The Green Party of Canada has entered a major internal crisis. Since June 10, the Greens have lost a third of their MPs, going from three to two. The party is deeply divided over the issue of Palestine, as well as over issues of internal democracy. Party leader Annamie Paul is facing sharp criticism from the membership, and potentially a vote of no confidence. The party seems to be on the road towards a split, even towards self-destruction. Many on the left are asking: what on Earth is going on in the Green Party?
That the crisis is happening now can appear counter-intuitive, as the Green Party has seemed to be doing well the last few years. In the 2019 federal election, they won three seats, including one in New Brunswick: Jenica Atwin, their first MP outside of British Columbia. At the provincial level, the BC Green Party essentially entered into a coalition with the NDP minority government in 2017. Currently, the Greens have three provincial representatives in BC, one in Ontario, three in New Brunswick and eight in Prince Edward Island.
The rise of the eco-socialists
The Green Party has long been seen as a party of “conservatives with compost bins”, encompassing many small business supporters with political opinions to the right of the New Democrats, and even to the right of the Liberals on many issues. But as many in Canada become disillusioned with traditional parties, and as radical solutions to the climate crisis become more popular, a left wing of the party has emerged. These ecosocialists advocate nationalization, economic planning and anti-imperialism.
In the 2020 leadership race, ecosocialist Dimitri Lascaris came second with 45 per cent of the vote. Annamie Paul, the party’s establishment candidate, won the election. She represented a continuation of the liberal policies of the Greens, “neither left nor right”.
At the time, we explained that this election was a reflection of the growing polarization of the party. Since then, the divisions in the Green Party have continued to grow.
The recent crisis
The resurgence of hostilities in Israel-Palestine last May has turned the attention of the whole world to that region. A wave of solidarity with the Palestinians oppressed by the Israeli state swept through the world, including Canada.
But the right wing of the Green Party did not see it the same way. Leader Annamie Paul shared on Twitter an official Green Party statement, which made a vague call for “de-escalation” of the violence, and a “return to dialogue”—as if this were a conflict between two equal parties! What kind of dialogue are we talking about here? What has been going on for decades between the Zionist Israeli state and the Palestinians is not dialogue; it is oppression. An abstract call for pacifism, not for the defeat of Israeli imperialism, amounts to indirect support for this oppression.
The party’s left wing quickly fired back. In a tweet, which has since been deleted, MP Jenica Atwin said that the party’s official statement was inappropriate and essentially an implicit support for the State of Israel. A few days earlier, Green MP Paul Manly denounced the forced eviction of families from East Jerusalem as ethnic cleansing. Dimitri Lascaris also posted several tweets condemning Israel and Annamie Paul’s position.
This is not the first time the party has been divided on this issue. In 2016, the party emerged deeply divided from a debate over whether to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. At the time, BDS supporters were accused of anti-Semitism. In addition, during the recent leadership race, eco-socialist Dimitri Lascaris was accused of anti-Semitism because of his positions on Israel.
This time, the last straw was the intervention of Noah Zatzman, Annamie Paul’s chief senior advisor. In response to Atwin, Manly and Lascaris’ publications, Zatzman issued a ranting statement, now withdrawn, in which he accused Green MPs, in addition to Jagmeet Singh, Dimitri Lascaris, and Liberal MPs, of antisemitism. He also promised to work for their imminent defeat.
It should be clear that criticizing the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism. One can very well criticize the actions of the Israeli state without criticizing Jews in general. The Jewish people are in no way responsible for the actions of the Israeli state. On the contrary, Israeli imperialism and the oppression of the Palestinians are not in the interests of the Israeli working class, nor of Jews in the rest of the world, and many left-wing Jewish groups oppose them. In fact, it is the belief that all Jews form a monolithic bloc, united behind the Israeli state, that is anti-Semitic!
Thus, accusations of anti-Semitism against the left of the party are a serious attack. Faced with these remarks by a staff member close to Annamie Paul, many rank-and-file party members as well as representatives of the left demanded that the leader apologize, or publicly denounce Zatzman. But Paul remained silent. To this day, she still refuses to publicly condemn her advisor.
