The new Green party leader’s biggest gamble yet

She lost her last two attempts to capture Toronto Centre for the Greens. But leader Annamie Paul hopes the third time will be the charm
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 22, 2021
Green party leader Annamie Paul at a news conference in Ottawa on December 7, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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Sometimes, one of the hardest decisions political-party leaders have to make is where to plant their flag.

A career can get off to a great start if the politician picks the right seat to run in. In the lead up to the 1984 Canadian election, Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney decided to contest a seat in Quebec (Manicougan) that had only ever voted Liberal. But the riding contained the town where Mulroney was born and, given that the Opposition leader was promising a Tory renaissance in Quebec, he felt he had to run there.

His risk paid off. Mulroney captured 72 per cent of the vote, leading his PCs to the biggest majority government in Canadian history.

But it can go the other way, too. When Toronto’s current mayor, John Tory, led the Ontario PC Party into the 2007 provincial election, he had hoped to lead a Conservative revival within the 416. So he challenged Education Minister Kathleen Wynne in the heart of the provincial capital in Don Valley West, where Tory had grown up.

It didn’t turn out as well. Wynne won by 10 points and, five-and-a-half years later, became premier. Tory tried again 17 months later in a byelection in the supposedly safe PC seat Haliburton–Kawartha Lakes–Brock but lost again, then resigned as leader. So the decision of where to run can be hugely important.

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That brings us to Annamie Paul.

The new head of the Green Party of Canada has already made history by virtue of being a Black, Jewish female party leader. But she and her team have agonized over the past several months over where she should run once the next federal election has been called. She had run twice in Toronto Centre, losing the first time in the 2019 general election to former finance minister Bill Morneau and then again to former broadcaster Marci Ien in a byelection last October. She nearly tripled the percentage of Green votes in that byelection but still came up 2,300 votes short.

Paul got plenty of advice on what to do next time. The Greens have seen most of their success in British Columbia, where former leader Elizabeth May has had a seat for a decade. But Paul has no particular personal connection there, and the notion of moving her family there (her human-rights-lawyer husband, Mark, and two sons, ages 20 and 17) seemed like a recipe for chaos at home.

Ontario Green party leader Mike Schreiner won a breakthrough victory in the 2018 provincial election in Guelph, so that riding was considered. But Guelph was then an open seat with no former MPP seeking re-election. If Paul wanted to run there, she’d be challenging an MP — Lloyd Longfield — who’s already won twice. And, again, Paul had no particular ties to the area.

So it all came back to Toronto Centre. Despite two losses there, Paul feels deeply connected to it and believes it’s worth the risk to try to create a Green beachhead in the downtown of the biggest city in the country. It’s also been one of the safest Liberal seats anywhere in Canada — that party has won it in every election since 1993.

When I spoke to Paul last week and asked her what the reaction was to her decision to run in Toronto Centre, she laughed and said, “Which audience? My mom or Nik Nanos?” referencing one of the country’s top pollsters.

Paul said her 85-year-old mother, Ena, is looking forward to canvassing the riding again, having done so for several hours every day during the 2019 general election.

“She’s very excited and determined that this time we’re going to win,” Paul said. “She became a legend in the community.”

But the “Nik Nanos” part of Paul’s answer suggests she’s not blind to the size of the challenge ahead. Any pollster would have told her that taking Toronto Centre away from the Liberals will be a monumental undertaking, as the party routinely wins with more than half the vote.

However…

May won her British Columbia riding, which had been reliably Conservative (or Reform or Canadian Alliance) for the previous 23 years. Schreiner won Guelph, which had voted Liberal for all but eight of the previous 31 years. And he himself had lost three previous attempts at getting elected in three different ridings. So, sometimes, big risks do pay off.

There is one other aspect of this story that may be uncomfortable for some, even though it clearly wasn’t for Paul. In deciding to challenge Ien again, Paul is trying to defeat the only Black woman in the House of Commons and one of only 17 women of colour in a house of 338 MPs.

“I’m sure Marci and I both hope that, sooner than later, we’ll have many, many more contests where a Black face is running against a Black face,” Paul said. “And besides, while it’s wonderful to have a Black woman in Parliament, I know I’d be a better representative. She’s a representative of the Liberal Party. She can’t say what needs to be said or do what needs to be done.”

Paul cited a handful of issues about which she thinks the Liberal government has made decisions that are harmful to Toronto Centre residents, particularly people of colour, whom she said are “three to four times more likely to be charged with a crime. Is Marci going to be able to say what needs to be said about over-policing? Or the COVID-19 infection rates being three times higher south of Bloor as opposed to in Rosedale? Or that almost every single quality of life indicator in Toronto Centre has gotten worse? It’s time for a better champion for Toronto Centre.”

Paul also mentioned opioid addiction and mandatory minimum sentencing, which also disproportionately affect too many in the riding.

She noted, though, that she and the current MP have a very civil relationship, as evidenced by the fact that Paul called Ien to congratulate her on the night of Ien’s byelection win.

“I gave her my support,” Paul said. “I tweeted the same thing. I do believe in civility in politics. But I want to win and believe I’d be a better representative.” Paul said she’s also seen Brian Chang, the NDP candidate in the last two elections, in the riding, “and we’ve greeted each other warmly.”

What does Ien think about all this? Her office would only email that the MP doesn’t have even five spare minutes for a phone call for the next many weeks, “so she will not be able to give her insight for your column.”

Then, in the next sentence, her office added: “If you have any future interviews that you would like for her to participate in, please let us know!”

Sure.

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