Category Archives: green party

The state of the Green Party of Canada

On the occasion of the best electoral result in the history of the Green Party of Canada, it’s important to take a few minutes to examine where the party has been and where it goes from here. It’s also critical, I believe, to acknowledge there were some real weaknesses in last night’s results and in the national campaign as well. This discussion is just beginning; here’s my opening contribution.

Early history

The beginnings of the Green Party of Canada were inauspicious to say the least. Very little about its founding convention in 1983 at Carleton University is publicly documented. Instead, we have an oral history that describes a mishmash of variously interested activists who couldn’t even agree on what kind of organization they were creating. A member who attended that first meeting, Dan Murray, describes “some guy…walking around handing out mimeographed sheets” saying he should be elected leader. Murray says “the dude was shunned and laughed at. I remember asking him why we would want one of those when every other party already has one?”

After officially registering on August 8, 1984, the federal party (much weaker than its provincial counterparts in British Columbia and Ontario) didn’t hold another federal conference or have a constitution until 1988, and until 1996 officially prohibited the leader of the party from acting as the party’s spokesperson.

Joan Russow, elected leader the following year, made some gains for the party in terms of media attention and electoral success, and, during the 2000 election, embarked on the party’s first national leader’s tour. Yet it wasn’t until the 2004 election under Jim Harris (who had lost the leadership to Russow in 1997) that the party made its great leap forward.


Harris (now somewhat famously) recognized a huge opportunity in the newly implemented $1.75 per vote funding for any party that broke 2% in a federal election. In 2000 the Greens had garnered 0.81% of the vote with only 111 candidates, so Harris figured that even if all they did was run a candidate in all 308 ridings they’d pass the threshold.

He was right, and with 582,247 votes (4.3%) in the 2004 election the Green Party of Canada became a million dollar political organization overnight. This was both an exciting breakthrough, and the result of a “fake it ’til you make it” trick. I joined the party shortly after the 2004 election to discover it only had approximately 800 members. In order to pull-off the full slate, a third of the party’s membership had stood as candidates, sometimes in ridings on the other side of the country from where they actually lived.

Later that year at a general meeting and leadership convention in Bragg Creek, Alberta, there were signs the party wasn’t ready for this sudden success. Members (myself included) spent the first full morning simply arguing over the agenda. When someone proposed it should include a singing of the national anthem they were blocked by a member (who was also, not surprisingly, a former and future candidate) who explained that they “don’t believe in nations.” By the end of the weekend and after substantial amounts of rye whiskey consumption (I leave it up to you to decide if that fact is pertinent) the meeting had improved enough, and I had met enough good people, to become tentatively reassured I was in the right place.

Still, major internal growing pains were never allowed an opportunity to settle down or heal. Minority governments necessitated perpetual election readiness, straining the reborn party’s finances and volunteers, and taking the focus away from important—and, in some cases, still unresolved—questions about internal procedures, governance, and purpose.


The 2006 policy and leadership convention in Ottawa that elected Elizabeth May leader was another huge step for the party. Thanks largely to her pre-established national profile and the influx of new members her leadership campaign generated, for the first time not only did CPAC broadcast the whole convention, but as the leadership results were announced Don Newman himself reported live for CBC Newsworld from the floor of the convention centre. Pundits credited May’s strong showing in the London North Centre by-election later that year, as well as strong results in four simultaneous 2008 by-elections (including my own), with helping to secure further credibility with the national media and, in another first for the party, an invitation to the 2008 election leaders’ debates.


That highpoint was followed by a pronounced denouement. While the party did slightly increase its share of the popular vote in 2008, after much hype it failed to come close to electing a single MP. In addition, comments May made about strategic voting had demoralized and angered a number of candidates and key volunteers who felt like their leader had advised people not to vote Green. As the election night “victory party” wound down at the Supermarket in Toronto, some key party members put on a brave face, but privately had a hard time seeing a way forward.

Following that disappointing result, the party’s Federal Council and Federal Campaign Committee (of which I have intermittently been a member) established several key objectives for the next campaign, but there was an understanding that the number one objective, to elect Elizabeth May, was the only one that really mattered. It was a strategy that explicitly placed all of the party’s eggs in one basket, and which former staffer Mark Kersten described as a Hail Mary pass. As the polls closed on May 2 2011, there was little doubt that the Green Party was heading for either its best federal result ever and a real breakthrough, or a politically devastating result that would threaten its future existence.