A letter calling for Zatzman’s departure received 1400 signatures. Then, on June 4, the party’s executive committee voted not to renew Zatzman’s contract, and he has been kept out of office ever since.
Atwin leaves the Greens
The debate became national news when, on June 10, MP Jenica Atwin decided to leave the Green Party. Clearly, it was the Israel-Palestine debate that prompted her departure.
So Atwin decided to leave the party… to go where? To join the Liberals. A strange choice, considering that the Liberal party clearly defends Israeli imperialist policies! In fact, Atwin’s arrival in their ranks seemed to frighten the party establishment, which decided the very next day to hold a “summit on anti-Semitism“. Once again, the right is using accusations of anti-Semitism to silence left-wing voices critical of Israeli imperialism and Canadian imperialism, which is allied with it.
A few days later, the Liberals forced Atwin to back down. She said that while there are not “two responsible sides” in the conflict, her choice of words (“apartheid”) was inappropriate. She then reduced the situation to “suffering” on both sides. In effect, Atwin’s statement was a step backwards because it dismissed the systemic nature of the oppression of Palestinians. This proves once again (did we really need any more proof?) that the Liberals are the main party of the Canadian capitalist class.
Meanwhile in the Green Party, Atwin’s departure has only added fuel to the fire and plunged the party into an even deeper crisis. Many in the party held the leader responsible for Atwin’s departure, given the comments of her advisor Noah Zatzman. Party members immediately began circulating a letter calling for a vote of no confidence in Annamie Paul. The party’s Quebec branch is now formally calling for Paul’s resignation, or her removal if she refuses to leave.
Through all of this, Annamie Paul has maintained that the conflict over the Israel-Palestine issue was not the real reason for Atwin’s departure. She said Justin Trudeau and the Liberals conspired to steal Atwin away from the Greens—as if the conflicts that have raged in the party for weeks, even years, had nothing to do with it.
Divisions in the bureaucracy
As the days went by, it became increasingly clear that the problem was bigger than one MP, and that the frustration with Annamie Paul was coming from many corners of the party. Two members of the Green Party’s federal council—the party’s highest body—signed a letter stating that Paul has been acting “with an autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority and rejection.”
Elizabeth May, the former leader, has asked Annamie Paul to apologize to Atwin to convince her to return to the party. Paul has so far refused.
In response, Paul presented Elizabeth May with an ultimatum, asking for her unconditional support in the current crisis, or there would be consequences.
Then, on June 15, the party’s federal council, led by the bureaucratic clique around May and her husband, discussed setting in motion the process for a vote of no confidence in Annamie Paul.
What we see is, on one hand, the party apparatus trying to tame its leader, and, on the other hand, the leader trying to dominate that bureaucracy. The general left-right divisions in the Greens are thus coupled with a conflict within the upper echelons of the party.
Annamie Paul was originally former leader Elizabeth May’s choice for party leader—May even broke internal Green Party rules to support her in last fall’s race. But now Paul wants to lead alone.
The Green establishment aligned with May now finds itself in a strange situation. Getting rid of their protégée could backfire and galvanize the left of the party. That’s why, instead of a vote of no confidence, the Federal Council has instead asked Paul to publicly distance herself from Zatzman and his comments, and express full confidence in her parliamentary caucus. Only if she refuses would the board then consider the no-confidence vote process, potentially beginning on July 20. This is also why May and Manly have distanced themselves from the letter accusing Paul of autocratic behaviour.
The establishment is essentially trying to save face, but is only adding more confusion to the mix in the process.
“Racist” and “sexist” attacks?
Faced with the demands of the federal council, Annamie Paul has so far refused to give an inch. In fact, she has gone on the offensive. On June 16, she accused a “small group of executive members”—those who wrote the letter—of conspiring to have her removed and of making “racist and sexist” accusations.
