Politics

Annamie Paul's Greens can turn page on party turmoil with a few more seats, analysts say

For Greens, winning even a handful of new seats this September in the wake of damaging internal party struggles would be a historic achievement.

Paul says she's looking to move beyond ‘distractions’

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul attends a press briefing in Toronto on Monday, July 19, 2021. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
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Last month, as speculation about an early federal election call was building, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul told the world that she was ready for the fight.

Speaking to reporters in Toronto about internal threats to both her leadership and party membership — an internal conflict that has involved one cancelled non-confidence vote and legal battles costing the party badly-needed cash — Paul said that she had thought many times about packing it in.

"It should not be this difficult for people of good will, people with experience, to offer it in service of their country," she said. "There are too many good people that have found it impossible and I simply didn't want to be one of them."

Days later, she opened a campaign office in her home riding of Toronto Centre — a Liberal fortress where she finished second to Liberal Marci Ien in a byelection last October.

Court documents revealed Paul moved in July to stop the party from holding a confidence vote on her leadership and reviewing her membership. An arbitrator quashed an effort by what Paul said was a "small group" of people within the party to force her to give up the reins. She will still face an automatic leadership review after the election.

"I am not going to be distracted any further from the work that has to be done," she said.

The question remains whether the "distractions" of recent months will keep Paul's party from electing more Green MPs.

For Greens, winning even a handful of new seats this September would be a historic achievement. The three seats won in 2019 represented the party's best result.

Which explains why losing just one of those seats — when Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin crossed the floor to the Liberals in June — stung so deeply. Atwin's victory in 2019 gave the party a federal beachhead in Atlantic Canada, where Greens have been elected provincially in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin left the federal Green Party to sit as a Liberal. (Guy LeBlanc/Radio-Canada)

Atwin split with Paul in the spring after criticizing as "totally inadequate" Paul's statement calling for a de-escalation of violence in the Middle East. In comments she would later walk back, Atwin accused Israel of pursuing a policy of "apartheid."

Paul's political adviser at the time, Noah Zatzman, took to Facebook in May to accuse politicians — including unnamed Green MPs — of displaying antisemitism. He wrote: "We will work to defeat you and bring in progressive climate champions who are antifa and pro LGBT and pro indigenous sovereignty and Zionists!!!!!"

Though the party's federal council demanded that Paul publicly repudiate Zatzman's comments, she did not do so. Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May told The Tyee the decision not to immediately reprimand and remove Zatzman spurred Atwin's defection.

"It was deeply unacceptable. That's why we lost Jenica," May said.

Nicole O'Byrne, the Green candidate in Fredericton working to recapture the seat, said she is not at all "worried" about the bad headlines that have rocked Greens this summer.

Strong local campaigns, not internal party drama, will decide how successful Greens are this time, she said.

UNB law professor Nicole O'Byrne is looking to take back for the Greens the Fredericton riding lost when former Green MP Jenica Atwin joined the Liberals. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"I'm not running to be part of the party apparatus," she said. "I'm running to be a member of Parliament for Fredericton to represent the views and the values of the constituents here."

O'Byrne, a lawyer and professor at the University of New Brunswick, told CBC she feels her campaign has momentum in Fredericton, where people are "used to voting Green." David Coon, leader of the provincial Green Party in New Brunswick, won elections in the city in 2014, 2018 and 2020.

"They are looking at the challenges ahead, of which climate change is number one, and they're looking for a party with a different approach to those issues," O'Byrne said. "And in Fredericton, that manifests as a Green vote."

O'Byrne said she is confident that Paul can express a vision for tackling the climate emergency along with Indigenous reconciliation, criminal justice reform and a housing crisis she said has now hit her province.

The pandemic, she said, has voters thinking differently about problems that once seemed insurmountable. She said she believes that could drive those most concerned about climate change to the Greens.

"COVID has really shown that we can do things differently in this country when we're presented with an unprecedented challenge," she said. "They want a vision presented to them to show that we can actually tackle that problem instead of just throwing up our hands in despair and saying it's too big."

'If she wins her seat ... she'll hold on as leader'

Andrew Enns, executive vice-president of the polling firm Leger, said the Green Party has "plumbed new depths in … backstabbing and front-stabbing the leader" — leaving it in an awkward spot just as it prepares to ask Canadians for their votes.

"It could be a tough election for the Green Party," he said. "It doesn't appear to be a very … organized effort at this stage."

Enns said Paul's focus has to be on getting herself elected in Toronto Centre, where she captured nearly 33 per cent of the vote in October's byelection. Getting a toehold in Toronto and Ontario could secure Paul's future as Green Party leader, he said.

"If she wins her seat … she'll hold on as leader," he said. "She'll have a heck of a rebuilding job to do with the party but … at least she's in Parliament and has a chance to do that."

Snagging that seat and hanging on to the party's two B.C. seats on Vancouver Island — May's in Saanich-Gulf Island and Paul Manly's in Nanaimo-Ladysmith — would "absolutely" be enough for the party to feel it scored a win, he said.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner on the campaign trail. (Erik White/CBC)

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner told CBC he supports Paul's leadership and believes her voice is needed in politics. Paul is the first Black person and the first Jewish woman to lead a major federal party.

"I certainly encourage any of my cousins in the federal party to reconcile their differences and move forward because there's never been a more important time for Green voices in Parliament," he said.

He agrees a Green "win" would amount to keeping the seats it has now and winning a few more, particularly in Ontario.Schreiner, who in 2018 became the first provincial Green candidate to win a seat in Ontario, said he expects Paul can put internal party conflicts behind her once the campaign gets moving and Greens elect a new federal council on Aug. 19.

He said the harrowing report issued recently by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which presented what it called "a code red warning for humanity when it comes to the climate crisis" — means a bold climate agenda will be top-of-mind for voters.

And that could give a boost to Paul's party at a time when many are counting it out entirely.

"I think Greens are well positioned to exceed expectations," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Maloney

Senior Writer

Ryan Maloney is a senior writer with CBC News. He previously worked at HuffPost Canada, where he was the senior politics editor.

With files from Peter Zimonjic, Catharine Tunney

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