Annamie Paul wants to share a new way of seeing the environment with Quebecers. As the province thinks about a way to re-launch the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Green Party and its leader are laying foundations ahead of possible elections by changing the conversation surrounding environmentalism to include issues of inequality and systemic racism.
“If you’re really focused on good public policy, if you’re focused on people and having a truly positive impact, you can’t put anything aside in order to deal with something else,” said Paul. “It’s really a false choice, and you have to address them at the same time.”
Paul has a hard road ahead, however. Despite a University of Montreal study finding that 79 per cent of Quebecers think their province has already felt the effects of climate change, the Green Party has never won a race there. In fact, when former MP Pierre Nantel jumped from the NDP to the Greens in 2019, he lost a Quebec race he had won both in 2011 and 2015.
“One of the issues that the Green Party will face (in Quebec) is the number of political parties that make a claim on being greener than green,” said Christian Bourque, the executive vice-president of polling firm Léger.
The Green Party also held extra-parliamentary status, which means it did not put forward candidates until 2011 when it shifted towards electoral politics. Paul wants to continue pushing ahead to get more of her party into Parliament, discussing it as “the natural home for progressives in Quebec who are looking for an option at the federal level.”
“That’s what I want to present to them. If you’re looking for that, we are the place you should be.”
Quebec has the largest share of people who think the Earth is getting warmer at least partly because of human activity in Canada, and COVID-19 has done little to change that opinion.
According to a poll by Léger, 50 per cent of Quebecers think the government should do more to fight climate change and 67 per cent want a post-COVID relaunch of the economy to focus on healthcare, quality of life and the environment rather than economic growth. Only 33 per cent of respondents disagreed with the idea that the COVID-19 crisis, the environment and social inequality were interlinked.
This discourse fits well within Paul’s platform of environmental justice, which broadens the concept of environmental action to include tackling poverty and systemic racism.
“It positions the environment as being every place from where you play, you work, you live, all of these things are part of the environment,” explained Cheryl Teelucksingh, a professor at Ryerson University who specializes in environmental justice.
“Environmental justice, by taking a look at issues of equity and those who are most marginalized, says that within this broader notion of environmentalism we also need to recognize that particular players are disadvantaged.”
This is something which Teelucksingh says has become much more apparent during the pandemic. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal and Ryerson University about the effect of COVID-19 on Black communities in Quebec last November found that they were more affected by the pandemic, partly due to being over-represented in frontline industries.
While racial inequality can be something of a difficult topic in Quebec, Teelucksingh says that the reality of the situation could change priorities for Quebecers who want a quicker end to the pandemic.
“I think what’s happened, as Montreal is dealing with some of the highest numbers in terms of lockdown, is to recognize that a more collectivist understanding of society is needed whether someone’s wearing a niqab or not,” she argued.
“The health of individuals, regardless of their identity, has consequences for everybody.”
Collective well-being and action is a major feature of environmental justice, and resonates strongly with environmentally-minded young Quebecers who think current politics place too much emphasis on individual initiatives like recycling.
“We have to change the traditional narrative of the climate change movement,” said Albert Lalonde, an environmental activist from Quebec who is part of a lawsuit filed by Canadian youths against the federal government demanding a national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“The problem today is that the focus is really on individual action,” he continued, speaking about government incentives aimed at getting Canadians to compost or buy locally sourced products.
“But all this is completely incoherent when it is put forward by governments who buy pipelines.”
Lalonde argues the only way forward is through collective action that acknowledges and accounts for different living conditions through the whole country.
“If you’re sick, if you’re living in poverty, if you’re taking care of a loved one who has COVID, you’re not going to have time to worry about recycling or living sustainably,” said Shir Gruber, co-director of Sustainable Youth Canada in Montreal.
Approaching these issues from a systemic perspective is essential, Gruber says, because these are systemic problems that have wide-reaching ramifications that might not be immediately apparent to most people, though the pandemic may have given Quebecers an unsettling preview of future environmental crises.
“More and more people are also starting to understand that deforestation has a link with public health,” added Nico Serreqi, media chair at SYC.
“Deforestation means that there are a higher density of animals living in one place, and also closer proximity to humans which means that humans will likely hunt more in these environments and have contact with vectors of disease.”
These perspectives echo Paul’s platform for the Green Party, but whether this will translate into votes is uncertain. Despite Quebecers aged 18-34 making up the core of the Green Party’s base in the province, particularly among women, strategic voting has been a recurring feature for young voters in recent elections.
“The Liberals were actually quite successful in getting the young millennials and first time voters to actually go out and vote (in 2015),” Bourque said. “Because Trudeau made the campaign about a common enemy being the return of a Conservative government.”
According to a 2019 Angus-Reid exit poll, nearly half of all undecided voters in the country cast their ballots based on who they disliked the least rather than to support a candidate they liked. This was particularly prevalent with the Conservative and Liberal parties, where more than 60 per cent of their support came from voters disliking other options more.
“I’ve seen a lot of strategic voting in youth last election, because we really didn’t want to have the Conservatives,” said Rosalie Thibault, an environmental activist who worked with the Green Party during the leadership race last October. “And if we have them, it’s even worse than buying a pipeline like the Liberals did.”
“It also really dissuades youth from voting at all because they feel like, if they vote according to their values, they won’t win because of the dominant strategy.”
While Thibault thinks Scheer had a better chance of winning in 2019 due to his more centrist positions and Erin O’Toole’s popularity has dipped among Canadian voters recently, the sentiment is not as present in Quebec.
According to an Angus-Reid poll released this week, 47 per cent of Canadians viewed the Conservative leader unfavorably, 16 points more since September. Quebec, on the other hand, had one of the lowest rates of unfavorable views for O’Toole at 40 per cent.
There is still a lot of time before an election takes place, and Paul hopes her party’s trend in polling continues. According to most recent data from Léger the Green Party was polling at six per cent in Quebec, just five points behind the NDP.
Going into an election as a new leader, Paul will have to both make herself known and show Quebecers how her platform answers their needs in ways that traditional environmental politics cannot.