With her party in turmoil and her leadership in jeopardy, Annamie Paul says she has “run the gamut of emotions” over the past week.
“There are moments of hope, there are moments of despair, there are moments of confidence, moments of doubt, moments of resolve. So many things are happening at any given moment.”
The one constant has been “the feeling that you have when you feel that you’re in danger.”
And in her moments of doubt, she says she thought about quitting, but a comment from her son made her determined to stay.
“He said to me for the first time, ‘Mom, if you don’t want to do this any more, I understand,’ “ the Green Party Leader said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “It actually paradoxically strengthened my resolve to continue, just knowing that he would be okay if I didn’t.”
Ms. Paul is a political newcomer. She catapulted to the top of her party last year, becoming the first Black person and first Jewish woman to lead a major federal party in Canada.
Her achievement made international headlines, but months later, she is staring down a bid to have her ousted with just months to go before a widely expected federal election. For a party whose raison d’être is the environment, the trigger was a dispute over Israel that led to Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin’s defection to the Liberals. Ms. Paul now faces a threat of a non-confidence vote and, even she concedes, she doesn’t know how this will end.
After Ms. Atwin crossed the floor on June 10, the two remaining Green MPs blamed her exit on the Leader’s senior adviser, Noah Zatzman, who accused members of the caucus of antisemitism and vowed to defeat them. Those comments were left unaddressed by Ms. Paul for weeks and she maintains they are not the true reason for Ms. Atwin’s defection.
Last weekend, calls for the Leader’s resignation grew from within the party and on Tuesday its federal council gave her an ultimatum: repudiate comments from Mr. Zatzman and state her support for her MPs at a news conference, or face a confidence vote on July 20.
Ms. Paul has declined to comment on the threat but this week she said she does not believe the Greens are antisemitic and she supports her caucus. She condemned the bid to remove her as racist and sexist because of the negative stereotypes used by some members of the federal council.
In a document, obtained by The Globe, some of the representatives said Ms. Paul has acted with an “autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority and rejection” and “displayed anger in long, repetitive, aggressive monologues.”
Representative Kate Storey told The Globe that the document was a draft that was not presented at the Tuesday meeting. “Comments that it was inappropriate were received before the meeting,” she said.
Ms. Paul said the letter evoked the trope of the ‘angry Black woman,’ a negative stereotype widely used on people from Michelle Obama to Serena Williams to diminish the perspective of Black women and dehumanize their experience.
“I refuse to use the words in that letter,” Ms. Paul said. “But I will just say that the descriptions of my behaviour are the kind of descriptions you use when you’re relying on that trope.”
“They would have known that the words would be extremely harmful and hurting, but they may not have known that they corresponded so closely to that stereotype.”
Nova Scotia representative Lia Renaud, who resigned on Tuesday, told The Globe in an e-mail this week that “Annamie Paul’s leadership approach and relationship-building skills were the issue of discussion.”
“Her reaction to the meeting (calling the council ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’) is just another example of the toxic relationship and work conditions,” Ms. Renaud said.
Since Ms. Atwin’s defection, Ms. Paul’s two remaining MPs have declined to publicly support her, and four candidates have quit, leaving just 19 in place.
Leaders in the party’s provincial power bases in B.C., New Brunswick, and PEI have also stayed silent on whether they support Ms. Paul. In Quebec, the leader has called for her to leave.
However, leaders in Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia have expressed their support.
Ms. Paul is the daughter of Caribbean immigrants and grew up in Toronto. Her résumé is punctuated by a law degree, a master’s of public affairs from Princeton and work at the International Criminal Court in the Hague and Canada’s mission to the European Union. The 48-year-old has two sons with her husband, who is an international human-rights lawyer.
Since taking over the Green Party, Ms. Paul has faced a combination of racism, sexism and antisemitism.
She describes the impact of her potential failure through the lens of others. “There’s a lot of evidence that demonstrates that leadership matters, that the race, gender, et cetera of leaders matters in terms of voter engagement, in terms of civic engagement,” Ms. Paul said.
“My mom is 85. She’s old enough for this to have been something she thought she would never look to see. And so for her, it’s like the fulfilment of the promise of the civil-rights movement that she was a part of. I mean, for her, this is a big thing and she’s 85 and so if I were to stop, that might be it.”
“So I am aware of that responsibility, and added to my mom and my two kids, that’s the other thing that I think about the most, what will it mean to the people who have said, ‘I never imagined myself in this role,’ or ‘I never have seen anyone like me in this role’ if I can’t succeed?”
