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Dimitri Lascaris wants the Green Party to be the champion of Canada’s left

Canadian Politics

Dimitri Lascaris, a long-time activist, author and former class-action lawyer is running to be the next leader of the Green Party of Canada. Photo by Vadim Daniel.

During last year’s federal election, the Green Party of Canada had its best performance ever. The party more than doubled its national vote count from 2015 (6.4 percent), added a new MP to its ranks, and fought to position climate change as the top-of-mind issue in Canadian political discourse.

Still, the Greens ultimately failed to sharpen their message and establish a firm foothold in the House of Commons. Several key issues served to derail the party’s prospects for broader appeal, and despite some late-campaign momentum that had many expecting a third-place finish, it ended up without any real leverage in a minority parliament.

Elizabeth May got bogged down in questions about her—and by extension, the party’s—official position on abortion, while Pierre Nantel, a high-profile candidate who quit the NDP to run for the Greens in a Montreal-area riding, courted controversy for doubling down on his sovereignist views.

Above all, however, it was the Green’s failure to distinguish itself as a bold progressive faction (on issues other than the environment) that proved its downfall. How could a party that ran with an unsophisticated and wide-eyed slogan of “Not Left. Not Right. Forward” break through to disgruntled voters on either side of the political spectrum?

Strangely, despite promising progressive policy measures including free tuition, cancellation of student debt, pharmacare and a “guaranteed liveable income,” the party’s now former leader concluded that, from the point of view of the Greens, “the whole idea of a left-right dichotomy is something of an anachronism.”

The Greens now find themselves again at a crossroads. May stepped down in November after 13 years at the helm, and the party’s leadership convention is slated to take place in Charlottetown in early October (if COVID-19 doesn’t move the date).

So far, there are six candidates vying to replace May: Annamie Paul, a lawyer and international affairs specialist from Toronto; Alex Tyrrell, the leader of the Green party in Quebec; Amita Kuttner of Burnaby, who holds a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics; David Merner, a lawyer, public servant and former Green Party candidate for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke in 2019; Judy Green, a grandmother from Nova Scotia who has held positions with the Canadian Forces; and Dimitri Lascaris, a lawyer who ran for the Greens in London in 2015, and served as a shadow cabinet minister without holding a seat in the House of Commons.

Lascaris, a long-time activist, author and class-action lawyer who focuses on human rights and environmental law, should be known to many on the left. He is a board member of the Real News Network, a progressive outlet founded by Paul Jay and based in Baltimore and Toronto, and has spent many years campaigning for the rights of Palestinians, even leading a push within the Green Party to support elements of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

Lascaris is not only an effective and articulate activist, he’s an accomplished writer and lawyer to boot. He was named one of the 25 most influential lawyers by Canadian Lawyer Magazine in 2012. The following year, Canadian Business Magazine included him as one of the 50 most influential people in Canadian business, describing him as the “fiercest legal advocate for shareholder rights.” Four years ago, Lascaris ended his law career and committed himself full-time to work as an activist and writer on issues ranging from climate change to Canadian foreign policy.

Lascaris is intent to push the Green Party to the left, and to dispense with the notion that ideological camps on the right or the left have lost their meaning. Above all, though, he wants to give progressives a place to stake their long-term future, and give the majority of Canadians who hold progressive views a real voice in parliament.

Canadian Dimension spoke with Lascaris on Saturday, April 11.


Harrison Samphir: Right off the top: what do you think of how the Liberals have handled the pandemic so far?

Dimitri Lascaris: If you look at what we are doing as a snapshot of the current world in which we live, I’d say from a public health perspective we’re doing a pretty good job. The Liberals have taken limited resources during an unprecedented public health crisis and managed, primarily through strong spatial distancing measures, to keep the infection rate and the mortality rate down. If you compare us, for example, to our neighbours south of the border, and adjusting for population size, Canada has fared much better in terms of apparent infections and deaths. But we should also acknowledge that the risk of a pandemic has been known for years, and in my view there’s no excuse for the fact that a wealthy country like Canada does not have adequate quantities of protective equipment to deal with a crisis of this nature.

