Annamie Paul was a diplomat in Europe when Stephen Harper was elected as Canada’s prime minister almost 15 years ago.
“Everything changed almost overnight,” she recalled, explaining how Canada’s foreign policy quickly pivoted to align “very strongly” with the United States’.
That same year, Elizabeth May was elected as the leader of Canada’s Green Party — a position she retired from this year to make way for a new leader.
Paul was reminiscing in a conversation with The Narwhal on Nov. 5, as ballots were still being counted in a tight U.S. election. A day earlier, the U.S. government formally withdrew from the 2015 Paris Agreement, making it the only country not committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the planet from warming up more than 2 C.
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The new leader of the Green Party was hopeful that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, would win and reverse that given their strong climate agenda.
Paul — who won the Green Party leadership race on Oct. 3 — has a strong grasp of foreign affairs, due in part to her many years working as a diplomat and lawyer across Europe and Africa. Her worldly perspective shows in the way she talks. When asked about an issue, she answers in three parts: impact on a community, impact on the country and impact on the world.
She made history when she was elected: the first Black woman and the second person of Jewish faith to lead a federal party. It’s fitting that many of her goals are about broadening the public perception of the Green Party. She figured that even if she lost the leadership race, the party’s members would benefit from seeing “a strong GTA [Greater Toronto Area] candidate coming from a racialized group.” She wants to increase cross-party cooperation and help rebuild Canada’s leadership role in international institutions.
Her goals may be difficult to achieve quickly. For one thing, Paul does not have a seat in Parliament, after losing last month’s by-election in Toronto Centre, the riding where she grew up.
When she decided to run for party leadership, Paul thought she’d at least be travelling the country and sharing her ideas. Instead, she’s “hoarding” her family’s carbon budget and sat down with The Narwhal on a Zoom call to talk about her vision for her party and the country.
What do people not understand, or misunderstand, about the Green Party?
We have three members of Parliament and they all come from the coast, one from New Brunswick and two from British Columbia. The largest number of our members come from Ontario — something a lot of people don’t know about our party. One thing that I’m really keen to do is to amplify the areas where we have not been really associated with in the public view.
We have for a very, very long time led the way on progressive policies related to social programs. We were talking about a guaranteed livable income many, many years ago, and creating a much more complete set of universal programs, including things like post-secondary education or pharmacare. These are very long-standing Green policies. I think we have an opportunity [with] a new leader [to help make it] easier for the public to imagine that those other things are things we would be concerned about.
Usually, when people talk about us, they say we’re very concerned about the climate. That’s where it ends for them. What I’ve been saying, and will continue to keep saying, is that our concern for the climate flows out of our concern about other things. If you’re concerned about climate, you have to be concerned about social justice, about our social safety net. These things are all interconnected.
What do you want people to understand about you?
I try to educate first. We all come to issues from different perspectives and different levels of understanding. I try to approach those discussions not assuming that the person has perfect knowledge of the issues. The key is to respectfully disagree.
I’ve already had some occasions to disagree publicly with the leader of the Bloc Québécois because of his views on systemic racism, on the use of the N word, and his comments recently about Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism being used as a cudgel. These are views I absolutely don’t agree with, and I’ve had to publicly call him out for them. One thing I learned during the leadership race in particular is that silence emboldens hate.
Speaking of disagreements, we’re looking at a probable change in American leadership. What kind of impact do you see a Joe Biden presidency having on U.S.-Canada relations and Canadian climate policy?
I hope we have a really robust and ongoing conversation with them about the climate and how we can work together. There are some early encouraging signs. During the campaign, Biden spoke about his interest in introducing carbon tariffs, for instance, which would be very, very, very impactful given the size of the U.S, economy. It’s something that would almost certainly lead us to introduce one of our own.
There have been some discouraging signals as well, though, like when Biden and Harris both said they would not end fracking. That was something that was very disappointing for us because we want to see that happen.
So it’s kind of a mixed bag, but I believe that we could have productive conversations. They both have spent significant time in this country so there is a good foundation for those conversations. But where we don’t agree, Canada needs to feel that it can go its own way: we still have to have an independent foreign policy, we still have to have an independent climate policy and we still need to be able to strike out on our own path when it’s clear that the United States is doing the wrong thing. We also need to build coalitions with other international actors as a counterweight to any of the decisions that might not either favour Canada or might not be in the best interest of the global community.
In your opinion, what are the challenges facing Canada in 2021?
There are two tracks that we need to be working on at the same time. One is completing our social safety net. We were left really dangerously exposed as soon as the pandemic hit. People in Canada have made it very clear they do not want to end up in this situation again. That’s going to require us to do the work that we have delayed and delayed and delayed on things like reforming our long-term care system, bringing in a guaranteed livable income, bringing in universal pharmacare and creating a true national strategy for affordable housing.
The other one is the climate emergency, which has not changed. We have the opportunity to use these enormous sums of money that we’re going to be spending over the next couple of years as an opportunity to have a quantum leap forward in our movement towards a climate-neutral economy, to have a truly green recovery, one that lets us hit our set targets that correspond with the science and hit them maybe even ahead of schedule.
None of the really big challenges can be dealt with simply at the domestic level. We absolutely need to have institutions and structures in place that allow us to collaborate, cooperate, negotiate with other state actors. This is the moment where multilateralism should really be coming into its own, and it’s under attack. We really need to make sure that we have those institutions working at full potential, and that’s something that Canada can help fix.
With 2020 almost over, is there a story or an experience you can share from this year that struck you and will shape your political work moving forward?
My father died in long-term care at the end of May. [Editor’s note: his death was not related to COVID-19.]
It’s made me aware that even in Canada, where we have done a lot of things very well, we still have a lot of unfinished work in terms of protecting people.
I believe that we can do really extraordinary things if we can get the political leadership to match the courage and sacrifice the general public has demonstrated during this year. That’s what I take away from this year. We can still do big things with cross-party cooperation and agreements and an educated public that is willing to demand the quality of life we all truly deserve. If we can look just a little bit down the road past the darkest part of this moment and imagine those things in place, it should be something that gets us very excited.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
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