Electoral Politics

Elizabeth May’s Green Party is Wilting Badly. Is It Time to Chuck it?

Noah Jarvis
January 14, 2023
Near the end of Elizabeth Truss’ disastrous 45-day stint as British Prime Minister, the Daily Star tabloid famously asked readers if Truss could outlast a head of lettuce. After six days, the lettuce won. Elizabeth May has had a considerably longer run as head of Canada’s Green Party. Since returning to the job in November after a previous 13 years at the helm, she’s the longest-serving leader of any current federal party. Yet the wilt is unmistakable. Riven by internal dissension, plummeting election results, troubling allegations of anti-Semitism and a platform that’s been stolen by other, more credible parties, can May refresh a Green Party that appears well past its best-before date?
Electoral Politics

Elizabeth May’s Green Party is Wilting Badly. Is It Time to Chuck it?

Noah Jarvis
January 14, 2023
Near the end of Elizabeth Truss’ disastrous 45-day stint as British Prime Minister, the Daily Star tabloid famously asked readers if Truss could outlast a head of lettuce. After six days, the lettuce won. Elizabeth May has had a considerably longer run as head of Canada’s Green Party. Since returning to the job in November after a previous 13 years at the helm, she’s the longest-serving leader of any current federal party. Yet the wilt is unmistakable. Riven by internal dissension, plummeting election results, troubling allegations of anti-Semitism and a platform that’s been stolen by other, more credible parties, can May refresh a Green Party that appears well past its best-before date?
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We are the only relevant party.” So declared Elizabeth May in response to a question from a journalist about her party’s continued relevance after she was elected leader – for the second time – of Canada’s troubled Green Party at its leadership convention in Toronto late last year.

It was a minor miracle that the sparsely-attended and technology-bedevilled convention occurred at all. What had originally been planned as a two-round voting process had to be shortened to a single round when the party realized it lacked the ability to deliver anything more complicated due to internal conflict and dysfunction. This after the party’s president and three other members of the leadership committee resigned in the middle of the contest due to a series of schoolyard-grade insults and recriminations. And this was the Greens’ second leadership contest in two years, made necessary after previous leader Annamie Paul, who had replaced May in 2020, resigned after complaining of endemic racism and sexism within the party.

Then again, it’s not likely anyone is paying much attention. Barely one-third of the Green Party’s own members bothered to cast a ballot in the most recent leadership contest, down from nearly 70 percent when Paul was elected leader. The party is also facing an existential financial crisis and must now rely largely on volunteer staff. With all this in mind, bringing back May appears as a desperate attempt by a failing party to recapture some of its faded glory – a return to the time when it always seemed to be on the verge of breaking into the ranks of mainstream political legitimacy. But after watching her for more than a dozen years at the helm of the Greens, Canadians have a very good idea of what May has on offer. And they’re not interested.

Relevant? Hardly.

The only relevant party”: Following her victory at the Green Party of Canada leadership convention in November, Elizabeth May expressed great optimism about her party’s prospects despite a long list of problems. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Patrick Doyle)

Green Buds Bursting with (Self-Declared) Goodness

Canada’s federal Green Party was born in 1983, inspired by the success of West Germany’s Die Grünen party in the late 1970s. Canada’s version similarly rests on the “six pillars” of the international green movement: ecological wisdom, social justice, participatory democracy, sustainability, respect for diversity and non-violence. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the party gained a foothold in Canada. Under former leader Jim Harris, it captured over 4 percent of the popular vote in the 2004 election. Although the party won no seats in the House of Commons, it appeared to be an important step. So much so that prior to the 2006 federal election, Harris boldly predicted the Greens would gain 1 million votes and elect several MPs, vaulting it into the big leagues. When neither prediction came to pass, and amid complaints about his leadership style that would prove prophetic for future leaders, Harris resigned.

In the wake of Harris’ departure, the Greens sought a new, high-profile leader to get them over the hump to respectability. Elizabeth May was then a well-known environmental activist and lawyer. She’d been the executive director of Sierra Club Canada for 17 years and worked as a senior policy advisor for federal Environment Minister Thomas McMillan in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government. In 2006 she convincingly won the Green Party’s leadership on the first ballot with a hefty majority. Since then, May has become part of the political establishment in Canada. She presents herself to Canadians as a passionate but friendly politician – a radical-boomer as she puts it. In 2012 Maclean’s magazine named her its Parliamentarian of the Year – the first woman to be so honoured.