We don’t have an adequate supply of masks for frontline healthcare workers, and we don’t have a well thought-out plan to increase the hospitalization capacity in this country. There will come a time when we will have to analyze all of that, and ask ourselves the hard question about how much of this should have been anticipated and prepared for from a public health perspective, and I think that’s a discussion that must be had in order to avoid something like this happening again in the future. But I think right now, considering the resources available to the government, it’s done a pretty good job. From an economic perspective, I think its performance has been much less satisfactory.

HS: Let’s get into that. In your view, how have the government’s economic response measures fallen short?

DL: Well, my primary criticism is that there are millions of Canadians who are not covered by the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). I have been advocating very strongly for making the CERB available to every single Canadian, and we shouldn’t have criteria which unfairly exclude any vulnerable citizen. These things should be universally available. I also think this type of income support should be permanent, that we should have a guaranteed basic income. There’s really no excuse for us not to have one. And I think the government has not dealt adequately with the question of rent for small businesses, and particularly residential renters.

I’ve been calling for months for a minimum three-month rent holiday, applicable to large landlords. We should also have an interest holiday in this country—and this is perhaps my biggest criticisms of the government. We have wildly profitable banks in Canada. They have been making money hand over fist, and they received support during the last financial crisis in various forms. There’s absolutely no reason why the government should not be mandating, through legislation, a minimum of a three-month interest holiday so that Canadians don’t have to pay any interest (and I’m talking about the forgiveness of interest, not deferment) on mortgage loans, consumer loans, credit card balances and student debt. It should be three months to begin with, and it can be revisited later. Up until now, the government has been saying that it’s been asking the banks to be nice to Canadians. You know, banks aren’t in the habit of being nice, frankly, to their customers—their primary and overwhelming objective is to make money, as much of it is possible, and enrich the executives and the shareholders, and they have proven this over a period of decades. Banks aren’t going to play nice. They have to be obliged, as a legal matter, to give Canadians who are desperately in need of relief from interest, the necessary help.

HS: Following up on that, how do you feel the opposition parties, notably the NDP, have responded? Has their response been adequate to hold the government to account during this time, and push for some of the economic measures you mentioned?

DL: I think overall the opposition parties have performed reasonably well, and my comment doesn’t simply apply to the NDP. It’s very difficult for opposition parties in the current climate to be critical, and I understand that, because there’s a natural tendency on the part of the citizenry to come together and look for unity from their leaders during a public health emergency. So the pandemic presents a difficult environment for any party to be critical, and I think you have to measure your words carefully. On the whole, however, I think the opposition parties collectively have done a reasonably good job in these trying circumstances.

One thing that I was very pleased to see was that the Green Party of Canada leadership, along with other opposition parties, strenuously opposed what was a vast overreach by the Trudeau government during the first economic aid legislation, where the Liberals were looking for parliament’s blessing for them to make—without virtually any oversight—taxing and spending decision for a period of two years. Opposition parties fought that, and the Liberals were forced to retreat, but it was a fight well worth having, and I was encouraged to see that the Green Party and other parties were willing to step up to the plate.

HS: Let’s turn to the Green Party itself. Why do you want to be its next leader?

DL: I first started thinking about this in November of last year, and did not make up my mind until the middle of February. So I took a good three months, and I consulted with dozens of people around the country whom I respect and who have similar values to my own. Some of those people are traditional supporters of the Green Party, some are traditional supporters of the NDP, some are further to the left of both parties, and some are independents. One of the things that I heard and that I learned during that process was the immense frustration progressive Canadians feel about the fact that they’re not really represented in parliament. And I think that’s true. It’s a view I’ve held myself for years, and I’ve been quite vocal about it. The NDP, which has never really been a radical party, certainly not in my lifetime—although it was further to the left for some years when I was growing up—moved very much to the centre under Tom Mulcair. I think Jagmeet Singh’s leadership has been slightly more progressive than Mulcair, but fundamentally, Singh has left the party firmly ensconced in the centre of the political spectrum.

