Peter Bevan-Baker got sent to the basement in 2015 when he first won a seat as Green party leader in Prince Edward Island. The legislative office building’s main floors were always set aside for Liberals and Conservatives, with one tiny basement space for rare times in provincial history anybody else had won.
Then a by-election win made it two Green members, a historic breakthrough for a third party. They got moved across the street to the fourth floor of a Victorian brick building. It was partially storage space in a sort-of attic. The ceiling slopes down sharply next to the leader’s office desk. “Sometimes I’ll stand up and give myself a good egg,” Bevan-Baker says, pointing to his currently bump-free head.
His next move could be into the premier’s office, to the shock of many, including Bevan-Baker. Recent polls show Island Greens narrowly leading the Liberals, and for nearly two years have shown the Green leader, until recently a small-town dentist, as residents’ preferred premier. Bevan-Baker might not be measuring the drapes in the premier’s office yet, but he wants to have a tape measure, making sure his candidates and platform are government-ready, should the lead hold when an election is called as soon as this spring.
READ MORE: In B.C., the Green Party’s power buds
When their party talks of their seeming warp-speed rise, it’s often with a dazed disbelief. “It’s become popular to be Green, somehow,” deputy leader Lynne Lund says over coffee. “It’s amazing to me. And baffling.”
The Green seed germinated in Canada’s smallest province may be blossoming freakishly fast, but throughout the country, the party brand is steadily sprouting at the provincial level. Before 2011, when Elizabeth May became a federal MP, the small party could get nowhere in first-past-the-post elections. Now she has nine colleagues in provincial houses. Despite repeatedly failing to bring electoral reform and proportional representation to legislatures, Greens have found a new way to break through: elect one and then elect more. Greens went from one member to three in successive B.C. elections in 2013 and 2017, followed by the same pattern in New Brunswick. Bevan-Baker was joined by a partner in P.E.I., and last summer Mike Schreiner broke through in Ontario.
This successful pattern has thus far eluded the federal Green party, but hope springs evermore in this fall’s uncertain contest that May returns to Parliament with some company.
The Greens’ patchy rise—many of them declare it a Green wave; it’s at least a steady lapping at the shoreline—coincides with the growing menace of climate change. But that doesn’t appear to be the growth’s primary driver. Some provincial leaders say they’re breaking through stereotypes by focusing on non-environment issues like housing and innovation, but that’s not it either. What has lifted Green’s tide, certainly in the Maritimes, is voters’ drift away from mainline parties.
Take New Brunswick, where the NDP was long moribund and Green Leader David Coon’s surprise 2014 victory in a Fredericton seat broke up the Liberals’ and Tories’ electoral dominance: four years later, third parties snagged 30 per cent of the vote, the Greens’ trio of seats were matched by the conservative populist People’s Alliance, and Tories rule in minority.
“There is a frustration that it’s a battle between the ins and the outs—not ideas or policy commitments but just guys with blue ties and guys with red ties,” says Donald Wright, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick.
On P.E.I., erosion of traditional parties tilts even further in the Greens’ favour. Not only is the NDP barely in the picture, but the official opposition Tories have spiralled downwards—their seventh leader in eight years quit last fall—and the Liberals have already been in power for three terms. And after what Bevan-Baker calls the “Ping-Pong politics” of rule shifting between Tories and Liberals since pre-Confederation, he says voters crave something different in a province where party allegiance traditionally passes on through generations. “There was a latent appetite for that. We just happened to come along at the right time, and opportunity presented itself.”
In the first election for B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver, in 2013, he squeezed through an opening between two unpopular main-party leaders, just as Schreiner in Ontario snagged a traditionally progressive seat in Guelph on Liberal Kathleen Wynne’s decline and Tory Doug Ford’s polarizing nature.
While provincial Greens have grown after initial victories, May failed to do so in 2015. But pollster Nik Nanos wonders if centre-left voters’ dissatisfaction with both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh might make her party the “benign friendly alternative” to establishment parties. “They’ll probably be seen as the less repellent and less angry choice,” he says.
May dreams of winning the way Weaver’s trio of B.C. seats did; wedge a small Green caucus into a tightly split minority Parliament, and hold the balance of power, just as wielding influence in coalition government is how European Greens have long done it.
