Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner has spent four years as the monkey on Premier Doug Ford’s back.
He’s the lone Green MPP in the legislature, with far fewer resources than the other parties. And yet he punches above his weight — needling the Ford government on environmental issues and championing housing affordability and mental health resources, working across the aisle and even joking that he hopes other parties pick up on his ideas.
It’s not always a winning game. Time and time again, the Ford government has done the opposite of what he’s pushed for, by fast-tracking highways through Ontario’s Greenbelt, disempowering conservation authorities and watering down environmental laws. But still, Schreiner says he’s had so many wins, it’s hard to pick a favourite. Was it the time he worked with a Progressive Conservative MPP to pass Ontario’s first-ever Green bill, which reserved parking spaces for electric vehicles? Or the moment when, under pressure from Schreiner and others, the province abandoned a plan to open up the Greenbelt for development?
“It shows you what people power can accomplish,” the ever-cheerful Schreiner said in an interview with The Narwhal at his Queen’s Park office, wearing one of his characteristically green ties.
Schreiner grew up on a farm in Kansas. He moved to Ontario in the 1990s with his wife Sandy, with whom he has two daughters, and became a Canadian citizen in 2007. Before getting into politics, he was a small business owner, leading a few initiatives focused on the local food movement and sustainability. He’s also an avid paddler and hiker — his favourite spots are Temagami, Algonquin and Killarney Provincial Parks.
In 2009, he was elected leader of the Green Party of Ontario, a separate entity from the federal Green Party. It took nine more years and four election cycles until he won his seat in Guelph. In this spring’s election, Schreiner is looking to double his party’s seat count of one, at least.
The Narwhal caught up with Schreiner in mid-April to talk about all things election, environment — his favourite endangered species is the Blanding’s turtle, by the way — and why he feels his four years fighting the Ford government haven’t been futile.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
After the 2014 election, I was questioning: is this really the right way to deliver on the things that I want to achieve in politics? A lot of people talked me into staying, actually.
I mean, I knew when I became leader of the party that it was going to be a huge challenge to break through and win a seat in Ontario. And so I knew the 2011 election would be really hard, but I thought 2014 would be a real opportunity for us. I came within a few hundred votes of getting second place, but still not first place.
People were like, you are going to win in 2018. Like, you just have to keep working hard, the legislature needs your voice.
At that time, a lot of the conversation was that the Liberal government did take some really important steps on climate action in particular, but hadn’t gone far enough. We needed pressure from the Green Party. And at that time, the NDP was kind of non-existent on climate.
I had so many people say to me, “we need your voice to push the government to go further than they’re going and to do it faster.” And so I decided to stick with it and go through one more election cycle. Who knew that most of my time would have been spent not pushing the government to go further, but just trying to prevent the government from backtracking as much as it has?
No, it hasn’t felt futile, because there needs to be a record that there was pushback. And I led the charge on a number of [issues].
So obviously there’s schedule 10 of Bill 66 [which would have opened up the Greenbelt for development, if the government hadn’t removed it from the bill]. Literally the day that bill was introduced, I was up in that legislature saying we cannot open the Greenbelt for development. It helped catalyze a citizens’ movement against it. The other opposition parties started speaking out.
One of the things I saw prior to us being elected, is that a lot of environmental issues — like, for instance, when the Wynne government rolled back the Endangered Species Act — there was very little opposition to it. I think if there would have been a Green here, that would have been a different conversation.
I think my presence on those issues has pressured the opposition parties to speak out more as well. Same thing like the day that [the Ford government moved to] fast track the [environmental assessment] for Highway 413. I was up in the house speaking out against it.
I remember a mayor, one of the mayors who is opposed to Highway 413, calling me and saying, “Oh, Mike, it’s so great to hear somebody in the legislature speak out against this, but there’s no way that you’re going to be able to mount opposition to this.” [Now] both opposition parties are firmly against the 413. We’ve switched the votes of many of the local municipal councils and regional councils to be opposed to it. And you see this huge citizens’ movement speaking out against it now.
You know, we’ve lost some [battles] — conservation authorities. But I can tell you that a ton of people have reached out to me and just said, thank you for leading the fight to push back against the dismantling of conservation authorities. Some have said that maybe the regulations weren’t as bad as we thought they were going to be because you helped really fight on this issue.
I probably became an environmentalist because I grew up on a farm and just fell in love with nature. We had a creek that ran through our farm and I think I spent my whole childhood fishing, camping, playing, doing things there. It’s led to just a lifelong passion for spending time in nature. And I go hiking with my family all the time.
In my university days, I started really recognizing the threat of the climate crisis and basically started making that connection between the love I had for being outdoors and the threat posed by the climate crisis. At that point, I think I went from being a nature lover to an environmentalist.
Success is expanding our Green caucus and increasing our vote. Both are important. We need to have more Green MPPs here just to maximize our influence. And if it is a minority government … I want to be able to maximize our influence to be able to secure as much of our vision and policy agenda as I possibly can.
Increasing our vote total, I think, is critically important. The Greens actually had our best showing ever in 2007, believe it or not. I was on the campaign team, not as a candidate, but I helped, I wrote the platform.
Al Gore [had] just won the Nobel Prize for An Inconvenient Truth. For the first time in Canadian history, the environment was polling number one. After the 2007 election, both the Liberals and the NDP started becoming much stronger on environmental issues. And I think that was driven by how much of the vote the [Ontario] Green Party secured in that election. And so our vote does affect all the parties. I mean, the fact that even the [Progressive] Conservatives now have to — even though I think their environmental policies will in no way lead to the actions we need to take to address the climate crisis — they at least have to have something of a plan, they can’t be just completely, absolutely hostile.
In terms of who can get elected, I mean, Dianne [Saxe] is in a challenging riding, there’s no doubt about it. But oh my gosh, she’s getting major endorsements from people all across the political spectrum, incredibly high profile. You know, she’s the lead author of our climate plan, which I would argue is the first climate plan any political party in Ontario’s history has ever put forward that gives a detailed sector-by-sector, year-by-year analysis of how we can meet our climate obligations.
And then I look at somebody like Matt Richter in Parry Sound—Muskoka, who’s run a couple times for us, got 20 per cent of the vote in the last election. He is kind of in the position I was prior to being elected in 2018, and isn’t running against an incumbent this time. I look at our candidates in the Waterloo region. Those are historically strong areas for us, and we’re starting to see a growing movement there. The first Green MP was elected in Kitchener Centre [in the last federal election].
That beltway that starts in the Guelph region and sort of wraps around along the Niagara Escarpment up to Parry Sound—Muskoka has always been a really strong area for Greens. A lot of that area is threatened by sprawl, threatened by things like gravel mining and there’s a lot of people there who just want to really protect the places they love and the reason that they’ve chosen to live there.
David Robinson in Sudbury is one of the leading northern economists who’s helped build a sustainable mining hub in Sudbury. So we have a lot of really high quality candidates in ridings all across the province.
Yeah, well, I mean, make sure your party’s united. I always say that everyone has to be on the bus and in the right seat — the electric bus. And I feel like we have a ton of people on the bus with us. And people are in the right seats … we’re all in the canoe together and we’re rowing in the same direction. I feel like our party is united. It’s never been as strong as it is right now.
We’ve been setting records, record fundraising over the last few quarters. We have our most diverse, I’d say strongest slate of candidates we’ve ever had. I think we’re going into this election strong, united, excited.
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