She said that as the first Black female leader of a federal party, it is more difficult for her to command respect and that she must resist those who would prevent her from exercising her leadership role—including the Liberal Party and members of her own party.
In reality, the criticism of Annamie Paul has nothing to do with her being a Black woman, but rather with her political positions. Paul’s instrumentalization of the issue of racism and sexism here is very hypocritical. What is racist is refusing to support the Palestinian people in their struggle against oppression!
To be honest, it is not surprising to see her pull this card out of her sleeve, as Annamie Paul used identity politics to win the leadership race. Now that she is facing criticism, she is using identity to defend herself in an equally artificial way. This is the logical conclusion of identity politics. This is why Marxists emphasize political ideas, program, and methods of class struggle in the fight against racism and sexism, rather than the identity of the candidates who represent us.
The real cause of the crisis
The whole story is a bit like a soap opera. The old bureaucratic clique losing control, the intransigent leader, the MP getting duped by the Liberals, conflict in the leading council… But while the personality of the protagonists have some impact on how the show will turn out, the real cause of this whole crisis is deeper: it is the class divisions within the Green Party.
As long as the Green Party was a small political formation on the margins it could maintain its heterogeneous nature uniting environmental activists with “green” capitalists. However, as the party has grown the class contradictions have been magnified. Moreover, it is increasingly subject to pressure from the ruling class, which means a lack of democracy and the need to pander to the interests of big business.
On an issue like Israel-Palestine, the capitalists and petty bourgeois careerists in the party are more interested in following Canada’s official foreign policy, which is aligned with Israeli imperialism. They don’t want to shake things up too much, so that the Green Party may gain a place in the Canadian political establishment. On the other hand, socialist activists, who support the struggles of workers and the oppressed at home and internationally, take a stand in solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians.
The irony is that the present crisis of the Greens is not due to their weakness, but their growth. When they were small the class divide could be swept under the rug, but now they are a sizable party the class question cannot be ignored and in the long run always ends up asserting itself. The Green Party does follow a charter with beautiful Green Principles, often referred to during the conflict. But it is not a question of abstract moral principles, but rather of the interests of the different classes in society that clash within the party. It is also symptomatic of the crisis of capitalism, which heats up the class struggle and sharpens contradictions of all kinds.
What next for the Greens?
The current crisis could evolve in several directions. Annamie Paul recently threatened to sue her own party to avoid publicly apologizing, as her federal council is demanding. This shows that she is not willing to back down. It is therefore possible that she will face a vote of no confidence in the summer. But that depends on the decision of the party establishment, and is therefore uncertain.
On the left, Dimitri Lascaris, the eco-socialist who came second in the last leadership race, wants the eco-socialists to stay with the Greens. Lascaris obviously thinks he will be well placed to win a new leadership contest in the event that Paul is pushed out. On the other hand, some people in the party, disgusted by the whole thing, are already talking about leaving the Greens and creating a new ecosocialist party or coalition.
But whether Paul stays or goes, the deep divisions are there to stay. It is not ruled out that the ecosocialists could win a new leadership election, but this would just be the prelude to a split with both the bureaucratic Paul and the bureaucratic May cliques trying to inflict maximum damage. Alternatively, if either of the bureaucratic eco-capitalist cliques maintain control the left wing is sure to be purged. Therefore some sort of split seems to be inevitable.
All of this is essentially a reflection of the increasing polarization of society and the heating up of the class struggle. Unsolvable contradictions will continue to accumulate in every political organization, not least the Greens.
What is lacking is a clear anti-capitalist and socialist political expression in Canada. Lascaris and the eco-socialist wing of the Greens can play an important role in precipitating such a formation. However, isolated in the hostile petit-bourgeois environment of the Green Party it is difficult for socialists to gain a mass base, even in the event that Lascaris ends up winning a leadership contest. It is vital that socialists in the Greens, in the NDP, in the trade unions, and independents, find a way to work together towards the aim of building a force that unites all those who want to bring down capitalism. In the meantime, the crisis in the Greens appears to be far from over.