The Green Party of Canada has explicitly positioned itself as a centrist party for the last ten or more years, going all the way back to the Jim Harris era. In fact, the Green Party’s slogan for the campaign during the 2019 election was: “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.” So there was an explicit effort by the party leadership to disassociate itself from the left. And so you have a stunning situation in parliament, despite an incredible number of people in this country who lean in a progressive direction, where there isn’t a single leader who truly represents the left. I think this is an opportunity for us to change that, and for us to give a voice to the millions of Canadians who feel they’re underrepresented in parliament, and begin to demand far more bold measures in terms of dealing with social injustice, improving our appalling foreign policy—which in virtually every way mimics that of the United States—and ending our systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups including black Canadians.

We also need to deal with the question of militarism, and our extreme levels of defence spending. I think we should be having a debate about our membership in NATO—I think we should get out, and I’ve been very clear about that. I think a lot of Canadians feel that way and nobody is advocating for it, nobody will even discuss these things in parliament. When is the last time you heard a parliamentary debate about whether or not Canada should be in NATO? We can’t even talk about these issues in the current political environment, and I think that has to change.

The Green Party of Canada’s slogan for the October 2019 general election: “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”

HS: Many Canadians may have a particular perception of what the Green Party is and what it stands for. Globally, at least, ‘Green parties’ could be described as a floating signifier—there is no agreed upon recognition of what values and policies they uphold or represent. So how do you go about convincing Canadians that the Green Party really is a left wing party?

DL: Well, perceptions are very interesting. I did a long interview on the Craig Needles Show in London about a week ago, and towards the end of the conversation, during which I said many of the same things I’ve said to you, Craig said “So you want to move the Green Party even further to the left?” He found that to be quite remarkable, you know, because he and a number of other people in the media landscape and on the right of the political spectrum already believe that the Green Party is a left wing party. I think there’s some truth to that—the party has long been a champion of universal basic income (UBI), taken bold positions on climate change, and is a big proponent of pharmacare. It’s also arguably the most vigorous defender of Indigenous rights in parliament, and by a significant margin. So if you compare the Green Party to the impoverished standards of politics in Canada today, I think you could fairly describe it, despite what the leadership may say, as a moderately left wing party.

But I think we can do much better, both in delivering our message and improving the content of our message. So for example, one thing that matters a great deal to me is inequality in this country. The Green Party of Canada did not advocate in the last election, and has tended to avoid advocating for sharp increases in the top marginal tax rate. For much of the post-World War II period—and this is rarely talked about by media personalities in this country, or by the business community—the top marginal tax rate in Canada and the United States, hardly a socialist country, was in excess of 90 percent, and for an even longer period it was in excess of 70 percent. Why isn’t anyone advocating for a minimum of a 70 percent top marginal tax rate, when we have exploding inequality in this country and fewer than 90 of the richest families owning as much wealth as three provinces combined, while tens of thousands live on the streets and millions live in poverty, including many children? So the party has not advocated for increases in the top marginal tax rate, and I think it should.

The party also has not been a vigorous defender of organized labour, and I’ve even heard some people say, people on the left who care deeply about the rights of workers, that the Green Party leadership is anti-labour. So I think we should be advocating for a series of reforms to defend the rights of organized labour in Canada, and we should be advocating for a much higher minimum wage in this country. There are a whole range of things that we should be talking about and we should be leading on that relate to the whole question of inequality and social justice. We should be talking about housing being a human right. There should not be one single Canadian who is homeless. There should be not one single Canadian living in poverty. We have the wealth as a county to ensure that that is possible.

