November 4, 2007

How Greens altered the Canadian political landscape

Carol Kidd may be a card-carrying Conservative, but last Wednesday she, who lives along the largely rural plains of Caledon, northwest of Toronto, voted Green.

It was a first for her. But along with thousands of others, she's offering a glimpse of an altered political landscape in rural Ontario, where the Green party is becoming a viable choice.

But why in the province's rural areas and not the cities, where the environmental movement is at its most intense? Not even Green party leader Frank de Jong, knows the answer. But there are hypotheses.

The Greens, who ran candidates in all 107 ridings, came in third or better in 18 of them in last week's election. In one, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, Green candidate Shane Jolley came in second behind the incumbent, Tory Bill Murdoch. In the 2003 election, when they ran in 102 of 103 ridings, Greens placed third in just two ridings.

Although there were a handful of urban third-place finishes – such as Toronto constituencies Don Valley West and Davenport, where leader Frank de Jong ran, and Barrie – most of the success came in rural ridings, in the 519 area code.

"I think sometimes, and now particularly, people in the rural communities see the farmland being eaten up with development, and issues like Walkerton with the water and the Greenbelt," says Kidd, 64, executive director of the Caledon Meals On Wheels program. "I think we're more concerned about the land."

Experts say the spreading rural Green tide may have as much to do with history and demographics as environmental awareness.

The Green Party in Ontario began in the large cities, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa, among the downtowners. "It was the usual-suspects kind of thing, we were treehuggers, myself included," says de Jong, who recounts how he was arrested for mischief in 1996 along with others protesting logging of old-growth forest at Owain Lake in Temagami in northern Ontario. (The charges were later dropped.)

Highly decentralized and grassroots, it started transforming into a more solid, traditional party with a clear structure and leader in the 1990s. Each election it would field more candidates. And its share of the popular vote would increase, tripling to 8 per cent last week.

But a trend emerged that no one expected. By the mid-1990s, the party was gaining traction in the rural, agricultural regions faster than in the cities from which it began.

The conundrum no one has quite figured out is exactly who in the rural areas is apt to vote Green.

The farmers are the prime example. There are those who might look at the Green Party and its desire to protect farmland from development and to make farms more viable for producing food for local markets, and find that attractive.

"We have fewer farmers every year, that's no surprise," says Geri Kamenz, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "But if you look at my new members, a lot of them are third-career people who have taken early retirement, moved into rural Ontario and are farming to some degree ... Is profitability their number one goal? I'm not sure it is. Is reconnecting with their roots or getting closer to that which really sustains and feeds humanity part of their motivation? I think so.

"If you look at that, and you look at what the Green party offers in terms of environmental sustainability, (rural Ontario) would seem an obvious place to field candidates."

Organic farmers, too, were early supporters – and candidates – for the Green party, which champions organic and local foods.

Larger-scale commercial farmers, who raise crops like corn and soy beans to sell on international markets, might also look to the Green party, since the other parties, Kamenz says, rarely talked about agriculture during the campaign.

"A small part of the commercial farming community may exercise a protest vote, not to elect the Green party, but to yank the chains of the other parties to say, `You better pay attention to us.'"

On the other hand, many farmers oppose the province's Greenbelt, which protects a wide swath of land from further development. In some cases, it has erased their future ability to sell the land for development profit. It also creates hurdles to making any changes to the land.

The Green party, as it happens, would like to expand the Greenbelt in the interest of curbing sprawl.

Farmers have also historically viewed environmentalists as an "enemy rather than an ally" and see the Greens as closely connected to environmentalists, says Peter Andrée, a specialist in environmental politics at Carleton University.

"I don't think that's necessarily well thought through, but I see there's a gut reaction in that direction."

The Green party must be aware of the fact that even in these rural regions, farmers don't make up the majority of voters, Andrée notes. So their message has to work for a broader audience.

Some say the reason the Greens came in ahead of the NDP in many of these ridings is because the New Democrats, tied to the labour movement, have historically been weak in these areas, which tend to be Conservative bastions.

"The NDP isn't seen as the alternative in those rural ridings," Andrée says.

"In the 705, the 519, they're not connecting with the voters, whereas the Greens have come up on the radar as a new option that doesn't have the negative connotations yet like the NDP."

De Jong, a Toronto teacher, agrees with that assessment. When someone came to ecological consciousness in Toronto over last 20 years, they'd go to a multiplicity of environmental non-governmental organizations, like Friends of the Earth, or to the NDP, he explains. "But in Owen Sound there are no ecological groups, and the NDP is not a force. So you have to go to the Green party."

Some pundits predict that Green support will plateau as other parties adopt environmental agendas. And Andrée sees the danger of a "ceiling" of voters who turn out strictly on environmental issues.

Still, he expects the Greens to do even better next time. First, however, they'll have to convince people that they're not a one-issue party.

Voters in rural Ontario, it appears, are already starting to believe.

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