TORONTO — Ontario’s Greens are hoping to build on momentum from their first-ever provincial win and grow their caucus of one this spring – or at least hold onto the seat they won four years ago.
Greens have grown into influential legislative forces in other Canadian jurisdictions. They make up the official opposition on Prince Edward Island, hold party status with three seats in New Brunswick and have two in British Columbia, where the party also wielded significant power for a time after forming a confidence and supply agreement with the NDP in 2017.
Ontario voters have been slower to elect Green representatives, but the party is entering this spring’s campaign ahead of the expected June 2 election on its strongest-ever footing with party Leader Mike Schreiner holding an incumbent seat in Guelph.
According to Mark Winfield, a professor at York University who studies environmental politics, it’s not impossible for the Greens in Canada’s largest province to replicate the trend seen elsewhere in the country, where two or three Green seats have handed the party an unexpectedly powerful role in government.
“It’s sort of an interesting moment for them,” said Winfield, who advised the party on their platform as a volunteer.
“They’re not going to win government, but it's not inconceivable, depending on how their vote plays out and how concentrated it is in terms of ridings, (that) they could win a handful of seats and end up holding the balance of power.”
Schreiner became the party's first provincial representative in 2018 after building support in three previous runs for office. Since then, he’s stood out at Queen’s Park as an effective critic on the environment and other issues, including the government’s COVID-19 response.
Those inside the Greens’ provincial campaign efforts are quick to echo the belief that Green successes elsewhere in Canada are scalable in Ontario. At a recent candidate mixer in Kitchener, Ont., Schreiner rallied the small crowd by invoking work done by counterparts in B.C., P.E.I., and New Brunswick, and saying his own party is “punching well above our weight” in Ontario’s legislature with himself as the sole representative.
“Imagine what we can do if the Greens in this room join me at Queen's Park,” Schreiner said to enthusiastic applause.
Party campaign chair Becky Smit said Schreiner’s breakthrough was a game-changer and the party's aim this time is to grow the caucus, noting that other Green parties in Canada “started with one” representative and grew from there.
Last year, the party hosted Zoom sessions for volunteers that heard elected Green representatives from other provinces share the stories behind their successes – all featuring themes of door-knocking, talking directly with voters and campaigns rooted in communities.
“It was fascinating and rewarding to hear that it's a very similar story in each campaign,” she said.
The Greens are running their biggest-ever campaign in Ontario, Smit said, with $228,803 raised in donations by March 2022 compared with $94,695 at the same time in 2018.
“Places with universities” are a natural spot for the Greens to try to stir up support, Winfield said, as younger voters tend to have more concern about the environment when casting their ballots.
The party is running star candidate Dianne Saxe, a former provincial environment commissioner whose position was axed by Premier Doug Ford’s government, in downtown Toronto.
There are also hopes to “grow from strength” in the region around Guelph, Halton Hills and Kitchener-Waterloo, where Smit said the party’s messages about strong communities resonates – and where Ontario voters sent their first federal Green representative to Ottawa last year.
Mike Morrice, who currently holds a federal Kitchener seat, cycled over to the candidate boot camp this month to give a talk. He told The Canadian Press he plans to have a presence in Guelph supporting Schreiner’s re-election bid this spring.
Kevin den Heijer, a former provincial and federal Liberal staffer and public affairs adviser at Enterprise Canada, is less certain that other Canadian Green successes can be matched in Ontario. He said voters in the province are set in their ways with the three main parties, and this election will likely see the Liberals and NDP battling to win votes the left, potentially leaving little space for the Greens to crack into.
“It’s tough not to be too stark when talking about the chances of the Green Party,” he said. “Their ceiling and their floor for gains and losses are really both one seat.”
Den Heijer said the Greens would be wise to focus on re-electing Schreiner and respond to polling in other ridings if the situation looks promising.
The party’s recent focus on mental health issues – on top of environmental causes like stopping urban sprawl, improving public transit and electric vehicle rebates – is also a smart move, den Heijer said, noting that the Greens can have an outsized influence on policy discussions.
“If they can't win votes or win ridings, they can be a player in changing the conversation and the narrative of the election,” he said.
Tamara Small, a political science professor at the University Guelph, echoed den Heijer’s perspective that Ontario is a “tough nut to crack” for candidates outside the three main parties, but she noted that Canadians no longer see the Greens as a fringe party. If polls indicating a strong Progressive Conservative victory hold, that could also help the Greens, she said, because voters may feel like they have nothing to lose by giving the party a shot.
Even if they don’t win more seats, she said, the Greens will likely see any increase in support as a success in a multi-election cycle strategy.
“They’re playing a long game, which is: maybe not this election where we're winning the seat, but the next election we are within 10 points to the person who won last time, so that there actually are seats in play,” she said.
The Greens have hopes that repeat Parry Sound-Muskoka candidate Matt Richter is already there. The local teacher is on his fifth run under the Green banner, and by 2018 his support had grown to 20 per cent of the vote. This time around, the party sees an opening with the sitting Tory not seeking re-election.
“It’s really opened the doors for our message, and it's being received tremendously well this time through,” Richter said in an interview. He said his party’s “straightforward approach” to the worsening housing crisis, transportation and climate change seems to be resonating with voters who are frustrated with "getting rhetoric from the old-school parties.”
Richter said he's keen to make history in his riding like Schreiner did in 2018. He hopes the fifth time is the charm.
“The momentum from one election to the next has continued to build and that is inspiring and motivating on its own,” Richter said. “This time through, especially with the crisis level of affordable housing, of our mental health of the people in our riding, and of course with the climate, I couldn't step away. If anything it’s just empowered me to step up even more.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press