At last year’s mid-September campaign launch ahead of the federal election, long-time Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May unveiled a new slogan.
Surrounded by a sea of staunch supporters — many older, even more white — at an indoor market in Victoria, May pushed a simple message, repeated in chants and songs.
“Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”
The message heard that night formed the backbone of the party’s ensuing campaign. May pitched the Greens, as she had often in her nearly 14 years of leadership, as an alternative to the mainstream choices, a “something for everyone” option, no matter your political stripe.
Watch: 5 things you might not know about Elizabeth May. Story continues below.
One year and a disappointing election result later, May has resigned as leader, citing the need for a new generation to usher the party forward. Eight candidates are competing for her job, with the winner set to be named Oct. 3. It’s expected whoever wins will guide the party in a new direction.
“The excitement being generated by our leadership contest is incredible,” said interim Green Party leader Jo-Ann Roberts last week.
“The calibre and diversity of the contestants is remarkable and their broad appeal is reflected by the sharp rise in membership and donation numbers. This is truly a pivotal moment for the party and I think Canadians are ready to embrace new ideas and solutions.”
For many of those candidates, May’s brand of “ride-the-line” centrism is not the way forward.
In the race to lead, multiple candidates are pushing an explicitly eco-socialist agenda. They’ve been endorsed by advocacy groups and many long-time NDP supporters disappointed in that party’s recent swings towards the centre. The slate of Green leadership candidates has spurred a historic increase in membership for the party, and they say they’re ready to challenge our country’s political status quo.
But what could it actually mean if the Green elect an eco-socialist leader?
Meet the eco-socialists
Beyond Toronto lawyer Annamie Paul, who currently leads fundraising totals, it’s difficult to establish a frontrunner in the race.
While all eight Green Party leadership candidates have expressed various levels of progressive positions on previous platform points, such as universal pharmacare or free tuition, two have repeatedly self-identified as eco-socialists and been explicitly endorsed by socialist and left-leaning advocacy groups.
Eco-socialism is an ideology which argues capitalism is the root cause of climate and social issues.
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In an interview with Vice, “Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism” author Richard Wallis summarized it as, “You can’t make the decisions necessary for the health of the environment on the basis of profit calculations.”
Many eco-socialists advocate for a Green New Deal, a plan modelled after similar initiatives in the United States to tackle climate change and economic inequality through sweeping social programs and a just transition to renewable energy.
Montreal lawyer Dimitri Lascaris is arguably the most explicit in his push to move the party away from the centre, saying the Greens must “unapologetically lay claim” to the left and that he wants to “tax billionaires out of existence.” As of the end of August, he’s ranked second in terms of fundraising totals, behind only Paul.
“At the end of the day, centrists are the guardians of the status quo,” he wrote in a HuffPost questionnaire given to candidates. “The time for incrementalism has passed. What this moment calls for is bold, progressive action.”
Many Lascaris supporters are pushing for Montreal lawyer Meryam Haddad as their second choice. Haddad is highlighting her youth and leftist politics as the future of the Greens.
“I am a socialist, an immigrant, a lesbian and more importantly a millennial, someone who will live to see our extinction if we do not tackle climate change,” she said in response to the questionnaire.
She also criticized the centrist position of last year’s Greens.
“We failed to honour our grassroots values and democratically voted upon policies by having [the] neo-liberal centrist slogan “Not left, not right, forward together” and were not able to communicate to the population that we are more than a one-issue party,” she said. “In other words, we were not clear on what we stand for.”
And, while a third candidate, B.C. astrophysicist Amita Kuttner, has not explicitly identified as an eco-socialist, several grassroots leftist groups have endorsed them as a candidate aligned with their values.
“I am committed to setting us on a path toward a just, resilient society,” Kuttner said in the HuffPost questionnaire. “This means decolonization of our country and our systems of governance, eliminating wealth inequality, preparing communities for the climate emergency, and making sure our healthcare system is taking care of all of our healthcare needs, including mental health.”
A grassroots push to define the party
A new advocacy group called Justice Greens, created by moderators of leftist Canadian politics forums on Reddit, surveyed candidates at the start of the race. They’ve since endorsed Lascaris, Hadd and Kuttner —in that order — encouraging voters to only rank the three to increase the odds of one of them winning the ballot.
Justice Green member John Connor Kelly told socialist website The Canada Files that the group is focused on social inequity and how it relates to the Green’s key issue of climate change.