So I think the party has put a lot of eggs into the environmental basket, and I certainly intend, if I am elected leader, to continue to be a tireless defender of the environment and a tireless advocate for the resolution of the climate emergency. But I think we need to broaden our scope and also talk about inequality and social injustice. That is, after all, one of our core values, it’s just not one that’s talked about a lot. Of the six core values we have, one of them is social justice. Another one is non-violence. So why as a party are we not advocating for a drastic decrease in military spending? That’s something we didn’t do in the last election. That’s something I would favour, and I’d even start a conversation about the complete demilitarization of this country. Why do we even have a standing army? These are important conversations I think we should be having.

HS: Would you describe yourself as an eco-socialist?

DL: I would, yes. But I’ve had a very interesting series of discussions ever since the press learned that I was thinking about running back in December. I was asked this question at the very outset, and I answered it honestly: I am an eco-socialist and I am proud to be one. But a significant percentage of the people within the Green Party expressed to me the view that highlighting that fact, and emphasizing that label of eco-socialist, may scare away a lot of voters. I don’t necessarily accept that, but I do think there is a lot of misunderstanding in Canada about what socialism is, and so what I’ve decided to do, when a journalist such as yourself asks me that question, I’m going to answer it honestly. But at the same time, I’m not going to lead with my eco-socialism, because I think that may engender some misunderstanding among those who don’t have quite a good handle on what that means. I’m going to lead with specific policies. And I think if you look at the sum total of the policies I’m advocating for, it absolutely is eco-socialism, but why not explain to people the policies first, and then they’ll understand what you mean when you respond to the question affirmatively and say Yes, I am an eco-socialist.

HS: Under your leadership, what will the Green Party do to foster a healthier relationship with the natural world, to fight climate change, and halt biodiversity loss?

Over 330,000 orphan wells in Alberta either need to be cleaned up right now or in the coming years. Photo courtesy of The Leap.

DL: At the top of the list is the need to phase out the fossil fuel industry, because it is wrecking the planet. There are no two ways about it. Right off the bat, we need to end all forms of fossil fuel subsidies. I think we need to substantially increase the carbon tax. I think we need to ban outright any new exploration for oil and gas; ban the construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure. I think we need to demand of the fossil fuel industry that it begin to pay for the massive expensive cleanup that we’re going to have to engage in as Canadians, in Alberta and elsewhere. We’re looking at a cleanup bill for orphan wells and tar sands tailing ponds in the range of $250 billion, and that may be a conservative estimate. The Alberta Energy Regulator has been completely captured by the oil industry, and has collected around $2 billion in liability security from the oil industry. That’s absolutely unacceptable. These companies are going to be long gone by the time the bill has to be paid, unless we get appropriate amounts of security. And if we do that, and if we also help to fund it from a provincial and federal level, what we can create in the province of Alberta is what Regan Boychuk, one of the leading activists in this area, has called a reclamation boom.

We could have a jobs boom in Alberta, just through funding the inevitable and absolutely indispensable cleanup of orphan wells and tar sands tailing ponds. Those are things we absolutely have to do right away. And all of that is not simply going to help us reduce the threat of climate change, it is also going to help us have a healthier natural environment. There are massive amounts of fresh water being contaminated every day by the oil and gas industry. The soil and air are being infected with carcinogens and toxins. So we’re not only going to address the climate emergency by phasing out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible and by engaging in a massive reclamation project, but we’re also going to improve the quality of our air, our water and our soil. That will improve the health of the entire natural world. So to me, that’s at the top of the list for restoring the health of our society.

HS: You just touched on this, but how will the Green Party help to achieve the goal of restoring or protecting 30 percent of land and freshwater by 2030, a promise that has been made by the Liberal government?

