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New Green Party of Canada leader Annamie Paul on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2020.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

There were two milestones in the Green Party’s choice of a new leader, one a first in Canadian politics, the other a fundamental decision on the Greens’ direction.

Annamie Paul is the first Black person, and the first Jewish woman, to lead a party with seats in the House of Commons. That is, and she noted in her victory speech, a barrier broken.

But if you watched the Greens' race, and the speech Ms. Paul gave when she won, you know this was a milestone moment for the Green Party’s politics too.

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Her victory was a win – a narrow one – for the Greens’ moderates over the self-described eco-socialists. There was nearly every shade of Green in the race, but it boiled down to a choice between the a fringier activist wing and a more mainstream desire to compete with other progressive parties for votes, and seats.

Ms. Paul’s victory speech was a politically astute appeal to progressives who she thinks are tired of the old parties, and an “intellectually exhausted” Liberal government.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul has lived a life unlike other politicians

For 14 years, the Green Party has been the party of Elizabeth May, a likable unscripted leader who was for a long time the only Green politician many Canadians knew. But Ms. May never gave as forceful and focused a speech as Ms. Paul gave on her first night as leader. Ms. May couldn’t really field questions from reporters in French, but Ms. Paul could, and she handled herself more ably than NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh or the Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole.

So watch out, Mr. Singh. And watch out, Justin Trudeau.

It’s a safe bet Ms. Paul will never be prime minister. But she has plenty of potential to make trouble for those other parties fishing in the pool of so-called “progressive voters.”

The NDP should sit up and notice that Ms. Paul portrayed the Greens as the vanguard of progressive politics in Canada, because that’s a title the New Democrats once took for themselves. Ms. Paul crowed that the Greens were proposing a guaranteed livable income “when it was just a twinkle in the eye of the other parties.” She spoke about facing two major challenges: completing a social safety net, and combating climate change.

That’s significant. Though the Greens remain the small fifth party in the House of Commons, they have in recent years threatened to break through to more. And on Saturday night, they might have sounded very different.

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Ms. Paul was essentially the leading moderate in the race – moderate, that is, in a party that she described as the most progressive, the most left, in the land. Glen Murray, the former Winnipeg mayor and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, had felt it necessary to assert his activist cred by telling Greens he ran supplies to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in his 20s. He finished fourth.

But Ms. Paul had only narrowly edged out Dimitri Lascaris, the leading candidate among several who ran as uncompromising leftist activists.

Mr. Lascaris, a former casino card-counter and successful class-action securities lawyer who has been known to step onto stages to interrupt public figures, would have advocated more controversial policies. He argued the United States is the bigger threat to the world than China, and has been a vocal advocate of sanctions against Israel for what he calls apartheid policies against Palestinians.

The question of whether Ms. Paul can bring the eco-socialist wing into her more moderate vision will clearly be her big challenge in a party that is supposed to be run from the grassroots up.

It was a fractious and messy leadership race, with candidates disqualified and sometimes reinstated with peculiar frequency. Ms. May was accused of favouring Ms. Paul, and Ms. Paul was widely seen as her choice. Ms. Paul was subjected to anti-Semitic and anti-Black racist slurs.

But for now, she represents a Green choice to compete on the main stage. She is a barrier breaker with lived experience with racism, an issue at the forefront of politics in 2020. Her victory speech laid out two areas of focus, a broader social safety net and climate change, perhaps the two big thrusts of left, progressive politics in mid-pandemic Canada. And Ms. Paul represents the choice of Green Party to compete.

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