Last night

The best result yet

The list of people who believed last night’s result to be impossible is too long (and includes too many people within the party itself). But Greens are in the business of accomplishing the impossible, and last night the voters of Saanich—Gulf Islands made history. There are thousands of people who worked hard for years to make this happen, both directly and indirectly, but there isn’t a single member of the Green Party of Canada who could have brought it home other than Elizabeth May.

Nor is there a single measure of success that’s as important or as significant as establishing a beachhead in the House of Commons. Before, May wasn’t even allowed to answer media questions in the Centre Block foyer. Leaders’ salary and core office staff, paid for through public funds if you’re in the House, had to be carried completely by the political operation.

On actual issues, on votes and debates in the House of Commons, one voice will make a difference. Even in the minority Parliaments of the last few years, a strange unanimity has often dominated what should have been controversial debates. In 2007 for example, not a single MP opposed restarting the Chalk River nuclear reactor even though the regulator said it was missing a “key upgrade” that is “key to nuclear safety” and is required to make sure that “the core doesn’t melt down.” Similarly, not a single party in the 40th Parliament opposed the federal subsidy of the commercial seal hunt, even though many Canadians—and, increasingly, foreign governments and trading blocks—do. Further, critical issues like the climate crisis frequently get shoved out of the way by short-term political concerns. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, many Canadians who were previously unrepresented now finally have a voice.

As witnessed by the many Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and independents publicly celebrating the results in Saanich-Gulf Islands last night, Elizabeth May’s election isn’t just a victory for Greens, but for all Canadians who value a diversity of voices and want to see an elevation in our nation’s level of political discourse.

The worst result in a long time

And yet, while electing an MP was the only thing the Green Party needed to do last night to credibly claim victory, there’s also some bad news in the results and threats in the future. At less than 4% nationally, the party’s popular vote is the worst result since 2000, falling even lower than in 2004 when many candidates had principled objections to things like ordering lawn signs, asking for votes, combing their hair, etc. The cost of focusing resources on one riding was worth it, but there was a cost.

For example, local campaigns that receive at least 10% of the vote get 60% of their expenses reimbursed. In other words, a campaign that spends $80,000 is guaranteed to start the next election with at least $48,000. That’s a huge advantage in terms of riding strength and stability, and many Green riding associations (EDAs) were just starting to tap into that opportunity and build a fiscal foundation to carry them from election to election. Almost all of that evaporated last night, even in ridings that ran their strongest local campaigns ever only to see their vote reduced by more than half.

Serious challenges

The financial sustainability of the national party is also not guaranteed. The per-vote subsidy that gave birth to the modern Green Party of Canada is almost certainly doomed. For the first time since it gained national prominence, the party has to figure out how to fundraise on its own.

One of the biggest stories today is the soul searching and rebuilding the Liberal Party will have to do in the next few years. In the long run that could be positive, but Liberals are only in this position because they were forced. The Green Party isn’t so lucky: it needs to force itself to ask some hard questions and evaluate its own performance.

In addition to fundraising, the biggest challenges (and the biggest disappointments of the campaign) are in organizing and communications. For the second election in a row, the party failed to field a candidate in every riding despite promising to do so. (I don’t buy for a second the excuse that that’s due to a more vigorous vetting process. Frankly, if you’re not even finding rape jokes in the “favourite quotes” section of a candidate’s Facebook profile, I’m not sure I buy you’re vetting them at all.)

With regard to communications, ironically the party can be thankful its Director of Communications started this campaign with zero Twitter followers. I don’t think any of his counterparts would have gotten away with saying intervention in Libya was “sexy.” (See Lisa Raitt.) And I’m sorry, but when the person writing the alerts you’re pushing to iPhone users can’t compose a proper sentence, then rightly or wrongly, I lose confidence in your ability to govern. It’s not good enough to blame the media. The party needs to take responsibility for its own failure to communicate its message.

What’s next

This isn’t the first time I’ve openly mused about the Green Party’s future, and despite what I’ve said above, I’m more optimistic than ever. Still, these weaknesses give Greens reason to be thankful for a majority government, if only from a political strategy perspective. This is the first time in the history of the modern Green Party that we know when the next election is going to be. It’s the first time since 2004 that we can stand down from “election readiness mode” and take a step back. We have four years to build a fundraising base, reinvigorate and motivate grassroots volunteers, professionalize (though I know we don’t like that word) organizing and communications and plan to make sure that this wasn’t a one-off. We need great candidates in winnable ridings, and we probably need most of them to start campaigning within the next two years. We need to build our (virtual) bench strength so that when Elizabeth May is done being leader there’s someone who can take her place. (That day will come sooner than it feels right now, and right now, there’s no one.)

