Canada have largely failed to articulate any alternative to capitalism, and, as US historian Eric Loomis points out, “a green energy capitalist is still a capitalist and desires to limit labor costs to increase profit.”

There are many obstacles in the way of having a truly united left Green Party—not least of which is that the two groups best positioned to question the logic of capitalism and the exploitation of labour and resources, workers and environmentalists, are often not aware enough of their own history to see that they have more in common than apart. Capital and the state have deliberately cultivated the divide between workers and environmentalists for their benefit. This is essentially how hegemony operates. But a fundamental truth remains: these visions are unlikely to be realized without a revolutionary change in the dominant political and economic structures. A socialist at the helm of the federal Green Party would represent the potential for a serious paradigm shift. There are many roadblocks, both literal and metaphorical, to creating a public discourse around working class environmentalism. However, without socialist leaders it is hard for any party to truly chart a socialist course.

Of course, at this point a socialist Green Party leader is still just a dream. The structure of the federal Green leadership race is a multi-part system. All of the nine current leadership candidates have successfully garnered 100 nominations from existing party members that had to include at least 20 youth members. The last stage in order to be put on the leadership ballot is to have an additional 150 members nominate the candidate and that has to include at least 20 members living in five of six regions: the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia and the North. None of the 150 can have been from the original 100 nominators (you can read the full rules here).

Some candidates have already done this, but others, including Meryam Haddad—at the time of writing—have not yet secured the 150 additional nominations. It is not too late to support a candidate, and a member may nominate more than one leadership contestant. To vote you must be a member in good standing and memberships can be purchased for $10 up until September 3 at 11:59 to be eligible to vote for the leader. The deadline to nominate a candidate is September 1. Members 14 years of age and above are eligible to vote.

The election of the new federal Green Party leader will use a one-member, one-vote system with a preferential ballot. To become a voting member, you must register by September 3. On September 26, online voting opens (it closes on October 3).

Only time, and the membership, will tell if the federal Green Party will do what no Canadian party currently holding seats in Parliament has done in the twenty-first century—elect a socialist leader.

John-Henry Harter lectures in History and Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University. He writes on issues of class, the environment, and the politics of popular culture, when not consuming too much coffee and TV. Follow him on Twitter @JohnHenryHarter.


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