Jonathan Dickie's plan to lead Elizabeth May's Greens to victory - Macleans.ca

Jonathan Dickie’s plan to lead Elizabeth May’s Greens to victory

He isn’t a battle-hardened national campaigner. And that may be just right for the Greens.

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Jonathan Dickie (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

Several things are coming up Green now, but up against the party’s sense of wide-open possibility, there is the spectre of the usual pattern kicking in once again: plenty of voters telling pollsters that they like what they see and buoying up approval numbers but then changing their minds on election day.

The Green Party of Canada’s national campaign manager is also about to helm a 338-riding sea-to-sea-to-sea effort with only a pair of local Vancouver Island campaigns on his CV.

September 2019 issue of Maclean’s

Still, Jonathan Dickie inspires a particular sort of confidence and devotion in people who have worked with him. He speaks slowly and deliberately, palpably weighing each word before it hits the air; in conversation, his speech feels less like a political dodge tactic and more like his default mode. Politics is full of loud voices with big ideas, but those who have worked closely with Dickie say he will often speak up only once or twice in a meeting and, when he does, he tends to change the conversation.

Party Leader Elizabeth May, for one, thinks the sun rises and sets just over the 40-year-old’s right shoulder. “He’s the most exceptional young man,” she says in mid-July, via a terrible cell signal on the road between events outside Barrie, Ont. “Jonathan is very soft-spoken, he’s a man of few words and great depth, really thoughtful and an exceptionally smart and caring person.”

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And Dickie will run the campaign of a Green Party that has likely never faced as favourable a landscape as it does now. Last fall, a landmark report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have a dozen years to severely curtail global warming before catastrophe is assured. The public’s attention has sharpened, and polls have shown climate change leaping up the personal priority lists of Canadian voters.

Over those same months, a string of electoral victories has put 17 Greens in legislatures at the provincial or federal level—including the Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election that sent Paul Manly to the House of Commons and finally gave May, the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, a lab partner from her own team.

On top of that, recent poll numbers point to the election in October of a minority government, which is the ideal outcome for an upstart party that could hold a crucial balance of power. While the Liberals have stanched the bleeding from the SNC-Lavalin brouhaha, their tarnished reputation may send a subset of progressive voters to a new home.

“We increasingly have the sense that anything is possible,” May says.

She and Dickie first met in 2007, when he volunteered for her campaign to unseat then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay in Central Nova. Dickie was in his late 20s and restarting his life, or returning to some profoundly altered version of it. When he was 20, his mother died of breast cancer. He had four younger sisters—aged 18, 15, 11 and eight at the time—and his mother’s death contributed to a decline in his father’s mental health, so Dickie became the family caregiver in his hometown of Stellarton, N.S. Five years after his mother’s death, his father died of a brain tumour.

Dickie relays the barest version of these facts quickly and lightly, by way of explaining why his university studies in physics and engineering were interrupted. “It was a lot in a fairly short period of my life,” he says delicately. “It was a lot at the time, but we all kind of pulled through it.”

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Things just needed to be done. “I feel as though my parents were able to provide me with a certain type of upbringing, and it wouldn’t be fair if my younger siblings didn’t have that same right,” he says. “I would have felt bad at this point in life if I looked back and realized that they didn’t have the same opportunities that I had, so I had to try to provide that for them.”

By the time he got involved with May’s campaign, the eldest of Dickie’s sisters had finished school and was able to help care for the others, so he could figure out what was next. “I thought it might be a passing fad that I was going through; just try it out and then do other things.” The concerns of the Greens interested him, but the steep uphill nature of the battle also drew him in. “I like the underdog, and Elizabeth and the Green Party were just such underdogs,” he says. “I like the challenge of trying to help someone succeed against really, really long odds.”

In the 2008 federal election, May finished 14 percentage points behind MacKay with a respectable 32 per cent of the vote. She liked and counted on Dickie so much that she transformed him from a volunteer into an employee. He thought May had a lot to offer, but he knew if she ran in Central Nova again, the result would be the same, so he pushed her to consider somewhere else. He sifted through data from Elections Canada and Statistics Canada for ridings that were a good fit. Vancouver Island looked like Green-friendly territory, and she wanted to defeat a sitting cabinet minister, so the Saanich-Gulf Islands (SGI) riding held by Gary Lunn, minister of state for sport in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, became their target.

In mid-2009, Dickie made the cross-country move, figuring it would be for a few months. Harper’s government was a teetering minority, but the election-could-happen-at-any-moment speculation stretched all the way through 2010 and into the spring of 2011.

The story of the Green party’s growth­­—and, at various times, lack of it—has been one of tension between making a broad national effort aimed at increasing the popular vote and legitimizing the party with a candidate on every ballot and making a more strategic effort in a few promising places where Greens might actually win.

