Synthesis/Regeneration 13   (Spring 1997)

Worldwide Green

Ecology as Politics: The Green Party of Canada

by Wendy Priesnitz, Leader, The Canadian Greens

The Green Party of Canada is about to turn 14 years old. Although it's experiencing adolescent growing pains, the future looks bright as it balances ecological and political reality while challenging the prevailing ethic of growth at any cost.

About one month before the 1980 federal election in Canada, 11 candidates, mostly in Atlantic province districts, issued a joint press release declaring that they were running on a common platform which called for a transition to a non-nuclear, conserver society. Although they ran as independents, they unofficially used the name "Small Party" as part of their declaration of unity-a reference to the "small is beautiful" theme in Green politics. This was the most substantial early attempt to answer the call for an ecologically-oriented Canadian political party.

Three years later, North America's first Green Party was born in British Columbia, and later that same year the Ontario Greens were formed. The BC Greens leaped right into elections, running Canada's first Green candidate. Later that year, the founding conference of the Canadian Greens was held in Ontario. Close to 200 people from 55 communities attended, coming from every province except Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.

The birthing process was difficult, with deep divisions between those arguing for a national structure and those in favor of a process that would build from the regions. Trevor Hancock, the party's first registered leader, was eager to get Green politics up and running in Canada. However, a more cautious form of anarchism prevailed. Eventually, an uneasy agreement was reached for a federation of regional parties, with strong support for building upwards from the bottom.

Is the priority to redefine politics from the ground up, or to play the electoral game according to the present rules? Or both?

This struggle to make the party's structure reflect its decentralized, democratized values has continued to this day, as has the discussion about the party's real purpose. Some see the party as a microcosm of the society it seeks to create; others see it as an instrument for effecting change. Is the priority to redefine politics from the ground up, or to play the electoral game according to the present rules? Or both?

The Green Party of Canada contested its first federal election in September 1984. A little over 1% of Canadians voted Green. Unfortunately, the ongoing discussions about the party's modus operandi became so exhausting that at one point in the mid-80's there was a near collapse of the party. It was kept alive-if not particularly active-for almost a decade under the stewardship of the BC Greens.

In the 1988 federal election, the Green spotlight was on Quebec, where le Parti Vert ran 29 candidates (up from just 4 in the previous election). Les Verts received higher results than Green candidates anywhere else in Canada, polling an average of 2.4% of the vote. The Quebec wing hosted the 1990 Canadian Greens conference in Montreal. But soon after that, Canada's constitutional problems interfered, and many Quebec candidates abandoned the Greens in favor of a separatist party. Quebec only ran six Green candidates in the 1993 election.

In the summer of 1988, the BC Greens tried to get the Green Party of Canada onto its feet by hosting a conference-the first federal gathering since the founding meeting in 1983. The main accomplishment of that conference was the acceptance, after five years as a registered party, of a constitution. The party continued to field candidates at the federal level, and provincial parties were organized in a few other provinces, led by consistently strong efforts in British Columbia. In the spring of 1996, although the hopes of electing a representative to the BC legislature proved premature, one candidate in the interior of the province received over 11% of the vote and overall, the party's proportion of the popular vote surged to a new high. At the party's 6th annual gathering in Castlegar, BC in August of 1996, major constitutional amendments were passed, and policy was agreed to in a wide variety of areas. An important step forward was the structuring of a Shadow Cabinet, whose mandate is to create a platform for the next election, which will likely take place sometime in 1997.

The sixth annual gathering in Castlegar, BC marked the beginning of a new era in Canadian Greens history, and a somewhat uneasy one at that. In spite of a concern about the nature of leadership in a decentralized party, the Greens' first leadership campaign had been underway for the previous six months. Four candidates contested the leadership; a mail-in ballot was held; and when the votes were counted I had become the leader of the Green Party of Canada.

The majority of party membership apparently feels that I'm an appropriate leader for this time in its history. And in many ways, I reflect the uneasy combination of national versus local, political versus anarchist, that is the Green Party. I have spent the last 20 years editing a national environmental magazine that sees its mission as empowering people to act at the local level, and running national organizations about local issues such as micro-enterprise and alternative education. I'm also-to the relief of a substantial number of Canadian Greens-a somewhat reluctant politician. I've always realized that the personal is political with a small "p." That every choice I make in my everyday life is political, whether it's to walk to the farmers' market rather than drive to the supermarket, to help my children learn at home instead of sending them to school, or to buy local organic produce instead of chemically sprayed stuff imported from California.

But about capital "p" Politics, I have mostly wavered between apathy and disdain. I assumed that running a country was something done by aging white men. My role was as an outsider, protesting, arguing, writing letters, and trying to change them.

I still don't believe that politicians create change. At least not politicians as we know them. Ordinary people like me create change at the grassroots level.

I still don't believe that politicians create change. At least not politicians as we know them. Ordinary people like me create change at the grassroots level. This understanding that people can work together to find small-scale, personal and local solutions to massive problems was what attracted me to the Greens in the first place.

The aspect of Canadian Green politics that I value most is the understanding that economics, social justice issues and the environment are interrelated, and solutions to problems in any of these areas must be holistic. Greens understand that without each one of us taking responsibility for our own lives and for our own home places, we won't have a healthy and sustainable community, country or world.

Long before the Green Party of Canada existed, I was working, through grassroots organizing, to reverse the state orientation of politics and create a climate in which citizens are active participants, rather than passive subjects of those in power. I believe this definition of politics is a powerful one, which removes cynicism and replaces it with hope. And one that should speak well to Canadian voters, who are presently quite cynical about politics-as-usual.