Early growth: Canada’s Green Party appeared poised for the big leagues when it earned over 4 percent of the popular vote in the 2004 general election under former leader Jim Harris (middle). (Source of photo: collectionscanada.gc.ca)

Throughout her career, May has benefited from a constant supply of friendly media coverage from sympathetic journalists. Every election brings with it breathless speculation that this will be the year her party experiences its big breakout. We’re still waiting. The Greens had their best showing in May’s first general election campaign in 2008, when they earned 6.8 percent of the popular vote but failed to elect a single MP.

After trying to win seats in Ontario and Nova Scotia, May finally found her way into the House of Commons as MP for the Vancouver Island riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands in the 2011 general election. The party’s national support, however, fell to 3.9 percent of the popular vote. In 2019 the party briefly held three seats in the House of Commons on the strength of a rebound in the popular vote to 6.5 percent. Then in 2021 it collapsed to 2.3 percent. The party is now down to two MPs – May and Mike Morrice from Kitchener Centre in southwestern Ontario. In Germany, by contrast, the Greens rose all the way to power as part of a two-party coalition in the early 2000s – and are now in office again as one of three coalition members, holding five cabinet seats.

Despite earning a handful of seats in the House of Commons, the Green Party under the leadership of Elizabeth May has so far failed to break into the mainstream of Canadian politics. (Source of graph data: Elections Canada)

The yo-yo dynamic of Green Party support in Canada reveals its lack of a reliable and natural base of support to build upon. It seems an odd state of affairs given the attention paid to environmental issues in elite circles. Indeed, it often seems as if the curriculum of most Canadian public schools is simply Green Party policy in lesson form. But despite repeated efforts at entering the political mainstream, the Greens – under May or anyone else – have always remained on the fringes of success. Why is that?

Copycat Environmentalism

The most obvious answer is that Canada’s other parties now occupy the environmental policy space once claimed exclusively by the Greens. While May largely had a monopoly on environmentalism and climate change alarmism during her early days as leader, the Liberals under Justin Trudeau as well as the NDP have both seized on climate change as one of their dominant platform themes, outbidding each other with punitive taxes and regulations meant to rid the country of oil and natural gas. As Prime Minister, Trudeau has been able to substantiate his commitment through actual policies.

And this urge has expanded nearly across the political spectrum. The Bloc Québécois is as leftist as the Greens in most respects. And recall that even former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole ditched his own party’s opposition to the Liberals’ carbon tax in the last federal election. It has become impossible to lead a major federal party in Canada without paying some homage to anti-carbon environmental policy.

Political competition: The advent of the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau robbed the Green Party of its claimed monopoly on policies exploiting climate change alarmism. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn)

Despite their popularity with elites and the mainstream media, however, environmental issues are not necessarily deterministic for voters. Polls prior to the 2021 election, for example, revealed economic issues such as cost of living, housing affordability and post-pandemic recovery were far higher on the agenda than climate change. When you can’t afford to feed your family today, concerns about what might happen to sea levels decades from now tend to fade in importance. Not only has the Green Party lost its monopoly on environmental issues, but the overall significance of its core issue appears to be fading for voters. Most of the economic concerns listed above have only intensified since the past election.

Internal Combustion

Another reason for the Green Party’s failure to launch concerns its inability to get its own house in order. While May has always placed a high priority on fielding a full slate of candidates in each federal election, this strategy may actually be eroding her party’s credibility. It often seems as if the Greens will accept anyone prepared to wave the banner, without rigorous screening or consideration. This has led to motley slates of candidates that include radical environmentalists, disillusioned socialists, conspiracy theorists and other assorted misfits who’ve been rejected by other political parties.

Monika Schaefer, a self-employed violin instructor, was the Green candidate in Alberta’s Yellowhead riding in 2006, 2008 and 2011. She is also a vocal “9/11 truther” conspiracy theorist and promoter of troubling anti-Semitic views, including being prone to quoting from the long-discredited text Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In August 2014, Schaefer emailed May calling then-Green Party president Paul Estrin a “Zionist shill” and demanding his resignation. Her letter also blamed Jews for the September 2001 terrorist attacks. “Remember who did 9/11 – the same criminal state which is now destroying Gaza,” wrote Schaefer.

