A tumultuous week for Annamie Paul's Greens will reverberate across all of federal politics

The tumult and accusations engulfing Annamie Paul's Greens are most obviously a major problem for the party and its leader — but the unfolding war of words increasingly seems to be a potential setback for Canadian politics, Aaron Wherry writes.

Paul survived an emergency meeting this week, but could face non-confidence vote in July

Annnamie Paul says the push to remove her as leader of the Greens was driven by a combination of racism and sexism that no other federal leader has to face. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The tumult and accusations engulfing Annamie Paul's Greens are most obviously a major problem for the party and its leader — but the unfolding war of words increasingly seems to be a potential setback for Canadian politics. 

It was just eight months ago that Paul's victory in the Green leadership race seemed to breathe new life into both the party and the national political scene. Not only was she a fresh and impressive presence for a party that had just gained a new foothold in the House of Commons, Paul was also a Black, Jewish woman — the first Black Canadian elected leader of a major national party.

"This is a historic moment," she said upon winning the leadership.

Leading a major political party is hard and few new leaders, if any, have a perfectly smooth time of it on their first attempt. So some kind of turbulence was inevitable. But Paul's honeymoon has now come to a particularly sudden and explosive end.

The first signs of trouble appeared in April when the Toronto Star reported the Green Party was "riven by internal discord." Worse, one of Paul's supporters suggested the challenges and disagreements she was encountering might be traced to Paul's race, gender and religion.

Then came this month's dispute over the party's position on the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. Two of the party's three MPs, Paul Manly and Jenica Atwin, objected to Paul's statement on the situation. One of Paul's advisers responded by threatening to work to defeat them in the next election. Shortly thereafter, Atwin crossed the floor to the Liberals.

MP Jenica Atwin speaks to the media shorly after becoming the Green Party's third MP in October 2019. Atwin joined the governing Liberals earlier this month. (Keith Minchin/The Canadian Press)

Manly and former leader Elizabeth May publicly blamed that adviser's threat for Atwin's defection, but Paul dismissed that suggestion. Then came a move against Paul within the party and a demand by its federal council that she renounce her adviser's comments. 

Which brings us to Paul's appearance before reporters on Wednesday afternoon.

'Institutional gatekeepers' 

Apparently intent on showing defiance and resolve, Paul focused on the groundbreaking nature of who she is and her commitment to making the Green Party "the most diverse party in Canadian politics."

But this sort of change, she said, "is often perceived as a threat to the existing institutional gatekeepers." A group of Green officials, she alleged, were opposed to the change she wanted to bring and had tried to force a vote of non-confidence against her on the basis of racist and sexist allegations.

Then she turned her sights on the Liberals and Justin Trudeau. Paul described the Liberal Party's outreach to Atwin as "cynical" and "craven." With his party's involvement in Atwin's switch, Paul said, Trudeau had proven he was not an ally to diverse Canadians and not a feminist. She accused him of pushing "strong, competent, capable" women out of politics and said, "I am one woman that he will not push out of politics." 

In the competitive team sport of partisan politics, disaffected MPs sometimes end up switching sides and if Paul wants to sustain a charge that this floor-crossing was uniquely unacceptable she needs to offer a lot more explanation as to why.

Less than two years ago, for instance, May welcomed Pierre Nantel from the NDP, after speaking with him for "some considerable time." Was that wrong?

Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May, right, welcomed NDP MP Pierre Nantel to the Greens in 2019. (Ivanoh Demers/CBC)

Of course, blaming the Liberals for Atwin's decision would also seem to suggest that Atwin lacks her own agency.

What Paul didn't say on Wednesday afternoon was that her adviser was wrong to attack her party's MPs. But that a leader's aides shouldn't publicly pledge to defeat a party's MPs seems like a fairly understandable expectation — even if Paul doesn't agree that Atwin's departure can be traced back to that attack. 

Whether Paul has been subject to racist and sexist attacks from within the Greens might be difficult to determine definitively without a full airing of the facts, but it is obviously a charge that deserves to be taken seriously.

It's possible that whoever succeeded May as leader was going to face some kind of challenge wrangling the party. But racism and sexism are well beyond any understandable level of dysfunction.

Those are charges the Green Party must reckon with, even as it is also supposed to be preparing for the possibility of a fall election.

Tough climb to competitiveness

It's possible that the Green Party was never going to be a pivotal factor in the next federal election. It has only ever elected three people to Parliament and is currently polling at 6.5 per cent. Despite some talk after Paul became leader that the Greens would try to challenge the NDP, the odds of that happening grow longer by the day.

But that's not to say that what is going on with the Greens right now is a minor matter. 

While she was a one-woman party, May was able to distinguish herself as a relevant voice on a pair of vital issues — climate change and the state of Parliament. Whatever one thought of her proposed solutions, she was forever challenging the other parties to do more or do better. 

In those respects, the national debate benefited from the presence of the Greens in the House of Commons. It was a party that could challenge all of the established brands, including the NDP, which likes to think of itself as always being on the leading edge of public policy and social concerns.

Under Paul's leadership, the Greens' next big issue could be diversity.

But in addition to losing a potentially useful force in federal politics, the Green Party falling apart would also matter because of the significance of Paul's history-making turn as leader. If the leadership of the first Black woman to lead a major national party ends in disaster, it would be a setback that has the potential to resonate well beyond the Green Party or the electoral map.

That doesn't mean that the Liberals shouldn't have breakfast with any Green MP who is willing to meet.

But it does mean that what's playing out with the Greens right now is something more than the political drama of a minor party.