It’s not often that a conversation with a federal leader of a Canadian party includes a debate over which city makes the best bagel: Montreal or New York?
“That thing in New York is not a bagel, I’m surprised you would ask that. That’s just bread with a hole in the middle,” Annamie Paul, newly-elected leader of the Green Party told me over a phone call, which felt more like an in-person chat in her living room. “Do they even boil it?”
Paul is the first Black and Jewish female leader of a Canadian federal party. On October 3, her historic win was celebrated, but was short-lived after her defeat in the Toronto Centre by election—the riding where she grew up—to Liberal MP Marci Ien. The seat became open with the resignation of former Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Even though she didn’t win the riding, Paul was the runner-up with 33 percent of the vote, just nine percent shy of Ien’s, a significant improvement from her 2019 run in the same riding, when she took just over seven percent of the vote, her team confirmed.
She contributes her substantial gains to the “incredibly motivated passionate group of volunteers” who “campaigned their hearts out” and to voters who wanted to see a political shift. “People wanted change, whether they were the affluent or less affluent they just have seen their community declining year after year, and they were willing to take a chance, take a chance on something better and that something different is possible. I give them credit for that because people are change averse in general but every once in a while they’ll make their voices heard which is encouraging to see.”
Paul prides herself on “positive, issue-based campaigning” which stemmed from her early exposure to politics.
Born and raised in Toronto, Paul’s mother and grandmother immigrated from the Caribbean in the 1960s with her mother eventually becoming a teacher in the public school system. She described her mother as being “socially and politically active” but Paul got more involved in politics when at the ripe age of 12 she was a page in the Ontario Legislature.
She went on to complete a Masters of Public Affairs at Princeton University, a Bachelor of Law at the University of Ottawa, and was called to the Bar in Ontario.
However, Paul’s career goal wasn’t to become a lawyer. It was to go into public policy and she knew the tools and skills from studying law would be an asset.
It’s what led to her two proudest professional accomplishments: co-founding and co-directing the Barcelona International Public Policy (BIPP) Hub in 2017 and founding the Canadian Centre for Political Leadership (CCPL) in 2001 shortly after graduating from Princeton.
The BIPP Hub is an innovation hub for international NGOs working on global challenges, such as tackling climate change, conflict prevention, and human rights. And the CCPL works at increasing representation for women, racialised peoples, and marginalised groups in politics and public policy.
If one looks to these organizations, one can understand Paul’s interest in joining politics and specifically the Green Party.
After spending time abroad, the Toronto-born politician came back to Canada ready to join a party. Because the BIPP Hub worked on tackling climate change, Paul said she was not interested in being part of any party that wasn’t proposing serious solutions.
“I also wanted to be part of a grassroots party where the members have a say and a voice,” she added.
In 2019, she was nominated by the Green’s to represent Toronto Centre in July 2019 and soon after her nomination, she was appointed to the Green Party’s Shadow Cabinet as International Affairs Critic by Elizabeth May. She held the position until February 2020, when she decided to run as leader for the Green Party winning over 54% of the vote.
Paul credits her husband and two children for championing her to run for election—a decision that would cause a seismic shift in her and her family’s life.
“My older son said something along the lines of, what else are you going to do?” Paul’s laughter erupted. “I don’t think he said more than that, he just decided that I had to do it and wasn’t interested in hearing otherwise.”
And while Paul’s win is historic and one to be celebrated, she is inheriting a party that is facing some troubling accusations of anti-Semitism.
In 2014, former party president Paul Estrin, who is also Jewish, quit after the party condemned a blog post he wrote criticizing the actions of the terrorist group Hamas. The blog post was later taken down by the party without Estrin’s knowledge.
In an Op-Ed for the Canadian Jewish News, he said he was “disturbed” by how his colleagues treated him for writing this blog post, after years of dedication to the party.
Then in 2018, Dimitri Lascaris, who was the runner-up for the new Green Party leadership race, accused two Liberal MPs of being more loyal to Israel than Canada—a common anti-Semitic trope.
“Apparently, Liberal MPs Anthony Housefather and Michael Levitt are more devoted to apartheid Israel than to their own Prime Minister and their own colleagues in the Liberal caucus,” Lascaris said in a tweet.
It was immediately condemned by Liberal, Conservative and NDP party leaders at the time.
When asked about the accusations of anti-Semitism, Paul responded that the Green Party members voted for a Jewish leader, showing they are comfortable with Judaism being at the forefront of their party.
“The Jewish community will know that they are extremely welcome, and I have been on record many times [saying] that there is no place in our party for hate of any kind including anti-semitism and if I see it, it will not be welcome, we have zero tolerance towards that,” she said.
Inheriting the Green Party from May—who was in power for 13 years—offers Paul the chance to renew the party, but she says the important issues remain the same.
For the Greens, two important agenda items are the focus: completing the social safety net, such as universal basic income, universal pharmacare, and addressing the widening wealth inequality gap, and naturally, the other is addressing the climate crisis. But these issues, as Paul noted, are interconnected.
She explained that one cannot talk about environmental issues without addressing racial justice, the economy, and social inequities—it’s an idea that “lots more people are coming to understand.”
“Addressing the climate emergency is of course about building a more just society,” Paul described. “This is something the Green Party has always understood. So there’s no need for a divergence or radical redirection because the policies we had in the last election, these policies would have made a big difference, in the pandemic and generally, and they still would make a big difference if we put them in place.”
Now that six weeks weeks have passed since her historic win, the federal party leader says it’s the small interactions that make her realize the momentous nature of this moment in Canada’s history.
“It comes from reading an email from a little girl who says, ‘you look just like me’ or the woman who drove me the other day in a rideshare. She was a Black woman in her 30s and said she never paid attention to politics until now.”
In moments like these, Paul is reminded of why she went through the difficult process of joining political office.
“It’s a special feeling to feel like you’re part of history in a small way.”
As our conversation ended, we came full circle talking about foods that define Jewish culture. This time it was her mother-in-law’s life changing brisket. I left the interview feeling a little hopeful that Paul will be able to right some wrongs within the party, offering an inclusive space for Jews and non-Jews alike, while strengthening the platform of the Green Party.
Feature image taken by Rebecca Wood.