In 2016, a video surfaced from Schaefer in which she claimed the Holocaust was the “biggest and most pernicious and persistent lie in all of history.” Only then was she stripped of her party membership. May claimed that Schaefer’s heretical views were unknown to her before the story broke nationwide. As for Schaefer, she was later convicted by a court in Germany for “incitement of hatred” as a result of her Holocaust denial efforts.

A motley crew: Under May’s leadership, the Green Party has fielded several candidates with troubling views regarding Israel and Jews, including Monika Schaefer (left image, on right with May) in the Alberta riding of Yellowhead, and Sharon Danley (right image, on right with May) in the Toronto riding of Spadina-Fort York. (Sources of photos: (left) VICE; (right) Twitter/@AntisemitismCA)

Sharon Danley was another long-time Green Party campaigner and candidate for the Toronto riding of Spadina-Fort York in the 2015 election. In a video to campaign volunteers, May referred to Danley as her “dear friend.” Yet Danley has made multiple disturbing social media posts, some comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hitler, as well as approving of various conspiracy theories blaming Jews for creating terrorism. In 2014 Danley also emailed May about party president Estrin, and referred to the 2014 Israel-Gaza war as a “Gaza genocide.” When Danley garnered a mere 2 percent of the vote in 2015, she went on a social media tirade that blamed the Green Party’s Toronto Centre candidate Ellen Michelson and the “Jewish faction within the party” for her loss.

The issue of Israel and Jewish influence remains a toxic and divisive issue for Canada’s Green Party – which is, after all, formally and rather self-righteously committed to “social justice,” “respect for diversity” and “non-violence.” In 2016, the party’s annual meeting accepted a proposal supporting the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. And while May later said she didn’t agree with it, the proposal became party policy nonetheless. This is because the party’s commitment to “grassroots democracy” puts leaders at the mercy of the membership. As the party itself has described the process, “Members come up with resolutions independently. Neither the Leader nor anyone in the executive of the party can reject resolutions that comply with submission guidelines, nor does the Party know ahead of time what resolutions will come forward.”

The existence of Israel remains a divisive and toxic issue for the Green Party; in 2016 it adopted a position in favour of the BDS movement over leader May’s opposition. (Source of photo: bdsmovement.net)

When this author reached out to the Greens’ federal office for clarity on Danley’s status and the vetting process that allowed her to stand as a candidate, a response came from George Orr, a member of the party’s federal council. Rather than answering the inquiries, however, Orr posed his own series of questions regarding the journalist’s opinion on Netanyahu and other irrelevant issues. The original questions went unanswered.

As for Estrin, he would later describe how he was “summarily tossed [from his position as Green Party president] because of my views on Israel.” Estrin, it must be noted, was simply espousing conventional pro-Israel views, pointing to Hamas’ use of foreign aid to expand its military capacity, Israel warning its enemy before dropping bombs, and criticizing Gaza officials for using children in combat. While May distanced herself from Estrin’s views because of her anti-violence position, she also apparently ignored Hamas’ use of rockets meant to unleash maximal carnage on Israel. Being pro-Israel and anti-Hamas should not lead to condemnation and resignation in Canadian politics.

How to Handle Radicals

While the Green Party has long aspired to mainstream status, it has been unable to follow the path of other successful challenger parties into respectability, such as the Reform Party of Canada in the 1990s or the Coalition Avenir Québec at the provincial level in the early 2010s. Both were able to achieve credibility in just a few election cycles. But after a brief burst of popularity in the early 2000s, the Greens have been stuck in neutral for over a decade.

The key difference is that these other challenger parties were competently managed by good leaders who could articulate a clear vision and thus were able to gain the widespread support of core voters. Neither party was free of scandal or controversy – no party ever is – but both benefited from high-quality leadership, coherence and a depth of integrity among their supporters to overcome intra-party challenges.

How to keep your party clean: Reform Party of Canada leader Preston Manning took decisive action to rid his party of anti-immigration candidates during the 1993 election, paving the way for its rapid ascent into the political mainstream. (Source of photo: courtesy Toronto Public Library/Toronto Star)

The Reform Party likely offers the best example for how to deal with problematic candidates, in light of the Green Party’s continuing problem with anti-Semitism. In its early years Reform was infiltrated at the constituency level by several radical anti-immigrant elements. During the 1993 election campaign, for example, Toronto-area Reform candidate John Beck made racist and anti-immigrant remarks that could have derailed the party’s entire campaign.