The original mandate of the Canadian Greens borrowed from that of the West German Green Party. Petra Kelly has written that when they founded die Grünen, they used the term "anti-party party" to describe their approach to politics based on a new understanding of power, a "counter-power." This struggle with the concept of power is a difficult one for all Greens, and the Canadian Greens are no different. However slowly, but surely, we are coming to terms with power and how to comfortably use it in order to be active, effective participants in society. This kind of power stands in stark contrast to the power of domination, and is, I think, the best remedy for the feelings of powerlessness that characterize Canadians today. The task remains to get our message out to the electorate, with our perennial low budgets and shunning by the mainstream media.

Like most of us, I became involved in Green politics because I gave up placing hope in established political parties, whose primary interest is always in extending their own power. In the Green Party of Canada, I find hope in the creativity of people working at the grassroots level to create positive change. Perhaps one day we will find our place in Parliament, working in partnership with the established political parties. Until then, we will be the anti-party party-a political experiment that is unwilling to compromise its fundamental values.

Until then, we will be the anti-party party -- a political experiment that is unwilling to compromise its fundamental values.

My immediate task is to help the party develop in spite of-or perhaps because of-our various conflicting agendas, which continue to be healthily and heatedly debated. The dilemma, of course, is how to create a political party, whose structure and methods of operation are consistent with Green ideology, while not diluting that very ideological strength in order to get elected. As longtime GPC member and archivist Jeff Culbert puts it, "When a vision of a decentralized, democratized society meets an electoral system, state apparatus, and media which all favor centralized politics, the fit is not an easy one."

Those who favor participating in the electoral process believe that the appearance of a few Green Members of Parliament will have much more political impact than all the political lobbying in the world. However, the "first-past-the-post" system discriminates against minor parties and makes it next to impossible for us to elect representatives to government. For this reason, Canadian Greens are in favor of a system of Proportional Representation. In addition to often depriving regional interests of adequate representation, the plurality system prevents minor parties from being heard. It works for smaller parties if they are regionally concentrated, but electoral support for Greens in Canada is thinly spread across the country. Thus we could (and sometimes do) capture 5 or 10% of the popular vote without winning a single seat. The Proportional Representation electoral systems that are prevalent in Western Europe, and which contributed directly to the Green electoral breakthrough in Germany, offer much hope for Canadian Greens. So we are organizing ourselves, and working with other organizations, to work toward electoral change, which would include Proportional Representation. At our conference last summer, and on our e-mail listserv, there has been a great deal of discussion about the party being at a crossroads. In fact, we now have a Strategic Planning Committee, which is charged with the responsibility of recommending the direction the party should take.

We can pursue an alternative ecological agenda and continue to sacrifice electoral success, or we can pursue active political goals at the risk of losing our identity. I may be an idealist, but I think we can do both. I believe that we are in a prime position to fill a widening gap on the Canadian political scene, which continues to shift to the corporate-driven right. The irony is that we may be most successful politically by providing examples of activity outside the conventional area of electoral politics. Greens are most comfortable-and most effective-when we concentrate on building grassroots support within our communities, by means of community-based activity that forms co-ops, green businesses, carpools, Community Shared Agriculture farms, and eco-friendly food stores.

Even if we were to be swept into office, we wouldn't be swept into power. Corporations, banks, media conglomerates, and other bureaucracies would still hold the balance of power.

And this comfort is not misplaced. Like Greens around the world, Canadian Greens need to remember that even if we were to be swept into office, we wouldn't be swept into power. Corporations, banks, media conglomerates, and other bureaucracies would still hold the balance of power. And that's why we must direct all our energy and efforts, and yes-even our creative tension-to weaving together an agenda for change from the various strands of politics, community action, and economic and social reform. This, I believe, is where the future of the Green Party of Canada lies.

Wendy Priesnitz is the leader of the Green Party of Canada. She is also the Publisher and Editor of Natural Life magazine, the author of eight books, and a self-employment consultant. For this article, she acknowledges the assistance of Jeff Culbert, who is currently editing a comprehensive history of the Canadian Greens.

The Green Party of Canada Box 397, London ON N6A 4W1 Email: Web Site:

Canada's Parliamentary System

Canada has a two-tier Parliamentary system, modeled after the British system, which includes the House of Commons and the Senate. Citizens in over 300 districts vote once every 4 or 5 years to elect representatives to the House of Commons directly. The party with the majority of elected representatives forms the government and the leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister. The runner-up party becomes the Official Opposition. The Prime Minister chooses cabinet ministers to head up the various government departments. Currently, there are five political parties (Liberal, Bloc Quebecois, Reform, New Democrat and Progressive Conservative) with seats in Parliament. A handful of smaller parties, including the Greens, run candidates.

Once passed by the House of Commons, legislation goes to the Senate. However, members of this body are appointed (often by patronage) rather than elected, and many Canadians, including the Greens, are in favor of Senate reform or abolition.

Canada has 10 provinces and 2 territories, each of which has its own government, elected in the same way as the federal government is chosen. Most of the federal parties are also involved at the provincial level, with some regional differences. Party politics doesn't often prevail at the municipal level, although Greens ran slates of candidates in this fall's municipal elections in British Columbia.

Synthesis/Regeneration home page  | Synthesis/Regeneration 13 Contents