Climate is a top issue in Canada. Why aren’t the Greens doing better?

Why We Wrote This

Environmentalism has reached crisis-level importance for many. But that still has yet to make a difference at the ballot box for parties like Canada’s Greens, as practical needs outweigh long-term threats.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press/AP
Members of the Clay and Paper Theatre take part in the climate strike in Toronto on Sept. 27, 2019.

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Canada’s Green Party is poised to do better than it ever has in this month’s federal elections. Led by the popular Elizabeth May, the Greens currently enjoy support of 10.1%, three times what they got in 2015.

But that still leaves them in fourth place overall, despite the environment recently being ranked the top unprompted issue of concern in Canada, according to polling this summer by Nanos Research. For all the urgency about climate change, it doesn’t seem to have a proportional effect at the ballot box.

Pollster Nik Nanos explains that not all of those who list the environment as their top concern care about global warming. Some are against climate policy like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax. “This doesn’t mean Canadians are becoming more environmentalist. What it means is that the environment is increasingly becoming an important battleground,” Mr. Nanos says.

And for some, the Greens’ position needs to be moderated by practical realities. “People can’t vote for something that’s going to destroy their economic existence,” says John Wojewoda, an entrepreneur who once worked at Greenpeace, but plans to vote Liberal. “I can’t stop driving my car right now, because I have to go to work.”

John Wojewoda thinks about global warming in the same stark terms as does Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen activist.

At the recent climate strikes in Toronto, some of the dozens held around Canada (Ms. Thunberg led one in Montreal herself), he painted the situation as an “existential crisis” over which society is in “denial.”

But when it comes time to vote in Canada’s October federal election, he is not voting Green, the party that goes the furthest in its pledge to tackle greenhouse emissions, even though he thinks drastic action is urgently required.

“People can’t vote for something that’s going to destroy their economic existence,” says Mr. Wojewoda, an entrepreneur who once worked at Greenpeace. “I can’t stop driving my car right now, because I have to go to work. With the kind of economy that we’ve created, people have a very small margin of freedom.”

What he’d like to see is an ambitious plan coming from the main parties – he cites the U.S. Democrats’ Green New Deal – to effect long-term change. For the moment, he explains, in a country that scientists say is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, “the only change that can happen is within the two main parties.”

His views go a long way to explain the disconnect between the pressing urgency that people have placed on climate action since the 2015 election cycle and the reason the Green Party is not experiencing the “green wave” that might be expected.

A Green wave

Canada’s Green Party is certainly seeing momentum, and is poised to do better than it ever has. Led by the popular Elizabeth May, the Greens currently enjoy support of 10.1%, three times what they got in 2015, according to the latest CBC poll tracker. That gives them a chance to take over third place from the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP), polling at 13.9%.

The Greens, whose base has long been British Columbia where Ms. May holds her seat (one of two they currently occupy at the federal level), have grown swiftly. They became the official opposition in Prince Edward Island in this year’s provincial elections. They have also won provincial seats in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press/AP
Green Party candidate Michael Kalmanovitch holds up a placard in front of "I love Canadian Oil and Gas" signs in the legislature windows during the climate strike in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sept. 27, 2019.

But part of their appeal has nothing to do with the climate. The Green Party “is no longer a single issue party. And that’s why it’s able to attract the progressive vote: feminists, labor, community activists,” says Donald Wright, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick. “They might be environmentalists, they might not be.”

Even in a place like Prince Edward Island – where “they’re not measuring the erosion of the shoreline in inches or in centimeters but in feet,” says Don Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island – the environment wasn’t the issue that drove 30.6% of voters to the party. Rather it was health care and rural economic development. “They didn’t downplay the environment,” Dr. Desserud says, “but they did not make that their No. 1 priority.”

Like in Europe, the Green Party here sees itself as something of a protest vote for disillusioned Canadians today. “There’s a deep desire for a new way of doing politics, and the Green Party’s approach of being more cooperative and collaborative and less toxic and confrontational is very appealing to people,” says Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner. In 2018, he became the first Green elected to Ontario’s provincial legislature.

In a sense the Greens have been forced to differentiate themselves from the mainstream. Climate change, once a secondary issue, has become top policy for all political parties amid dire climate warnings, not to mention increasing attention to wildfires, floods, and heat waves.

Major party leaders were at the climate protests last week, except for Conservative candidate Andrew Scheer. And that gives rise to another Green challenge: the strategic vote. Liz Miller, protesting in Toronto, says she’s voted Green her entire life. But this year the stakes are too high, so she is voting Liberal – ideally swapping her vote with someone else who can vote Green in another riding, or electoral district – to ensure the Conservatives don’t win. That’s despite the Liberals’ polarizing move last year to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline to bring more crude oil to market.

Electoral fears of vote-splitting come election day is an old story for the Greens. So are systematic issues: Without proportional representation, smaller parties suffer. In the first leaders’ debate that included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last night, Ms. May was controversially excluded because the party doesn’t hold seats in Quebec.

But given the mood and how much the Greens have grown, party leaders are optimistic about a breakthrough this year. “Climate change is happening now, and it’s hurting people now,” says deputy Green leader Daniel Green.

Not yet ready for the limelight?

Yet despite the global climate protests and all the media attention on Ms. Thunberg, it’s easy to overstate how important climate issues really are to people. In polling this summer by Nanos Research, the environment became the top unprompted national issue of concern for the first time, says pollster Nik Nanos. The finding has been widely cited.

But Mr. Nanos explains that not all of those who list the environment as their top concern care about global warming. Some are against climate policy like Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax. “This doesn’t mean Canadians are becoming more environmentalist. What it means is that the environment is increasingly becoming an important battleground,” Mr. Nanos says.

Or as Dr. Wright puts it, “At the end of the day, a voter is also a taxpayer and a pensioner.”

Some Canadians worry deeply about the environment, but also wonder if the Greens are ready to lead. The party has stumbled in recent weeks on some of the nation’s most contentious issues, from abortion to Quebec separatism. The Greens of New Brunswick made national news in September after they misreported that 14 local NDP members had defected to their party; the real number was half that. The Greens were embarrassed again last month when the party admitted to altering an image to place a reusable straw and cup in the hands of Ms. May, who’d been carrying single-use items.

At Toronto’s climate march, Cat Doncaster says she believes Ms. May would make an excellent leader. But Ms. Doncaster says for the moment she is leaning Liberal, and hopes that the show of support at climate marches helps other parties realize they can up their environmental game without political fallout. “[The Green Party] probably needs a few more candidates to win ridings,” she says, “so that we can judge what they’re like financially and on so many other fronts before a federal leader is elected.”

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