Reform Party leader Preston Manning and key officials in the party’s head office refused to allow the problem to fester. Beck was soon expelled from the party, along with others who had expressed similarly hateful views, including evident white supremacists or neo-Nazis such as members of the notorious Heritage Front. This allowed Manning to establish a different flavour of conservatism, and Western Canadians quickly changed their main party preference from Progressive Conservative to Reform in the space of just one electoral cycle. Decades later, in Quebec, François Legault pitched a new kind of Quebec nationalism to francophones and gained the premiership in under a decade, a position he has held since. Leadership, organizational strength and internal unity on issues of ethics and principle are all crucial to electoral success.

Green vs. Green

When May stepped down as leader in 2019, it was widely seen as an effort to rejuvenate the party and allow it to take a new direction. Given May’s inability to build on her party’s electoral strides, this was an opportunity to excite voters with a new and different leader. And on the face of it, the Greens seemed to find what they were looking for.

Crawling over the shards of a broken glass ceiling: When she was picked to follow May as leader of the Greens in 2020, Annamie Paul was the first black Canadian and first Jewish Canadian to lead a federal party. But her historic accomplishment was quickly undone by the party’s anti-Semitic impulses and its rejection of conventional political structure. (Source of photo: uOttawa)

In 2020 Annamie Paul became the first black Canadian and the first Jewish woman to lead a federal party. The child of Caribbean immigrants raised in Brampton, Ontario, Paul earned a law degree from the University of Ottawa and a Master’s from Princeton University. She married international human rights lawyer Mark Freeman and converted to Judaism. Paul later worked at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. For a party that loudly proclaims its credentials in social justice and diversity, naming Paul as Green leader seemed an historic accomplishment. But Paul, who was regarded as a moderate within the Green Party establishment, was never able to overcome the party’s rejection of conventional organizational structure, or the lingering shadow of anti-Semitism. In fact, it appears she was quickly undone by both factors.

In winning the leadership, Paul narrowly beat former Green Party justice critic Dimitri Lascaris, who had notably accused two Jewish Liberal MPs of being more loyal to “apartheid Israel” than to the Prime Minister or Canada on Twitter, a view Lascaris later expanded upon on his website. Rather than beating him convincingly, Paul needed eight rounds to top Lascaris. Clearly his views enjoy significant support within the party.

As leader, Paul immediately found herself attacked from within. There were numerous complaints, both leaked and public, about her allegedly “autocratic” leadership style, echoing earlier complaints about former leader Harris. Of course Paul, like Harris, was simply trying run the party in a manner similar to other, successful political parties in which the leader is responsible for the political message. This is apparently anathema to the Greens.

Things came to a head during the 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict. And for familiar reasons. It began when Paul put out a statement urging an end to the conflict. “The Green Party of Canada is committed to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” she wrote. “This requires steps to end the violence in favour of engagement in peaceful, inclusive dialogue as the preferred means of resolving the current situation and of achieving sustainable peace.” It seemed the epitome of middle-of-the-road, safe political sentiment. Pro-peace. Anti-war. Even-handed towards both sides. And entirely in keeping with the party’s commitment to non-violence.

War, on Twitter and elsewhere: An online spat between Green Party MP Jenica Atwin (top left) and Paul’s senior advisor Noah Zatzman (top right) over the 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict (bottom) led to Atwin crossing the floor to the Liberals and proved fatal to Paul’s leadership. (Sources of photos: (top left) The Canadian Press/Keith Minchin; (bottom) © Ilia Yefimovich/dpa via ZUMA Press)

Yet the statement once again exposed the deep fault line between the party’s pacifist and Israel-hating factions. Then-Green Party MP Jenica Atwin attacked Paul’s statement as “totally inadequate.” In a tweet she later deleted, Atwin said, “I stand with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable airstrikes in Gaza. End Apartheid!” When Paul’s senior advisor Noah Zatzman pushed back with his own pro-Israel views, Atwin quit the party in a huff and became a Liberal MP. The damage done to Paul’s credibility as leader was irreparable.

When Paul resigned from the top post in September 2021 following the federal election, she cited racism and sexism as the reasons she could not effectively lead the party. “When I was elected and put in this role, I was breaking a glass ceiling. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was breaking a glass ceiling that was going to fall on my head and leave a lot of shards of glass that I was going to have to crawl over,” said Paul bitterly.