“I have enough dignity to say that would not be as a result of what I have done.”
The Green Leader wasn’t the only one holding up a mirror to Canadian politics this week. In a farewell speech, Nunavut NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq told her colleagues in the House that she was singled out by security, racially profiled and made to feel unsafe and unwelcome.
Ms. Paul said there are “significant barriers for entry for racialized people, for queer people, for Indigenous peoples, for women into politics. The system has not been set up to welcome and accommodate any of those groups, and we see that reflected all the time.”
The people who walked through those barriers are the ones that inspired her to get involved in politics.
In particular, Ms. Paul cites former Ontario cabinet minister Zanana Akande, former MP Jean Augustine – the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons – and Rosemary Brown, who was the first Black woman elected to a provincial legislature in Canada.
“I had seen, at a formative age, enough strong, Black women being the first that it never seemed like an impossibility to me,” she said. “It never felt out of reach for me.”
Ms. Paul, who says she would not have poached an MP from another party or run a party candidate in the riding where a leader was seeking a seat, insists she is not naive about politics.
She cites her experience as a page in the Ontario Legislature when she was 12, then as a Senate page, and then back at Queen’s Park as an intern the year after she completed law school. Her closest advisers, she says, are her husband and 20-year-old son.
“I am a student of politics. I am not naive about politics. But just because you understand that this is the way the game is played, doesn’t mean I can’t say it shouldn’t be. It does not mean it needs to be.”
She says the party faces a not-insurmountable challenge to end the current turmoil and infighting. “Which I know is what I want to do, what our MPs want to do, and I believe the majority of our councillors and members want to do as well,” Ms. Paul said. “This is a test of our resolve in our unity, and the next weeks, not months in this case, will tell.”
The internal revolt means Ms. Paul could soon be one of the few federal leaders who is not granted the chance to take the ultimate test of a general election before the party shows her the door.
Her isolation from her federal colleagues leaves Ryerson University assistant professor Cheryl Thompson wondering if the party wanted a photo-op rather than the change that comes with putting more diverse voices at the table.
“They haven’t figured out that diversity is not about the photograph, the people who you bring in that don’t look like you, they don’t think like you either. That’s something that people don’t take into account when they sing the praises of diversity,” Prof. Thompson said.
Putting a fresh stamp on a party after 13 years under Elizabeth May was never going to be an easy task. But Ms. Paul hasn’t made the job any easier for herself. She plans to run for a third time in what many people believe to be a no-hope bid for Liberal stronghold Toronto Centre.
In condemning the racism and sexism that she has faced, she levelled her own attack on Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. In an interview with Global News Thursday, she called the veteran journalist, author and now politician a “female shield” for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In response, Ms. Freeland said: “That is not how a feminist treats another woman.”
Lashing out at Ms. Freeland, the Prime Minister and her own party has not helped the Green Leader, said Lori Turnbull, the director of Dalhousie University’s school of public administration. It betrays a “lack of political acumen, a lack of a functional political compass.”
“She doesn’t seem to understand that if you’re the leader of the party, the most important thing for you to do right now is to end questions about your leadership,” Prof. Turnbull said.
“I think it’s going to be hard for any Green candidate to be able to explain at the door why they should vote Green when the party can’t get its house in order.”
Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, said the current situation facing the Greens places them in a familiar, but challenging position. The party, she said, seems to be perpetually on “the cusp or precipice of a breakthrough with voters” but then fails to deliver.
That has left the federal Greens, said Ms. Kurl, largely based in British Columbia and New Brunswick, with single-digit support around 4 per cent, according to institute numbers, with the lowest number of intended voters of parties in Parliament.
Still, Ms. Paul said her goal in the next election is more Green MPs in the House of Commons. Whether that means one seat for her as well will not be her barometer for success, she said, noting it took Ms. May several attempts to gain a seat.
Ms. Paul says running in Toronto Centre, over the skepticism of pundits who say it’s a foolish move to try winning the safe Liberal seat, is the best option for her.
She said she looked at running in such other locations as British Columbia, but settled on Toronto Centre, viewing victory as a possibility. Ms. Paul first ran in the riding in 2019, winning 5 per cent of the vote and placing fourth. In a 2020 by-election, she won 33 per cent of the vote to 42 per cent for Liberal Marci Ien.
“Anywhere I run, I am going to be running somewhere that a Green has never won before,” she says, noting that she knows the riding really well and it has a strong electoral district association. “Our polling tells us that I do have a chance.”
“Not a guaranteed chance, but I have one.”
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