Why new Canadian Green leader believes ‘this is the moment’
Why We Wrote This
Annamie Paul, leader of Canada’s Green Party, has already changed ideas about what a party leader can look like. Next up is changing ideas about who should see themselves in her party’s platform.
Annamie Paul, the new leader of Canada’s Green Party, stands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Oct. 4, 2020. Ms. Paul, the first Black Canadian elected to lead a federal party, aims to challenge the stereotype that environmentalism is solely a "white" issue.
November 24, 2020
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Annamie Paul is a lawyer who’s worked in Belgium and Barcelona. She’s the daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean. And, since last month, she’s the leader of Canada’s Green Party – making her the first Black Canadian elected to lead a federal party, the only woman currently leading a major one, and the country’s second-ever Jewish party leader.
The Greens, who hold just three Parliament seats, face challenges as they try to expand. Other parties have adopted environmental platforms, for example, making it harder to distinguish themselves.
But Ms. Paul is on a mission to convince voters that the party is not just a space for the privileged elite, but those struggling to meet basic needs, especially amid a pandemic. She’s also trying to shake the image that the Green Party cares about just one issue. Many of the ideas the party proposed before anyone else, Ms. Paul says – like guaranteed basic income – are made for “this moment.”
University student Kiara Nazon, the co-chair of the Young Greens of Canada, recorded a powerful video for Ms. Paul’s leadership campaign. “I think Annamie being the leader is such a momentous change because people can see themselves in the Green Party now that never saw themselves in it before,” she says.
When Annamie Paul campaigned in downtown Toronto as a Green candidate in Canada’s 2019 federal election, some voters scoffed when the conversation turned to climate crisis or electric vehicles. “They had no time. I mean, they laughed,” she says.
Now that she has been elected as the leader of the Green Party of Canada, amid a pandemic that has wrought especially severe disruptions in low-income communities, it is her mission to convince exactly those voters that her party is not just a space for the privileged elite, but for those struggling to meet their most basic needs. Or, as she so often says, “You have got to have social justice to have climate justice.”
Ms. Paul is uniquely poised to deliver that message. The daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean, she has become the first Black Canadian elected to lead a federal party in Canadian history – that itself shattering stereotypes that environmentalism is a “white” issue. Having converted to Judaism, she’s also Canada’s second-ever Jewish party leader, and currently the only woman leading a major party at the federal level.
In the wake of the bitter American presidential election, where divisions have dimmed hopes on both sides that real change is possible, the new Green Party leader is trying to spread a message of new possibilities post-pandemic. “It’s very important to match a party and to match leadership to a moment,” she says. “I do really believe that this is the moment for a party like ours.”
More than “green”
The Green base in Canada has long been centered in British Columbia; that’s where Elizabeth May, who led the party for 14 years, was elected into office. They’ve made significant gains in Atlantic Canada, and as they aim to expand federally, they’ve tried to shake perceptions that they’re a single-issue party.
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That’s what drew Ms. Paul, a lawyer who studied at Princeton, to the Green Party when she returned home after working in Brussels and Barcelona in international affairs and the nonprofit sector. And she says many of the ideas the Greens dared propose before anyone else – like guaranteed basic income or a safe supply of drugs to prevent opioid deaths, for instance – are made for “this moment” when new solutions are demanded.
Ms. Paul’s personal story fits neatly into the “Canadian dream,” a narrative that has grown stronger against a weakening “American dream.”
“We’ve been very successful in terms of attracting tremendous talent from all over the world. And we’ve also done it in a way that, to a very large extent, we’ve maintained our social cohesion,” she says. But discrimination against Indigenous and minority communities is a stubborn problem that is not always faced or even known.
When George Floyd was killed in the United States, Ms. Paul published statistics on discrimination against Black Canadians. “People were just shocked. … I understand that it’s painful because it doesn’t correspond to the image that many people in Canada have. I tell people that you can still love this place, but accept and understand that it has flaws.”
University student Kiara Nazon recorded a powerful video for Ms. Paul’s leadership campaign about the discrimination she faces as a Black woman in Canada and why diversity in politics is so important. She says that even if minority and Indigenous communities are the first victims of climate change and have long been activists on the front lines, the public face of the party has been white. “I think Annamie being the leader is such a momentous change because people can see themselves in the Green Party now that never saw themselves in it before,” says Ms. Nazon, the co-chair of the Young Greens of Canada.
Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, says Ms. Paul might be able to broaden the party’s appeal since she is from Toronto and fully fluent in French, possibly attracting Quebecois. But the party faces several obstacles. The Liberals and New Democrats have adopted environmental platforms, and as the Greens push harder on social justice, it becomes harder to distinguish themselves from other parties. “If she tries to reorient the party in that direction,” he says, “they run into more competition.”
Expectations of a “Green surge” failed to materialize in 2019, leaving the party with just three seats in Parliament. Ms. Paul didn’t win a seat in Parliament in the Toronto Centre riding where she ran, nor in a by-election held last month. Yet the Green Party’s percentage of the vote swelled in that district, from less to a tenth of voters to over a third this time. Because Toronto Centre is a Liberal stronghold, she has said the results signal voters’ willingness to seek new solutions.
Ms. Paul is not afraid to open up about the realities of life as a working mother. She answers questions about her hair whenever she is asked, which is constantly. She shaved it off when she had a baby during her demanding Princeton program. “Anyone who knows Black women and their hair knows it is a big commitment,” she says. “And so it had to go.”
When she emerged victorious as the new leader of the Green Party, she wore a striking white suit, leading many to wonder if she was signaling support of the suffragist movement a century ago. “I will honestly say that I wish that it had been a symbolic thing. But what it really was is my sister said, ‘If you win this thing, it’s going to be historic, and you’ve gotta look good.’ And she told me what to wear.”
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She says she tries to demystify politics so that artists or scientists who don’t see themselves as politicians consider it. “If you have a diversity of views at the table, you’re much more likely to avoid pitfalls. So if you’re designing a policy, whether it’s policing or health care or education … you’re far less likely to create public policy that has glaring holes in it.
“I think that is also what the moment requires,” she says.