More success would beget more scrutiny, if the federal Greens can ever grow their caucus beyond one. But in Charlottetown, where a conference birthed Canadian democracy, electoral revolution may come faster than anyone expected.
The stars had aligned for Bevan-Baker, considering he never won an election. In 2008, the Scottish-born dentist took over a red former church in the village of Hampton, 30 km west of Charlottetown, and redesigned it as a dental clinic. He hired excellent hygienists and staff, developed a stellar patient list. His smile pokes through even when he looks concerned, and his grey hair cascades to his forehead from the tippy top of his pate. He dabbled in theatre, trumpet playing and fringe political runs for the Green party, federally and provincially on the Island and in eastern Ontario since 1993. He never came close to winning, but all he’d hoped was to get challengers and voters thinking about his ideas.
The 2015 contest was his tenth run, but first as P.E.I. Green leader; that new status brought him into the many leaders’ debates, where he showcased his cheeriness and passionate views on sustainable farming and ending P.E.I.’s longtime restrictions on abortion. He nearly doubled the votes received by his rival, a Liberal cabinet minister; then he quit dentistry and began laying foundations for future Green growth.
In fall 2017, a business group leader, Hannah Bell, won a snap by-election for the Greens, doubling Bevan-Baker’s caucus. That prompted the party to begin beefing up its organization, Lund says. By then, influential Atlantic polling firm Corporate Research Associates (CRA) had Bevan-Baker ahead of Wade MacLauchlan, the Liberal premier, in four consecutive surveys.
Last August, the party vaulted over the Liberals in CRA polls—even though the Island economy has been thriving and its books show a surplus. “There’s a personality issue here that is causing people not to favour the premier,” CRA president Don Mills says.
The main parties initially treated him like a novel new voice, a “harmless curiosity sitting in the corner of the room,” says Bevan-Baker. That’s changed. “I think they are fully aware of the existential threat to their continued prominence that we present,” he says. He suspects the others are watching the Greens closely, looking for ways to discredit the party.
They’re vetting candidates carefully for the first time, and have had to pass on former candidates who don’t fit a more disciplined mould, Bevan-Baker says. When the media calls him for comment on a story, the leader can no longer provide his latest thoughts off the top of his head. His party wants a tougher carbon tax than the Island’s one-cent gas tax hike, but unlike the former Sierra Club executive May, climate scientist Weaver and former New Brunswick Conservation Council director Coon, Bevan-Baker has no prominent background tying him to environmentalism. Soil and water health are more pressing environmental concerns for Islanders than climate change, he says.
They’ll stand firm on climate policy, but Greens are internally debating whether to tone down some policies, Bevan-Baker says. When the Island Greens get knocked in local media and by rivals, it’s often not as radicals; it’s that they won’t be any different than the established parties.
Across the Confederation Bridge in New Brunswick, there’s no mistaking Coon’s Greens as different. In the legislature, when a Tory minister lauds a salmon farm’s business award, Liberals and People’s Alliance offer bland kudos; the Green leader rises to warn about the detrimental effect on wild salmon stocks: “This growth the minister speaks to hasn’t come without cost.” Coon’s newly elected colleague Kevin Arseneau, an organic farmer and former university student leader, uses his statement time to lash out at “dramatic social injustices” and the Irving family empire that dominates the province’s forestry, refining and media sectors.
Coon first won his seat in Fredericton’s university-heavy riding in 2014, 4,200 km away from where May and the B.C. Greens broke through. “When you’re a lone MLA there is a sense on the part of both the other parties in the legislature and perhaps the public that it’s kind of an accident, some kind of electoral fluke happened,” he says. The following election, New Brunswick Greens also took the riding around Mount Allison University, as well as Arseneau’s rural seat.
With no seat majority, Tories formed a government propped up temporarily by the right-leaning People’s Alliance, rather than the party that staunchly opposes its bid to lift a natural gas fracking moratorium and demands a carbon tax. Coon doesn’t want his party pigeonholed as environmentalists; his Greens are willing to negotiate with the Tories if the Alliance yank support. “Yes, fracking is a problem, but it in no way interferes with the ability to collaborate on elements of other important issues,” he says.
