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The rise and fall of the Green Party

As the federal election looms, the GPC are in freefall

Canadian Politics

Annamie Paul with Green Party of Canada supporters during the 2019 federal election held in downtown Toronto. Photo courtesy Annamie Paul/Wikimedia Commons.

The Green Party of Canada is imploding. In 2019, the Greens were a rising threat to the New Democratic Party and looked like they could even overtake it within a few election cycles. Now, after a series of bizarre and self-destructive decisions, as well as a further shift to the right, the GPC looks like it will be all but wiped out following the next federal election. Meanwhile, its decline poses an challenge for the NDP and those demanding climate action from electoral parties.

In 2019, everything seemed to be lining up for the Green Party’s move from a fringe party to a major electoral force. In the election that year, the GPC tripled its seats in parliament (moving from one seat to three while making a breakthrough in New Brunswick), and almost doubled its share of the popular vote, capturing 6.55 percent.

Much of the Greens’ progress came at the expense of the NDP. Paul Manly, the newly elected MP for Nanaimo–Ladysmith, originally sought the New Democratic nomination for the riding in 2015 but was blocked by the federal executive for past comments. In 2012, Manly’s father Jim, a former NDP MP, was illegally detained by the Israeli military. At the time, Manly publicly criticized the NDP for failing to speak out against Israel’s crimes and for not demanding his father’s release. Vetoed by the NDP brass, Manly ran for the Greens and later won the riding. The NDP’s loss was the Green’s gain.

Similarly, increased Green support meant that there were a handful of ridings that looked promising for the NDP—such as Burnaby South—but that ultimately went Liberal because of vote splitting.

More indirectly, the collapse of the NDP in much of the Maritimes contributed to a Green surge. In 2015, the NDP was outflanked on their left by Trudeau’s Liberals and lost 59 seats, dropping every seat in Atlantic Canada. The NDP failed to recover in 2019, losing an additional 15 seats (as well as several seats in by-elections in the lead-up), and finished with their worst result since 2004.

Provincially, Green parties have steadily overtaken the NDP in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, winning seats and even becoming the official opposition in provinces where the NDP has failed to elect an MLA in decades.

In the west, the NDP has seen decidedly mixed results. In the spring of 2019, Albertans voted out their first NDP government, reducing the party from 52 seats to 24, a distant second place. In power, Rachel Notley’s brand of pro-pipeline policies alienated NDP voters across the country (Notley went so far as to threaten to sabotage pharmacare if the feds didn’t build the Keystone XL pipeline). Her stance was seen by many to produce knock-on effects with voters elsewhere in the run-up to the October federal election.

Since then, the NDP-led minority government (now a majority) in British Columbia has overseen the approval of the Site C Dam, the RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory, the arrest of land defenders blocking the expansion of a fracked gas pipeline, and the recent logging of old-growth forests at Fairy Creek, revealing the failures of the New Democrats while in power and, at least theoretically, opening up space for the Greens to capitalize.

All of these factors, along with an increased demand for real climate action from voters, led many to predict that the Greens would soon eclipse the NDP. Now, that prediction seems shakier than ever.

So, what happened?

Signs for the Green Party line a road in advance of the 2011 federal election. Photo by Roberto M Machado Noa.

Following the 2019 election, Elizabeth May announced she was stepping down as GPC leader after more than 15 years at the helm. The leadership race captured national attention and interest, with over 15,000 new members joining, almost doubling the party’s membership base.

Tens of thousands of progressive Canadians joined to support Dimitri Lascaris and Meryam Haddad, two avowed eco-socialist candidates who ran on bold Green New Deal policies, aggressive taxes on the wealthy, massive reforms to increase union membership, and in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Both Lascaris and Haddad were briefly disqualified from the race and faced sabotage from within the party establishment. Much to the surprise of many observers, Lascaris finished a very close second on the eighth ballot and with 42 percent of the vote. He lost to Annamie Paul, May’s preferred successor and the clear establishment favourite.

This produced a sharp contrast. Where Lascaris was an outspoken champion of eco-socialism and anti-imperialism, by comparison, Paul held more centrist positions—when she spoke about them at all. During debates, Paul often shied away from explicit policy discussion, speaking instead in vague terms about values and the ‘democratic deficit.’ Often, she passed on questions or expressed no opinion.

That difference is most striking on foreign policy. Paul refused to condemn the 2020 anti-Indigenous coup in Bolivia. Then, in May 2021, when Israel attacked Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Paul remained silent for days. She eventually released a statement that took a both-sides approach and called for “a de-escalation in violence,” but without saying who or what was at the root of the hostilities.

Her statement actually contradicted official Green Party policy which repeatedly calls for pressure (including explicit support for BDS) to be brought to bear on Israel to comply with international law. Fredericton Green MP Jenica Atwin criticized the statement on Twitter, saying “I Stand with Palestine! There are no two sides to the conflict, only human rights abuses! #EndApartheid.”

A few days later, Paul’s Senior Adviser, Noah Zatzman, accused Atwin and Lascaris of anti-Semitism and pledged to “work to defeat [them].” Paul then refused to condemn Zatzman’s comments. Eventually, weeks later, the Green Party executive voted not to renew his contract. By then though, Atwin was already on her way out the door.

On June 10, Atwin announced she was crossing the floor to join the Liberal Party. While Atwin’s move smacks of hypocrisy (she has since deleted tweets about Palestine and taken back her comments), it shows that the party is in complete disarray.

Losing a third of its MPs and possibly future momentum in Atlantic Canada, and facing an ugly scandal unfolding in the national media, the GPC federal council held an emergency meeting to vote on removing Paul as leader. Instead, they opted to ask Paul to publicly repudiate Zatzman. Failing to do so would trigger a non-confidence vote.

In response, Paul publicly blasted council members who tried to remove her, calling out allegedly racist and sexist accusations against her. She then threatened to sue the party if it went ahead with the non-confidence vote. The party seems to have acquiesced and withdrawn the ultimatum.

Meanwhile, confidence in the party continues to waiver as documents and recordings surface alleging Paul refused to talk to Atwin for weeks and barred former leadership candidate Judy Green from running for the party. A number of local ridings association have also considered disaffiliating from the Greens.

As the federal election looms, it looks as though the GPC are in freefall. Without a good showing, it is almost certain that Paul will be voted out of her role during the next leadership review.

If that happens, the future of the Greens is up in the air. Two distinct possibilities stand out: Lascaris could run for leader again and try to recover lost momentum, while pulling in disaffected NDPers and non-voters with the bold eco-socialist policies many Canadians are hungry for.

Or, the NDP, perhaps with a change in leadership, could embrace a similar vision and overtake the Greens as the only choice for climate action, pulling in many new voters and former Green supporters. Only time will tell.

James Hutt is a labour organizer and digital campaign strategist. He is also the Climate Justice columnist for Our Times Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JamesRHutt

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