Today is for celebrating a hard fought, well earned, impossible victory. The party has come a long way since Carleton University in Ottawa, since Bragg Creek, Alberta, even since London North Centre. Tomorrow, as President Bartlet was fond of saying, we need to quickly move to “what’s next.”

A new era for the Green Party of Ontario

Saturday night at the Green Party of Ontario's leadership convention

I was asked to write a summary of the provincial Greens’ recent meeting in London, Ontario for the party’s monthly newsletter (PDF). Here it is.

I think that our new leader Mike Schreiner said it best when describing the outcome of the Green Party of Ontario’s recent leadership conference and policy convention. “There’s a sense of a new beginning, and a new era in the party.” The momentum and energy coming out of our weekend in London was that of a party that has embraced a common vision and is hopeful and upbeat about the future.

Green members from across the province met in London, Ontario from October 13th to 15th. While there were policy workshops and debates, most of the buzz was centered around celebrating outgoing leader Frank de Jong for his amazing 16-years of service, welcoming and affirming incoming leader Mike Schreiner and listening to and learning from great speakers from within and without the party.

For me, three themes emerged: that we must be the party of hope and principled solutions, that we already have more influence and impact than we know, and that in order to reach new levels of success we’re going to have to get to work.

To a certain extent, those three themes were encapsulated by three presentations. The first, by Schreiner. “Don’t appeal to fear when dealing with climate change,” he said during a town hall meeting on the Saturday, “even though fear is justified.” Instead, he said, focus on all of the great opportunities that will come out of transitioning our economy, for example.

The second, by Markham City Councillor Erin Shapero, a non-partisan, who told us in an inspiring speech that “[Greens] have shone light that has shined brighter and reached further than you may realize. Thanks to your leadership things are trickling down and happening [in governments] in ways that you maybe haven’t imagined,” before predicting that there will be Green MPPs at Queen’s Park after the next election in 2011.

The third, by Robert Routledge, a Green party member and former Barack Obama field organizer, who shared campaigning insights for an hour to a captivated audience on Sunday morning. “The other parties are better at this (campaigning) than we are,” he said, “but we can choose to out-work them. What we’re trying to do is really really hard. It’s a grind. So we can take pride in grinding it out against the other parties.”

In other words: stay positive, recognize the amazing things we’ve already done, and get to work on the incredible task ahead.

Of course, no summary can do the whole weekend justice, particularly this short one. We also heard greetings from the European Greens, communications and messaging ideas from broadcaster Ralph Benmergui, a “roast” of Frank de Jong by his partner Kelley Aitken, a rousing acceptance speech from Mike Schreiner, and more. To read even more about this weekend (including highlights from some of the speeches I mentioned), check out these blog posts:

Convention opens with tributes to Frank de Jong

Yohan Hamels brings greetings from European Greens

Mike Schreiner inspires members, sets out vision

Shapero: Greens are needed now more than ever

Greens learn “lessons of an Obama field organizer”

Acceptance Speech from Mike Schreiner

Greens learn “lessons of an Obama field organizer”

Crossposted from my blog on, because it’s that damned important.

Robert Routledge / Submitted photo
Robert Routledge / Submitted photo

Robert Routledge ran his “lessons of an Obama field organizer” convention workshop in the same way that Obama campaign meetings themselves were run. “All Obama meetings start with music,” he explained, usually Waiting on the world to change by John Mayer.

From “music” the meeting then moves to “stories.” Routledge told his story of how he became a staff organizer on the campaign that changed America. It began in Milwaukee where Routledge performed the simple act of getting a computer printer to work. He then quickly discovered that on the Obama campaign, “if you were competent at anything you were promoted quickly.” It wasn’t long before a serendipitous series of events placed Routledge on the Milwaukee evening television news as a campaign spokesperson, doing his best to “stay on message” based on what he’d learned about Obama by watching CNN. Ultimately he would end up establishing the campaign office in Pittsburgh and traveling around the country from state to state as a “fixer.”

After the meeting organizer has told their story, they invite everyone in attendance to turn to someone they don’t know very well and ask them “what is your story and why are you here?” It’s a powerful question that in just one or two minutes can reveal common ground or unearth a diversity of motivations and backgrounds.