Jim Harris, the party’s leader before May, favoured the former approach, Dickie says. But after the party saw how May landed a solid share of the vote but still came up short in 2008, they figured they should see if they could get a Green into the House of Commons. “We didn’t have this institutional knowledge within our organization of how to run really good campaigns,” he says. “So we really had to learn by watching what other parties were doing.”

In The Canadian Federal Election of 2011, journalist Susan Harada describes how “Dickie organized the political equivalent of a pyramid scheme, recruiting supporters to invite over neighbours—particularly those not planning to vote Green—for a coffee and a chance to meet May.” The hope was that even those who weren’t “converted” would be impressed enough to talk up May afterward. The candidate attended every public event she could and stood on street corners waving to passing cars. Volunteers stuffed sunflower seeds into branded packets which, they thought, would hang around people’s homes longer than brochures. May finished with 54 per cent of the vote.

READ: Elizabeth May’s lack of vision

May and Dickie work closely (she conducted the wedding ceremony for him and his wife, Tara Keeping, a WestJet flight attendant), and she paints her campaign manager as her perfect counterbalance: he leans toward pessimism when she’s optimistic; he’s deliberate when she’s impulsive. Midway through an hour-long interview in his office, Dickie answers his phone and talks casually with May. She goes on for some time about a decision that needs to be made, while he offers reassuring murmurs. “I’m not too worried; we just need to deal with it the best way possible,” he says. Later, before extricating himself from the call, he adds, “I just want to make sure that we’ve laid it out, what all of the pros and cons are, that we’ve got a good conversation.”

Two years after helping May get into the House of Commons, Dickie took a leave of absence from running her constituency office to manage Adam Olsen’s provincial campaign in Saanich North and the Islands. Olsen recalls Dickie’s arrival as a steadying presence. “He’s very calm, very thoughtful and works his way through issues,” he says.

Olsen tripled the Greens’ previous vote total, but the NDP squeaked out a victory and he finished third in a tight three-way race. In 2017, he ran again and won the riding, becoming one of three Greens in the B.C. legislature, where the party struck a deal to support the NDP in a minority government.

Some version of that outcome on the national level in October is the fantasy. Greens say the campaign could unfold like this: people like the Greens, but when the time comes for voters to pick up their Sharpies, they worry that they’re wasting their votes and default to the established parties. But now, as Green victories accumulate one by one across the country, the Greens no longer look like plucky also-rans, so the gap between what people say in polls and how they vote should narrow.

The party is looking at focusing their efforts in 10 to 20 ridings—places where more people have gone to university and have slightly higher incomes but are not in the top brackets and places that have social features (such as more common-law marriages) that suggest people aren’t strongly tied to traditional values. “They’re more open to trying new things,” says Dickie.

Green Party campaign manager Jonathan Dickie (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

Even while the environment becomes a bigger concern for voters, it’s difficult for people who are financially stretched to think about the state of the country or the environment in 10 years, Dickie says, so the message and platform need to be broad. “If we’re going to be a national party, if we’re saying that we would like to elect a number of MPs, we have to be ready to do more than just talk about climate change,” he says. “It’s a major issue, but there are lots of issues that governments need to deal with.”

Geographically, the party sees promise on Vancouver Island and more broadly in B.C., Atlantic Canada and Quebec. “Quebec is very intriguing for us because voters can suddenly shift there, and they are willing to take risks as a larger bloc of voters,” Dickie says. The goal is winning between four and 10 seats nationally, in addition to May’s and Manly’s.

READ: Why you just may vote Green this time

But even in what looks like a moment of unprecedented opportunity, the possibility of history repeating exists. “I often talk about the long walk between the car and the voting booth,” Olsen says. “A lot of Canadians, especially in the first-past-the-post system that we have, end up voting against what they don’t want and settle for ‘good enough,’” he says. “The Greens are emerging as a legitimate option for people to not have to settle for good enough.”

The Greens now hover reliably in the double digits in the polls. The larger target on the Greens’ backs—specifically on May’s—explains the party’s decision to bring in Warren Kinsella, former Liberal strategist and dedicated Twitter provocateur. Dickie says Kinsella’s role is to conduct “defensive” research to learn how their opponents could go after May and to help the Greens parry. “We’re in new territory as we start to poll above 10 to 15 per cent,” he says. “In the past, it’s not really been worth it for parties to focus much on us, not worth it to spend their staff’s time and their money attacking our leader or our party.” The controversial relationship was short-lived, though: just a few weeks after it was announced, the Toronto Star quoted May saying of Kinsella, “He’s finished whatever work he was doing with us.”

Asked why he thinks the Greens picked him to be the campaign manager, Dickie acknowledges that May has a lot of confidence in him and that being the first Green campaign manager to help a candidate win conveys some sense that he must know what he’s doing. “I’m sure I’ll do an adequate job,” he says with a smirk. This remark does not come across as self-deprecating as it probably looks on paper. It sounds like the carefully weighed opinion of a man who is not about to promise too much, which of course does not discount the possibility of overachieving.


This article appears in print in the September 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The calm in the storm.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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