“There has to be some kind of justice for what [capitalists] have done to everybody on the planet. The only just thing to do is to take what they’ve essentially hoarded from everybody else.”
A large push for Green membership from grassroots organizations such as Justice Greens and the B.C. eco-socialist party, as well as candidates’ appearances on socialist blogs and podcasts, including the Alberta Advantage, has spurred a historic rise in membership numbers ahead of the Sept. 3 deadline to register as a party member and vote in the leadership race.
There are now 35,000 members registered to vote in the leadership race, a climb of more than 50 per cent from the post-election membership of 22,000. The greatest increases have come in the Northwest Territories — home of candidate Courtney Howard — and Quebec, where both Haddad and Lascaris are from.
In a race with no obvious front-runner or entrenched candidate, that surge in new membership could very well swing the race, one way or another. That’s particularly true in a ranked ballot election, where a single candidate must garner 50 per cent of the vote to win.
What will that mean for the other parties?
Amara Possian, a government relations professor at Seneca College involved with the climate advocacy group 350.org — and who ran for the NDP in the 2018 Ontario provincial election — says there’s a “huge opportunity” for the new leader to shift the party’s direction.
“I think having a Green leader who is committed to a Green New Deal could be really helpful, but only if they can shift the range of policies that are politically acceptable to the mainstream population,” she told HuffPost Canada. “And I think the way that they can do that is either by winning more seats, or seriously challenging the Liberals and the NDP.”
Possian said many climate-concerned NDP voters feel the party hasn’t taken the climate crisis seriously enough, and not pushed hard enough for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to prioritize it in the upcoming throne speech.
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The party has taken fire this week, with at least 20 riding associations demanding leader Jagmeet Singh be more vocal, “letting him know he has the support of the party’s grassroots in calling for big, bold, transformative change suitable to the scale of the crises we face,” according to Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding co-president Tim Ellis.
Possian says it makes sense climate-focused NDP supporters see a leftist Green Party as another way to pressure the NDP. But if the new leader wants to actually make an impact ideologically, they must have a plan for how to work with other parties.
“For me it’s less of a question about the ideology of the leader and more of a question of whether they’re, like, willing to and planning to invest in the organizing — and the movement partnerships and cooperation with the NDP in particular —in order to actually advance that ideology,” she said.
WATCH: Climate change is worse than the pandemic: Gates. Story continues below.
It’s easy for candidates with more radical ideas, such as eco-socialism and “taxing billionaires out of existence,” to gain grassroots support, but Possian says they must figure out a way to translate that into actual change in parliament. The Greens currently only hold three seats in the house and garnered only around 6.5 per cent of the popular vote in the 2019 election.
And, despite May’s vocal participation in the House of Commons and federal debates during elections, the party still doesn’t hold any major balance of power in parliament. Possian says the new leader will have to acknowledge the reality of where the Greens are positioned politically.
“[They need] a plan that is more nuanced than ‘Vote for us everywhere and we will gain the most seats in this first-past-the-post system and somehow get a majority government and then implement our plan,’” she told HuffPost Canada. “That’s just not how our political system works.”
Throughout the 2019 campaign and in the months following, May doubled down on centrism, presenting the party as an alternative to traditionally “right” and “left” wing options.
“The whole idea of a left-right dichotomy is something of an anachronism,” May wrote in a January blog post on the party website. “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.”
The centrism approach didn’t work in the most recent federal election, though.
While the party retained May’s seat and that of fellow Vancouver Island MP Paul Manly — alongside picking up a third in New Brunswick MP Jenica Atwin — they did not see the surge in popularity experts predicted amidst the financially weakened NDP, bland Conservative Party and scandal-rocked Liberals.
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Possian says the historic increase in membership numbers and the involvement of third-party groups in this year’s leadership race point to a concerted push for change in the Green Party, no matter who is elected leader on Oct. 3.
“The thing about it, like an underdog party that’s going through a major change, is that everything’s on the table,” she said.
“I always find it really inspiring and interesting when grassroots movements get excited about politicians because it’s usually a sign that someone is committing to, like, to do something differently.”
We’ll have to wait until October to know how different that might be.
The Green Party of Canada leadership vote will be held online, with the winner announced on Oct. 3. Online voting opens on Sept 26 at 9 a.m. PST and closes on Oct. 3 at 3:30 p.m. PST.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated the winner of the Green leadership race would be announced on Oct 4. In fact, the winner will be revealed on Oct. 3 at a live event in Ottawa.
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