TORONTO – While the other leaders competing in the Ontario election have their eye on the Premier’s Office, Mike Schreiner would be happy just to have an office.
The head of Ontario’s Green party doesn’t have a space of his own at Queen’s Park, so he watches the debates from the gallery, sitting with the tourists and student groups who come to peek at the province’s lawmakers in action.
And when he hits the campaign trail this month ahead of the Oct. 6 vote, Schreiner won’t be jetting across Ontario in a plane or a luxury coach.
The party’s first full-time leader will be putting around in a leased Honda Civic hybrid plastered with images of his boyish, grinning face.
With less than two years at the party’s helm, Schreiner, 42, is green in more ways than one. And he’s keenly aware of his underdog status.
In fact, he seems to relish it.
“I’m not a political insider, I’m a small business owner,” he said, smiling broadly during a recent interview. “But I think most voters are tired of politics as usual.”
The Kansas native is set on landing the Greens at least one seat in the legislature – a feat the party has never achieved before.
“His comment to me was, ‘You know, mom, if I’d gone with one of the major parties, I probably would have been elected,'” his mother, Barb Schreiner, said in an interview from her home near WaKeeney, Kan.
“He always goes down a path that is so difficult,” she said. “I think he likes the challenge.”
A serial entrepreneur before venturing into politics, Schreiner has sought out challenges throughout his career.
At a time when foodies upstaged one another with imported and exotic ingredients, he touted the merits of locally grown produce and set up one of Toronto’s first local and organic food delivery services.
Fourteen years later, the company, Wanigan, still makes weekly drop-offs in the region and several companies are following in its tracks.
Schreiner gets a basket delivered to his home each week, even though he gave up most of his stake in the company six years ago. A budding chef who loves to tinker in the kitchen, he dreams of penning his own cookbook “when I have a bit of time.”
“The whole local and sustainable food movement, he was a pioneer of it,” said Lori Stahlbrand, a food policy expert and one of Schreiner’s former business partners.
Together, the pair founded Local Food Plus, an award-winning non-profit that certifies sustainable farms. The organization made waves in 2006 when it helped the University of Toronto offer local and sustainable food in its residences and cafeterias.
Getting it off the ground took vision balanced with painstaking attention to detail, she said. “He’s good under pressure. He can handle an awful lot.”
She remembers the two of them getting “all dressed up” in suits on a sweltering July day to make their pitch to university administrators – and walking out of the meeting stunned after unexpectedly landing the deal.
“We left there and we were kind of pinching ourselves,” Stahlbrand said with a chuckle. The contract was a big win for the fledgling organization, which went on to work with the municipality of Markham and other Ontario institutions.
Politics lured Schreiner away from Local Food Plus in 2009, though he’d already been testing the waters part-time as the Greens’ agriculture critic and helped craft the party’s platform for the 2007 election.
After years of working behind the scenes, he jumped into the fray in the Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock byelection that saw former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory lose to Liberal Rick Johnson.
Schreiner came in a distant third, but edged ahead of the NDP candidate. The experience only sharpened his resolve. That year, he took the reins of the Green party, running unopposed to replace longtime leader Frank de Jong.
Stahlbrand isn’t surprised to see her former partner shift gears. It’s just another way to tackle the issues close to his heart, she said.
His work “has all been related,” she said. “That’s been a theme through a lot of what he’s done … a commitment to a healthy local economy and a healthy local environment.”
Schreiner traces his environmentalist roots to his childhood in “the middle of nowhere, western Kansas.”
“I grew up working the land as a farm kid, so I was always connected to nature,” he said. “It was almost like…if we’re going to grow food on our farm, we have to have healthy soil and clean water.”
He learned to drive a tractor and a combine by the time he was in middle school. When he wasn’t helping out in the fields, he was hiking, hunting and camping in the shortgrass and brush that surrounded the farm.
“Both of us encouraged him to go out and explore the world,” said his mother, Barb, a schoolteacher. His father Ron, who ran the farm, died four years ago. Brother Jason, 36, trains teachers at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
That love of the wilderness remained even after Schreiner uprooted to Toronto in 1995 to follow his wife, Sandy Welsh, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto.
The couple, now married for 16 years, met in graduate school at Indiana University-Bloomington. They have two daughters, Isabelle, 11, and Beata, 6, who like to parody their father’s political speeches.
Originally reluctant to live in the province’s largest city, Schreiner said he has grown to embrace it, though he still prefers the lush farmlands of the Niagara escarpment.
The family splits its time between Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood and the hamlet of Dunedin, Ont., near Collingwood.
“A noisy river runs through my back yard and I just love it there,” said Schreiner, who became a Canadian citizen in 2007, as did his wife.
Canvassing in the community with his daughters in tow – Schreiner is running in Simcoe-Grey, where he lives – often involves hiking along the river or picking wild apples on the way.
Schreiner’s supporters are counting on his farming background and down-home charm to sway voters in a province with strong agricultural roots.
The Greens captured eight per cent of the vote in the last election, and some predict those numbers will drop this fall as the race heats up between the three major parties.
Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system means a vote for the Greens is often considered a wasted vote, said Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto.
What’s more, the party – and its leader – will increasingly struggle to come out from the shadows now that other parties are weaving environmental policies into their platforms, Wiseman said.
“Their area has been co-opted,” he said.
Schreiner said some of his staff have complained about other parties “stealing their platform.” But he sees it as a sign of success, proof the Greens are pushing the agenda.
“At the same time, we want to elect Greens,” he said. “Even one Green MPP would raise issues that don’t get raised.”