May-Day! May-Day!

It would be wrong to blame Paul’s departure solely on discrimination and vitriol within the Green Party. In politics, winning can paper over many disagreements and personal rivalries. But Paul was never a winner. In the 2021 election, the Green Party was unable to even field a candidate in every riding – managing only 252 nominations out of 338 federal ridings. Its share of the popular vote dropped precipitously to 2.3 percent. And Paul personally lost twice, first as a candidate in a Toronto byelection in 2020 and then in the 2021 general election.

Writing in the Toronto Star after the 2021 election, ex-leader May focused on Paul’s lack of success, portraying her term as a “tragedy” for the party and observing that “the future of the Greens lies in ashes.” Having fumbled the election, May said it was now necessary for Paul to step down for the good of the party. This after she had all-but-anointed Paul as her heir. Knife, meet back. As for her own political career, May said, “I remain a dedicated Green MP, and a loyal member of the Green Party of Canada. It is not appropriate for me to fill a leadership role.”

Now, miraculously, May is back as leader. It is supposed to be different this time, as she has adopted the gimmick of claiming to be co-leader alongside Jonathan Pedneault, a gay, black activist and journalist/filmmaker from Quebec. On the surface, this two-headed leadership concept seems like another intersectional home run, as the Greens now have a woman, a member of the LGBT community, a person of colour and a Quebecker at the top. Yet May and Pedneault are clearly not equals. May is supposed to be the face of the party and its chief parliamentarian, while Pedneault, as deputy leader, has been given the smoking hand grenade of trying to reorganize the Green Party’s dreadful internal affairs. Pedneault will undoubtedly be useful to have around, particularly after the embarrassment of Paul’s treatment. But there is no question May remains the party’s real locus of power and electoral hope. It is May’s face plastered on the Green Party’s home page.

Are two heads better than one? After vowing that she would not seek the leadership of the Greens a second time, May has since returned as “co-leader” alongside Jonathan Pedneault (left). (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/ Patrick Doyle)

Her return to the top post suggests the party membership (or at least those who cared enough to vote in the leadership contest) consider May their greatest asset. But is she really? Canadian political parties are unusually reliant on their leader, and electoral success or failure largely depends on their leader’s characteristics and track record. For over a dozen years, the Green Party has hitched its wagon to May. But she has never been able to present the Greens to Canadians as a serious party deserving of a major role in Canadian politics. Her “success” is not much different from Paul’s failures.

Despite her warm outward appearance, May’s long stint in the public spotlight is replete with puzzling eccentricities, fixations and gaffes that keep her at a distance from mainstream voters. In 2011, May warned that “wireless technology poses a potential risk to health and the environment,” and that WiFi is a “possible human carcinogen.” In an infamous appearance at the 2015 Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner, May appeared tipsy and incoherent, and was eventually escorted off the stage mid-monologue by Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt. As she made her (involuntary) exit, May played the theme song to the 1970s TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter on her cell phone while yelling about convicted terrorist Omar Khadr. In 2018, May pled guilty to criminal contempt after defying a court-imposed injunction at a pipeline protest; ignoring court orders is never a good look for lawmakers. And in 2019 she proposed a “robot tax” on any firm that replaced human workers with computerized or automated processes, something serious economists dismissed as “just bizarre” and a serious impediment to innovation.

Exit stage left: May at the end of her infamously incoherent 2015 Press Gallery Dinner appearance; seen here, she is singing the theme song to the 1970s TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter as federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt gives her the hook. (Source of photos: YouTube)

Part of May’s willingness to indulge in radical or extreme ideas may be a result of how the Green party, unlike other political parties, resists the notion of a central authority or coherent structure. This leaves the leader at the whims of her base – and the base simultaneously at the whims of its leader. It is formula for co-dependency. And it remains an apparently permanent feature of Canada’s Green Party because no one other than May has yet figured out how to operate within it. Other leaders who tried to impose a conventional political template onto the party – or resist its more extremist urges – have been quickly shown the door. And so, after briefly trying to break its Elizabeth May habit, the Green Party is back where it started.  

But the Green Party isn’t languishing because Canadians need more time to get to know May or what she stands for. Canadians know May very well. They just prefer to cast their votes elsewhere.

Noah Jarvis is a political science student at York University and a youth leader in the Canada Strong and Free Network’s Conservative Values Tomorrow program.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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