DL: Well I think we absolutely have to expand the protected areas in this country. It’s a difficult discussion to have, becuase North American society in general has grown very accustomed to having a meat-based diet. I think we need to be talking about the necessity of moving away from this dependency. Even if people are unwilling to give up meat altogether, they can certainly reduce substantially their consumption. This will enable us to commit less arable land to livestock. If we can reduce that reliance, we can restore a lot of the land that’s currently being used as pasture and farmland to a forested state, which will also help us to deal with the climate emergency and enhance biodiversity. So I think we need to be having a much more assertive conversation about the need to alter our diet as Canadians, and that’s something that many political parties, and indeed the environmental movement has been shy about.

HS: Under your leadership, will the Green Party be willing to impose stricter regulations on the natural resources sector, contrary to the current practice of industry self-regulation?

One thing I learned during my career as a class action lawyer is that self-regulation is an oxymoron. It’s a contradiction in terms. There’s no such thing as self-regulation. We’ve been hearing for years that it was under the Stephen Harper government and the Trudeau government, this concept of voluntary corporate social responsibility for Canada’s mining sector. The proof is in the pudding. This concept, which successive governments have relied upon, to “regulate” the mining industry, particularly in their foreign operations, has been completely ineffective. The mining industry continues to contribute to environmental degradation, and it continues to engage in human rights violations around the world. The only way to regulate any for-profit industry effectively is by having independent regulators who are highly trained. We need to shut the revolving door between regulators and industry, and we have to give regulators the enforcement power and resources necessary to ensure compliance. So I have a dramatically different vision of what regulation ought to look like than that of the other parties.

HS: Let’s shift now to foreign policy. You have been a longtime critic of Canadian foreign policy, in particular the longstanding support by both the Liberals and Conservatives for Israel, at the expense of Palestinian lives and self-determination. Do you endorse BDS. If so, why?

DL: Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May went to the West Bank in 2018 with other parliamentarians, and was given a view of the West Bank and the occupation which few parliamentarians, particularly Liberals and Conservatives have ever had, because they’re not interested in hearing from Palestinian voices, they just don’t care. And when Elizabeth May came back, she said that what is being done to the Palestinians in the West Bank is far worse than apartheid in South Africa. Now this is not just May’s view. This is my view. I’ve been to the West Bank four times over the course of 25 years, and I’ve seen the degradation of the living conditions and the rights of the Palestinians living under occupation. This is the view of Noam Chomsky, one of the most respected public intellectuals in the world today. This is the view of John Dugard, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur to the commission on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967”. He’s a South African human rights lawyer. There are many people who have come to understand that was is happening in the Occupied Territories is in fact far worse than apartheid.

Lascaris walks through the commercial centre of Hebron in the southern West Bank, carrying a videocamera and an iPhone. Photo by Palestinian-Canadian artist Rehab Nazzal.

I will go as far as to say that if you lavish praise on the regime of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government, despite its heinous crimes, you are not fit to hold political office. End of story. It is an affront to human rights that one could call themselves a proponent of the rules-based international order even as you are lavishing support and praise on a regime that is implementing policies that are far worse than apartheid in South Africa.

Our government is deeply complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people. We confer trade benefits on Israel. We vote in favour of Israel repeatedly, with a very small group of countries at the United Nations. We trade in arms with the state of Israel. We are developing artificial intelligence with Israel. Our leaders are constantly misleading Canadians about the true nature of the government of the state of Israel. So we have played a tragic and appalling role in the suffering of the Palestinian people, and we as Canadians have an obligation to make things rights, because of the complicity of our government. That is something I will always remain committed to.

What I’m saying is very simple: that we treat Israel the way we do any other violator of human rights, by imposing sanctions and restrictions on trade. I think that’s a very simple message that no conscientious Canadian should disagree with.

HS: How about Canada’s relationship with the United States? The Trudeau government has been very cooperative with the Trump administration, helping to sign the new NAFTA. I’d like you to talk about some of the false promises of free trade agreements and how the Green Party would approach the issue of globalization more broadly.

