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Unrest and the unexpected have made Annamie Paul’s leadership a rough ride so far

Annamie Paul says she got into politics knowing it would bring a constant barrage of the unexpected
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul answers questions during a press conference as she officially opens her campaign office in Toronto Centre, Thursday, July 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Green Party of Canada Leader Annamie Paul says she got into politics knowing it would bring a constant barrage of the unexpected into her life, and there is no denying that it has delivered.

“It definitely is as advertised, which is a one of a kind experience that you really can never fully prepare yourself for,” said Paul. “And, you know, you just have to ride the roller-coaster when you’re in it.”

But even Paul acknowledges she could never have predicted that roller-coaster would include fending off a non-confidence motion 10 months into her leadership and weeks before a federal election call.

“That’s true,” she says, laughing. “That is true.”

Paul is a bubbly, easygoing woman with a thousand-watt smile who is passionate about helping the most vulnerable and improving the systems they depend on.

Things like long-term care, a system which last year claimed her father’s life after a treatable bladder infection wasn’t discovered until it had turned into a fatal case of sepsis. She spent much of the first months of her leadership hosting virtual town halls trying to find ways to fix the broken system.

Born in Toronto to Caribbean immigrants, Paul’s mother, a teacher, launched the political spirit in Paul, taking her to union rallies as a kid. She is a lawyer by training but bristles that she is often described as a “Toronto lawyer” when she has never practised law.

After law school at the University of Ottawa, and a masters in public affairs from Princeton University, she returned to Toronto and founded the Canadian Centre for Political Leadership to help increase the political representation of racialized women.

She has worked as an adviser at the International Criminal Court in Belgium and co-founded an organization to mentor sustainable development groups in Barcelona, Spain.

She is married to international human rights lawyer Mark Freeman and they have two sons.

Paul enjoyed the fact that it used to be hard to summarize her in a short snappy sentence, but is well aware that changed when she won the Green leadership, becoming the first Black and Jewish woman to helm a national party in Canada.

“I know also that it will change things for the better, that there are people who might not have considered this for themselves as an option, that might not have felt reflected and represented that do now,” she said.

But she added that diversity has to become so normal in politics “that a person like me can run without feeling like they have to represent the entirety of their racial group or religious group or whatnot.”

While racism is something Paul has come up against most of her life, the hatred has escalated since she became the party leader. She recently called for more effort to stop the targeted attacks, which for her included recent threats of physical violence in online forums.

In June she also said racism and sexism were behind a plot from within the Green party to oust her as leader.

“First woman of colour, first Black person and first Jewish woman elected to lead a major federal party — it was never going to be a walk in the park,” Paul wrote in mid-June,

The unrest in the Green party was simmering for months, and exploded in June over Paul’s position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Paul said both sides needed to de-escalate and move toward constructive dialogue, a statement that was publicly challenged by two of the three Green MPs.

The dispute got personal when an aide to Paul accused some Green MPs and members of anti-Semitism and vowed to campaign against them in the next election.

In the midst of it all, Jenica Atwin, the first Green MP elected in Atlantic Canada, crossed the floor to the Liberals, and is running under their banner in this election. That loss angered former Green leader Elizabeth May, who had been a Paul supporter but has not publicly supported her in recent months.

May declined to be interviewed for this article.

Paul also snubbed both May and Paul Manly, the only other incumbent Green MP, when the election was called by not including either of them in her shadow cabinet.

Manly could only muster up that she had said good things about long-term care when he was asked about Paul’s leadership during a recent interview on an unrelated topic.

A week after Atwin’s departure, members of the party’s governing council moved to bring a non-confidence vote in Paul’s leadership and later tried to revoke her party membership. Paul appealed to an arbitrator, who stopped the moves, prompting some senior party officials to launch a legal challenge.

In mid-August, the party elected a new national council, with more Paul supporters on it, and since the election was called the animosity between party headquarters and Paul appears to have quieted.

Money is still an issue — legal bills for the leadership battle are in the hundreds of thousands — and it’s put a damper on how much Paul can campaign outside the Toronto Centre riding where she is running for the third time.

Party infighting is as common to politics as selfies and self-aggrandizing, but the scale, timing and public nature of the Green’s troubles were unusual.

“It’s hard to think of part of going into a situation where, on the eve of election, you’re actively trying to oust your leader, questioning her membership, withholding funding for the local campaign,” said Earnscliffe Strategy Group principal Shakir Chambers. “I can’t think of a time like this.”

Zahra Sultani, former adviser to Ontario’s Tory environment minister and now a senior consultant at Loyalist Public Affairs, said it looks like the Greens are having “an identity crisis.”

Sultani said after more than 14 years with May at the helm, the Greens seem to not know where to go from here, even though May remained an MP and their leader in the House of Commons because Paul didn’t have a seat.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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