Stories are important, Routledge explained, because the Obama campaign was about Obama’s story. “We were trained in excruciating detail how to tell Barack’s story,” he said, focusing on his Harvard education and background as a community organizer from the south side of Chicago. (That discipline was effective all the way to here in London. When the room was asked, those were the first two things that people recalled about Obama’s background.) Internally, the stories of the staff and volunteers of the Obama campaign connected them to each other and built community. Externally, Obama’s story allowed the campaign to connect with people on a human level.

“What this campaign does”

Once everyone has had 60 seconds to tell their story and there’s a good vibe in the room, Routledge drops the hard truth on his group of new volunteers. “Ok,” he says, “what this campaign does is we knock on doors and make phone calls. That’s it.”

Thus he established a main theme of his message for the Green party. The organizers who were successful, he said, are the ones who could keep it simple and focused on the things that actually matter and win votes. Other organizers who got distracted by side projects and activities that weren’t a good use of time were not successful and were not given further responsibility.

That meant making phone calls non-stop from around 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then knocking on doors until it got dark, then continuing to make phone calls until 9 p.m. “If you got tired of calls, you knocked on doors. When your feet got sore, you made calls.” Each primary campaign started by making “persuasion calls” focused on convincing people to vote for Obama during early days when they needed to increase their voter base, then moved to making shorter “ID calls” in the later stage of the campaign when they were confident they had enough people persuaded and it was now just a matter of making sure they voted.

Each evening organizers would jump onto regional conference calls where they reported numbers: how many calls did your campaign make that day, how many doors did you knock on, how many voters were IDed, how many volunteers were recruited? In other words, are you doing your job? The goal was for each organizer’s office to make 1000 phone calls and knock on 250 doors per day, and Routledge said he had to “get creative” to become the only organizer to achieve that goal.

“Doing things upsets people.”

Another key lesson for Routledge is that “doing things upsets people.”

“If you’re going to be confident in what you want to do, and [Green Leader] Mike [Schreiner] and [President] Bill [Hewitt] and [Executive Director] Becky [Smit] set the direction and we start moving that way, people are going to be mad at you. They already are. And that’s OK.” An example from Routledge’s experience is that his campaign team placed no value on lawn signs, deciding to almost never give them out. “People were furious,” he said, but it allowed them to focus on other activities (you guessed it: making calls and knocking on doors) that they believed would yield greater results.

In answer to the question of how you deal with people who don’t buy in to your campaign strategy, Routledge takes a tough love approach. “People who don’t buy in to what you’re doing are going to do you more harm than good. Say goodbye to them. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to fix someone because time is valuable.” He emphasized that that doesn’t mean you don’t train volunteers and make an effort to ensure they feel comfortable, but that there’s sometimes a point where it’s better to part ways if things aren’t working out.

“The grind,” and engaging voters

For Routledge, the exciting opportunity for the Green Party of Ontario is the prospect that we can work harder than the other parties. “The other parties are better at this than we are, but we can choose to out-work them. What we’re trying to do is really really hard. It’s a grind. So we can take pride in grinding it out against the other parties.”

Just as successful organizers are able to keep things simple, Routledge had a straight-forward response to the common question about how to connect with young people. “Physically go to where they are and talk to them. This isn’t fancy.”

He also said that the under-30 crowd is a “generation of big ideas.” Tools like Facebook, Twitter,, YouTube, were great, “but they were just tools. The campaign was actually about the message. It was a language of big ideas and hope, and that’s how you connect with the under-30 crowd.” Web 2.0 tools are a way for people to connect, he said, not a reason for people to connect.

Stay on message and get emotional

“Greens like being right,” Routledge observed, “and we get frustrated when our views aren’t shared, so we want to educate people, ‘this is important and we’re right’. But as Ralph Benmergui said yesterday, politics is emotional. If we’re not connecting with people on an emotion level, inspiring people to believe that we can do better, [then we’re not succeeding]. That’s not just important for Mike and Elizabeth, that’s important for you at the door.”

Routledge shared that on the Obama campaign if anyone went off message (including if someone spoke to the media and gave a perfect message but were not authorized to have done so) they were immediately fired.

Damage control: “The world ended”

“Don’t panic. But actually, panic! Panic like your hair is on fire!” In other words, it’s important to stay calm, while also taking swift action to manage a bad situation. Things will get very bad, Routledge said. “When Reverend Wright happened and a few days later Obama made his comments about people who cling to guns and religion, the world ended.” How you then choose to deal with a bad situation is important. You have to quickly realize that “we can’t unsay what’s been said or undo what’s been done,” then start managing what happened.

