Let’s take a trip to a world of backward everything. This alternate dimension, where flowers shed their petals at the first sign of May and April showers fall up into the clouds, begins and ends at the top of a hill in our nation’s capital. Its central democratic chamber, the House of Commons, comes alive for a daily question period that holds the government’s opposition to account. Tiptoe quietly into the House of Commons, where politicians roam somewhat freely, and today you will have witnessed Yukon’s Ryan Leef, a Conservative backbencher, rise to attempt a great moment in backwards democracy.
“Mr. Speaker, the opposition parties sadly oppose our tax cuts for northern families, and instead propose tax hikes on the middle class,” said Leef, whose Tory flock has spun a recent Liberal plan to cut middle-class taxes as, in fact, the opposite proposition. Leef also dutifully warned the House against another hypothetical opposition ill, a rumoured new tax on everything. He called it a carbon tax, “which will make life far more difficult for northern families.” There was more. “Mr. Speaker, when the Liberals were in government, they failed to meet the obligations of the people in Nunavut, and…”
Pity the rest of us who never heard why those Liberals, who created Nunavut in 1999, so failed the people of that territory. Speaker Andrew Scheer, the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a permissible intervention in his backward chamber, quickly put an end to Leef’s anti-Liberal screed. “The member should know that questions should touch on the administrative responsibilities of government, not other parties,” he said, having already scolded two New Democrats for similar indiscretions earlier in the day.
Leef accepted his fate. The NDP’s House leader, Peter Julian, would later dismiss Scheer’s judgment as “inexplicable.” The Speaker, unmoved and defensive of his performance as referee, stopped Julian mid-sentence and reminded him that, months ago, he explained in a prior ruling the various discipline he doled out today.
After the Speaker reminded Leef of the House rules, he moved on to the next MP in line for a question, the man who represents Thunder Bay-Superior North. Bruce Hyer stood and told the House that the Green Party, the caucus of two of which he is deputy leader, had something to say. Hyer’s question to the Aboriginal affairs minister asked why an island reserve on the Ontario-Manitoba border has faced a boil-water advisory for 17 years—while, at the same time, the City of Winnipeg draws safe drinking water from the same lake.
Hyer’s question forced Bernard Valcourt to answer, and the Greens, whose impact on Canada’s political life grows ever so slowly, continued their work in Ottawa.
Peter Bevan-Baker’s magic number was 2,077. David Coon’s was 2,272. Andrew Weaver’s was 10,722. Elizabeth May’s was 31,890. Adriane Carr’s was 74,077. Aside from a bizarre preponderance of twos and sevens, those numbers all share one trait: they each represent the number of votes it took for a Green Party candidate to get elected somewhere in Canada. After what seemed like a futile few decades since the party’s inception in 1983, Greens are figuring out how to win.
Elizabeth May is the most visible of her flock. May is the party’s federal leader who, in 2011, knocked off a cabinet minister in British Columbia after a long career as an environmental activist and four runs for the House of Commons (three for the Greens, one for the fledgling Small Party in 1980). May’s win wasn’t inevitable, and it required a concerted effort at the expense of a broad national campaign, but she’s now a fixture in her corner of the chamber in Ottawa.
A few months after May’s victory, Carr won the last spot on Vancouver’s city council on Nov. 19. Weaver, a climate scientist, won a seat in B.C.’s legislature on May 14, 2013. Coon, the party leader in New Brunswick, won his own seat on Sept. 22, 2014. Not two months later on Nov. 15, Carr won re-election—and more votes than any other candidate for Vancouver’s city council. Last night, as P.E.I. headed to the polls, Bevan-Baker took 54 per cent of the votes in Kellys Cross-Cumberland—where the incumbent Liberal managed only 27.6 per cent. The NDP remained shut out on the island.
Greens emerge in other corners of elected office, or come close. Two of them are park commissioners in Vancouver, and one of them is a school trustee in the same city. One of them, Donald Galloway, nearly knocked off the federal New Democrats in Victoria, an NDP stronghold, during a 2012 by-election. The same night, a fellow Green candidate, Chris Turner, finished a strong third in Calgary with 25 per cent of the vote. The NDP won over not even four per cent of voters in the riding.
Carr, from her perch on the west coast, is bullish on Green hopes for the next federal election. She says a dozen candidates are electable in her province. That’s enough to gain official party status in the House of Commons.
Greens won’t win tonight in Alberta. They won’t win the federal contest, either. But they are learning how to topple the competition in unlikely places, a few thousand votes at a time. That kind of gradual momentum, set on the right path, can catch a traditional winner by surprise.