The Green Movement in Canadian Politics

It’s a mistake to think about Green parties as “just another political party.” While participation in electoral politics requires Green parties to follow the same rules as all other parties, the reasons for competing for seats as Greens are very different.

Mainstream political parties compete for power. Forming government is the end game. Platforms are a means to the end. Cynical ploys to attract voters with campaign promises abound: the Liberal promises of electoral reform, reconciliation and climate leadership while subsidizing the oil industry; the Conservatives’ demonization of the carbon tax and their proposed “barbaric cultural practices act;” Jack Layton conspiring with Stephen Harper to bring down the Liberal minority government, leading to a decade of regressive Conservative rule.

For Green parties, policies grounded in principles are the end game. These lay out the basis for a viable future, grounded in ecological resilience, social justice, democracy and peace. If we do not achieve these ends, the future is not viable.

Electoral politics is a means to this end. By running election campaigns, Greens introduce new thinking and new electoral possibilities to voters. Green candidates disrupt the comfortable tropes of mainstream parties that promise jobs, more and faster economic growth, lower taxes, less government, more public services.They draw the links between economic growth and environmental degradation, between corporate welfare and social injustice, between fossil-fueled growth and climate catastrophe.

Green candidates offer an alternative vision of a society powered by renewable energy, local food systems, guaranteed livable incomes, social and ecological justice, and in right relationship with Indigenous nations. And they give people who understand the enormous ecological-climate-justice challenges we are facing a chance to vote for a viable future.

Greens have been more successful electing representatives than in any other first--past-the-post electoral systems. Others will say electing one or a handful of Greens is useless because they have no status or influence. Greens have proven otherwise. Replacing even a few mainstream voices in Parliament and provincial Legislatures with Green voices introduces alternative perspectives to the floor of these institutions, forcing debates on issues that mainstream parties conveniently ignore. This chips away at the legitimacy of the dominant discourses, ultimately expanding the range of ‘acceptable’ discourse in the public sphere. In short, it matters who you vote for.

There is no question that more Greens elected can exert more influence, and forming government offers the best opportunity to move Canada onto a sustainable path. But achieving power is never the end game. Achieving system change is. System change is the long game, undertaken by civil society movements over decades. Electoral politics is one of several fronts on which the struggle for change occurs.

The Green political movement in West Germany, which inspired the formation of many other Green parties including in Canada, was formed by the anti-nuclear, peace, ecological and women’s movements as their voice and agent within the parliamentary system. The goals of those movements remain the ends towards which an electoral strategy was directed.

That said, electoral politics is a harsh and competitive game. It is very different from activism in the non-profit advocacy world. Rules by which political parties operate are set in law; public expectations of and allegiances to parties are set by tradition; the media covers campaigns as horse races, not as debates on substantive policy questions; money counts. 

For Greens, aspiring to “do politics differently,” this context is difficult, to say the least. A party based on the principle of participatory democracy, in which party discipline in the traditional sense is not imposed from the top, is prone to fault lines, just the kind of thing that the media thrives on. The greater the challenge to mainstream parties posed by the Greens, the greater the public scrutiny, and the greater liability “doing politics differently” becomes. Greens need to be ready for this, internally and externally. 

Greens are making a difference in the Canadian public sphere. Supporting Green parties in elections helps to de-legitimize business-as-usual politics, even when the Green candidate is not elected, and especially when they are. Once the legitimacy of status quo politics is challenged, the transformations we need to move to sustainability can happen.