Newly minted Green Party Leader Annamie Paul says she isn’t surprised she won’t receive the same “leader’s courtesy” her party gave to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh when he was first seeking a seat in Parliament.
“It certainly doesn’t surprise me. I’m a first,” Paul told reporters in Ottawa Monday when asked about how the NDP and other parties will field candidates against her in an upcoming byelection. “And as a first, you’re accustomed to fighting, you’re accustomed to having to overcome every single barrier to get to where you’re trying to go to.”
But her predecessor, Elizabeth May, is already urging the NDP to think about how “classy” it would be to field a candidate against Paul, the first Black person and first female Jewish leader to lead a major political party, in her quest for a seat.
Paul, a 47-year-old lawyer and international affairs expert who has never been elected to the House of Commons, won the Green Party leadership Saturday after eight rounds of balloting.
Watch: Paul blasts Liberals, NDP as Toronto byelection heats up
Paul had already been declared the party’s candidate in this month’s Toronto Centre byelection to fill the seat left vacant by the exit of former finance minister Bill Morneau. Paul ran in the riding in the 2019 election, finishing a distant fourth in the longtime Liberal stronghold that Morneau won with more than 57 per cent of the vote.
Paul’s stock in the local race has no doubt gone up now that she’s taken the reins of the federal party. Yet her victory is sparking questions about an informal Canadian parliamentary custom — the so-called “leader’s courtesy” — that sometimes sees rival parties, typically in byelections, refuse to nominate a candidate against a party leader who doesn’t hold a seat. Traditionally, the custom is used in ridings previously represented by the seatless leader’s party.
Liberals have already chosen a star recruit, broadcaster Marci Ien, to carry the party banner in Toronto Centre. The Conservative candidate, Ryan Lester, announced Monday that he is dropping out and will be replaced by Benjamin Sharma, the Tory riding president in the York Centre riding. New Democrats are running Brian Chang, a research officer at SEIU Healthcare.
“They won’t stand down but I’m going to stand up for the residents of Toronto Centre,” Paul said.
May ‘reminds’ Singh of how Greens stood down for him
Still, May told reporters she wanted to “remind Mr. Singh” of what her party did for him when the shoe was on the other foot.
Singh was a member of Ontario’s provincial legislature, representing a Brampton riding, when he won the NDP leadership in 2017 on the first ballot. After letting several byelections pass him by, Singh opted in 2018 to take his shot at a seat in Burnaby South, a B.C. riding that became vacant after former NDP MP Kennedy Stewart decided to run for Vancouver mayor.
May, then the Green leader, announced she would not run a candidate against Singh, saying at the time that it was right to help the leader of “an important part of the political spectrum” get into the House. Liberals and Conservatives ran candidates against Singh, who comfortably won the seat in February 2019.
May said Monday that Singh was no “shoo in” in Burnaby, where he had no roots, and noted she had been arrested along with Stewart in the city that year while protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline. She said that when she reached out to Singh to see if he’d welcome a leader’s courtesy, the NDP leader thought it over before lauding it as “a classy thing to do.”
“So I’d like Jagmeet Singh to think about it. I’d like New Democrats to reach out to him and say: ‘How classy is it to try to block the entry to the House of Commons of the first Black woman leader of a federal political party,’” May said. “Consider what Rosemary Brown would think.”
Rosemary Brown, a Black female politician and trailblazer, ran for the leadership of the federal NDP in 1975, finishing second to Ed Broadbent.
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Mélanie Richer, the press secretary to the NDP leader, told HuffPost Canada the party doesn’t believe it’s up to leaders to decide who Canadians can vote for in the byelection and said the party never asked May not to run a candidate against Singh two years ago.
Anne McGrath, the NDP national director, told HuffPost via email that the party will not sit the race out.
“A few great candidates decided to put their names forward to run for the NDP nomination in Toronto Centre and NDP members democratically chose Brian Chang to represent them,” she said. “Brian will not withdraw from the byelection.”
McGrath also congratulated Paul on her win and wished her the best in the contest, saying “every Canadian deserves to vote for the party they believe in.”
Speaking in Ottawa, Paul conceded she faces a tough race and suggested she will run again, including outside of Toronto, if she’s not successful. “I have bags, will travel,” she said with a smile.
She also made a point of saying there are other examples of leaders who made extraordinary breakthroughs outside of Parliament, when they didn’t have a seat, including late NDP leader Jack Layton.
Paul said that while she won’t be able to do the same kinds of door-to-door-knocking in Toronto Centre that is typical during a byelection, she now feels like an “expert” at campaigning in the virtual space after the last nine months competing for the leadership.
The riding is suffering issues of homelessness, neglect of senior citizens, and it’s a centre of the opioid crisis, she said, adding that she hopes the new attention she is generating from her win can translate into momentum.
Paul criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for calling byelections in Toronto Centre and the Toronto riding of York Centre at a time when he knew Canada was headed for a “pandemic spike.” Trudeau needed to call the votes within six months of the seats being declared vacant. Voters in Toronto Centre and York Centre head to the polls on Oct. 26.
“Anyone who believes this was a bad decision and who wants to send a message to the Liberal government about that decision, come and help us. And you’re very welcome,” she said.
Liberals, NDP ‘intellectually exhausted,’ Paul says
The Liberals and NDP are “intellectually exhausted,” she said, and are now coming around to policy ideas Greens have proposed for years, including universal pharmacare.
The pandemic has exposed “a social safety net that has let people down and let people through,” she said, noting as she did in her victory speech, that her father died from an infection he got in long-term care.
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In addition to reforms to the long-term care system, a provincial responsibility, she said the COVID-19 crisis has shown the need to bring in a guaranteed livable income as soon as possible. And she said Greens will continue to focus on the climate emergency, even if there are some who think it makes the Greens seem like a “one issue” party. “If it’s the right issue, then it’s OK for it to be the one issue,” she said.
Paul also didn’t shy away from articulating what it means for Canadian politics that a person of colour and Jewish woman is now leading a national party.
Asked what she brings to Parliament Hill, Paul sparked laughter by appearing to make the Madonna “vogue” pose with her hands, highlighting her face.
“Just to put the obvious aside for a second, all joking aside, diverse representation matters. It matters,” she said, adding it is a waste of intellectual capital when institutions lack diverse voices.
“We are going to create better public policy when people like me and more diversity is in the room. You’re far less likely to create a policing policy that targets, for instance, Black Canadians if you have Black Canadians that are at the table designing that policy. So what I bring is hope,” she said.
“Hope to all the people that have not seen themselves represented in politics to this point. Hope that it’s possible that we can have a more inclusive style of politics. And I am very excited about that.”