DL: If I was in a position of leadership, the first thing I would do is demand a renegotiation of NAFTA. Several things, amongst others, would need to be incorporated in the agreement for me, as leader of the party or leader of the government, to support it. The first thing we’d need to do is to get rid of investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms which allow corporations to sue governments for potentially massive sums whenever they threaten their profits in the public interest. I would make this a prerequisite for any trade agreement that Canada has. The countries with which we enter into these agreements must agree to have minimum levels of protections for workers, they have to have minimum levels of protection for the environment, and they need to have minimum levels of protection for human rights. Those would have to be embodies explicitly in any trade agreement our country signs on to, and there would have to be an enforcement mechanism attached, so that we would have the ability to impose tariffs or other protective measures in the event a government with which we’ve entered into a trade agreement does not respect its commitment to workers rights, human rights, and the environment. That would be absolutely essential.

I’ve been saying for years that successive governments have made our economy increasingly reliant upon the United States. And I think the chickens are coming home to roost, perhaps in a very big way. The Trump administration is doing a terrible job of handling the current public health crisis, and it is doing an atrocious job of handling the economic fallout. We are so tied to the United States economically, we are so interdependent, that even if our government succeeds in managing the COVID-19 pandemic from a public health and economic standpoint, we could be dragged down with the US economy. We could suffer tremendously due to this interdependence.

Our industry should be much more local, and our imports and exports should be much more diversified. We should be developing home-grown industries. We saw a little bit of this in Trudeau’s response to the pandemic, when he announced his government was going to give millions of dollars of funding to Canadian-based pharmaceutical companies to help them come up with a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19. This is something we should have been doing decades ago. We should have been investing in local industry, so that we’re not so heavily reliant upon the US, and particularly an administration led by Donald Trump. So we’re not truly independent, and that’s reflected in both our trade and foreign policy.

HS: How would your winning of the Green Party leadership affect the left in Canada?

DL: My primary concern is to win the hearts and minds of the traditional base of the Green Party of Canada. But the question has arisen, how are going to grow the party? So showing the NDP base that we are serious about defending the values that they hold dear is one way to do that. There are also millions of Canadians who do not vote. Last year, almost eight million eligible voters, in a country of 37 million people, did not even bother to vote. I’m troubled by people who don’t vote, but they have legitimate grievances. They say the electoral system has abandoned them, and that it’s a farce. They think they are legitimizing a broken system by casting a vote. There are millions of Canadians who feel the government has abandoned them and doesn’t care about them, and they are overwhelmingly marginalized folks. So that’s a huge potential source of support.

There’s also a left wing of the Liberal Party. I don’t think it controls the party, but it’s there, and it is very concerned with Trudeau’s failure to address the climate crisis, and I think that’s another potential source of support. So there are a lot of ways we can grow this party, and in order for us to do that, we need to demonstrate to those groups I just mentioned, that we’re the true voice of the left, we’re the true voice of equality, social justice and peace, and that the rest of the parties are pretenders. These folks who pretend to be serious about social justice, inequality, demilitarization and peace, we need to call them out, and we need to be better than them. I think we can grow this party dramatically if we can accomplish that.

HS: Finally, what would you say to left organizations like the Courage Coalition and Democratic Socialists of Canada?

DL: I’d say to them that, first of all, this is your chance to make a difference. Get involved in this race. There are going to be forces, forces of the status quo, neoliberals, people who advocate for regimes that I’ve been very critical of, that are going to oppose my leadership bid, and they’ve already started to do that. If the Courage Coalition, for example, is serious about seeing the rise of the left in electoral politics, when a candidate like me comes along—and not just me, anyone who says the things that I do and has an established record of saying them—we need to see those organizations get behind them. I need their support if I’m going to win this race. I need to the left to be unified behind me. If they do that, I promise one thing to them all: I will never betray my values. I would rather lose political office honourably and ethically than win it dishonourably and unethically. It doesn’t matter that much to me to be in power. I view power as a means to an end. And that is to make the world a more just and sustainable and peaceful place. If I can’t do that by being an elected official, then I have no interest in being one.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.

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