Andrew Weaver, the first provincial Green to win in 2013, is inarguably now the most powerful party member in Canada, thanks to the confidence agreement his three-member caucus signed with B.C. Premier John Horgan’s NDP after the 2017 election. When Horgan released his climate plan in December, Weaver was on stage with him, calling it “a culmination of a life’s work as a climate scientist.” That strategy was a condition of the Greens’ support of the NDP, and may not have existed otherwise, Weaver told Maclean’s a day later: “The plan is there because of the B.C. Greens, period. I’m not sure how much clearer I can be,” he says.
Weaver also takes credit for ride-hailing legislation to allow Uber, and a land speculation tax. Weaver has bitterly criticized Horgan’s government over the $40-billion liquefied natural gas terminal project, but wouldn’t topple the government over it. Greens take their responsibility seriously, Weaver says: “We could play games, but that’s not advancing good public policy.”
To the federal Green leader, the reasons for electoral gains aren’t complicated. “They like our policies. They’re tired of the old-line parties. And the only thing that stops them is the sense a Green vote is a wasted vote,” May says.
In most countries, Greens elect more members through proportional representation, but provincial referenda (and a Justin Trudeau promise) have failed to bring electoral reform. “In every other democracy, 17 per cent would have given us a ton of seats,” Weaver says, referring to the B.C. Greens’ last vote share. Yet they’ve made measured advances in first-past-the-post, everywhere but federally.
Increasing concerns about climate change—and its nasty effects, from wildfires to Maritime erosion—could drive some attention to Greens, though they may struggle for share of a piece of the debate when main parties frame it as a binary over whether or not to keep a carbon tax.
Ask the provincial Greens why May hasn’t expanded federal Green territory, and fellow leaders reason it’s easier to make intimate connections and prove impact in an East Coast province of 27 or 47 seats than it is in the 338-seat House of Commons. Weaver argues “she has to stop only focusing on environmental issues when she runs campaigns.” And there are persistent rumblings among Greens that May, who’s led since 2006, ought to finally hand over the baton; in the last two elections their popular vote was under four per cent, below where her predecessor Jim Harris had taken the party in 2004 and 2006.
Ask May about the struggles, and she squarely blames a 2015 collapse of support on strategic voting, which vaulted NDP or Liberals ahead in various ridings where they appeared likeliest to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. But it was the Greens themselves who got rapped by the Commissioner of Elections for circulating a deliberately misleading pamphlet in Victoria last election that asserted it was only a one-point race between the NDP and Greens (the Green candidate placed a more distant second.) Bevan-Baker took notice from the other side of the country. “There’s a tendency within some circles of the Green party that the Green party is God’s gift to politics and that we somehow represent all the potential for what could be good about politics and none of the dark side,” he says. Now, Bevan-Baker constantly learns anew about political complexities, getting offers from former candidates from other parties who now view the P.E.I. Greens as a bandwagon to jump on.
The federal and provincial Greens are all separate entities, but May says she’s door-knocked in every winning member’s riding. In addition to campaigning with May, Schreiner says he told Ontario voters that May and other provincial winners proved what going Green can accomplish, beyond a protest vote. He flew to Fredericton for a Green rally in the New Brunswick election, urging volunteers to deliver Coon some MLA friends; Bevan-Baker joined too, delivering a cheeky speech in tandem with P.E.I. caucus mate Bell—each saying one word at a time—to boost Coon and show “what” “he” “will” “achieve” “with” “some” “help.”
With less money and likely fewer ground troops than the governing Liberals, P.E.I. Greens know their poll lead may not deliver them electoral victory. Most would be delighted to become Canada’s first Green official Opposition, though a new leader could rejuvenate the Tories. But Bevan-Baker feels confident they’re now legitimate contenders, and have slashed into the political mainstream. “If Islanders were not comfortable enough with what we have been offering for the last 3½ years, we would have remained at four per cent.”
After moving to Canada from Scotland in his twenties, Bevan-Baker learned that his great-great-grandfather was George Brown, former politician and Father of Confederation. “I certainly don’t bring it up often. It feels opportunistic,” he says. “Having said that, I think he’d be intrigued by what’s happening here.”
CORRECTION, Jan. 25, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Elizabeth May as a Sierra Club founder rather than an executive director.
MORE BY JASON MARKUSOFF:
- A letter from Alberta to my Quebec friends
- Alberta has never had a one-term government. Will Rachel Notley’s NDP be first?
- The Trans Mountain expansion will struggle for years—even if it gets the green light in 2019
- Government’s tight grasp on Alberta oil: A short(ish) history