Make friends

In the period of time when you’re not actively campaigning, the best thing you can do is make friends, Routledge said. Then when a campaign does come around you can use those relationships. “Don’t make it about the party or the ideas, make it about emotions and relationships.”

We can also do things with our supporters after the campaign, he said, pointing to a grassroots initiative in the U.S. made up largely of identified Obama supporters that’s now working behind the scenes to win the health care debate. “Our supporters list is a powerful, powerful thing to have.”

Routledge concluded by asking some provocative questions about where the Green party should go from here. “Do we want to make this about being right? About winning? About building community? Who are we?” For him, it comes down to choice. We get to choose what we want to do in 2011. We get to choose whether or not to work harder than the other parties, whether or not we make thousands of phone calls and knock on thousands of doors. It’s up to us, and it’s that simple.

Mike Schreiner inspires members, sets out vision

Crossposted from my blog on, which has even more posts from this weekend’s convention.

Leadership contestant Mike Schreiner spent 30 minutes this morning answering questions from Greens in attendance at this week’s convention. His comments were an inspiring and energizing call to action. What follows is my attempt to transcribe some of his comments. These are mostly direct quotes but some slight paraphrasing has taken place as well.

Three critical pillars for Green leadership

First, you need to have the right vision. I joined the Green Party of Ontario because I absolutely believe we have the right vision.

Second, a leader needs the right organizational leadership. We have to build our organizational capacity by increasing our membership and raising more money

Third, we need to be able to effectively, clearly and compellingly deliver a message that motivates people to vote for us.

Three green messages to focus on

I think our message needs to focus on three critically important pillars.

First, we are going to advocate for building a prosperous green economy in this province

The second critical component, we need to foster strong sustainable communities and empower our municipalities.

Third, I’m going to be steadfast in my commitment to promoting the health and well being of all Ontarians.

Question: How will you ensure we run strong candidates in all ridings?

I think it’s absolutely critical that we run 107 candidates, and first we need to have 107 functioning CAs. I’m going to be a full time leader. That means I’m going to spend at least one day a week at Queen’s Park, and the other five days (I’d like to take one day a week to spend with my family) I’m going to be traveling around the province engaging voters and our members. I don’t want a candidate to go into the next election without the support of a CA in place.

But I’m going to be frank with you. We’re going to need to focus our resources on ridings where we think we have a chance to win. And when we break through in one or two ridings it’s going to benefit every single riding and every single candidate across the province.

Question: How will you ensure we’re not just preaching to the choir?

I’m going to propose that we do a Community Engagement Program where CAs go out into the community and do something like support the local BIA or organize a Buy Local campaign or a Clean Up The River campaign. We need to demonstrate concretely on the ground that we as a party are doing things to benefit the community. We have to reach out to people who are not yet members of this party. The nice thing is I’m already getting quite a few requests to speak at events that aren’t Green party events. It’s going to take just picking up the phone and talking to business leaders, community leaders, NGOs, heritage associations, and opening a conversation with them. It’s going to take every single person in this room to engage and commit to that kind of activity.

Climate change is an enormous problem, and we need to accomplish huge emissions reductions. How will we do that?

First, don’t “appeal to fear” when dealing with climate change, even though fear is justified. Instead, talk about the opportunity to transition our economy. One of the things we have to address right away is the lack of efficiency in our buildings. We need an aggressive campaign to retrofit all our buildings. The great thing about that is it’s going to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. The other great thing is it’s actually going to save us money over time. The second opportunity is for each and every Ontarian to become an energy entrepreneur. The third critical area is around our transportation systems. Again, we can appeal to that in a positive way. “Did we bargain for this? Do most of us really want to spend three hours a day in our cars?” No, we want to spend time with our families.

What is our position on the HST?

We’re opposed to it, and I’d invite you to read Frank de Jong’s blog on the subject. Most parties have attacked this as a “tax grab,” and it is, but there’s a more fundamental issue with the HST, and that’s the continued centralization of power in this country. We’ve taken an important tool and turned it over to the federal government. (Ed Note: I’m definitely paraphrasing here.) We use taxation tools to help create the changes we need, so abdicating those tools to another government is not in the long term interest of the province.

A final thought…

What motivates Green party activists isn’t the political appointment at the end of the day, it’s our commitment to our values, principals and vision to create a better world for our children. That, as Frank de Jong says, is our compass.