‘There are no winners here, only losers.’ The inside story of how the Green party toppled Annamie Paul and tore itself apart in the process

OTTAWA—Of course it would end like this.

In one of her last acts as leader of the Green Party of Canada, Annamie Paul stared into her computer screen to address the party’s federal council on Tuesday night. Her year of bitter discord with officials at the top of the Green organization had finally pushed her to announce, one day earlier, that she would resign as leader after enduring the “worst” period of her life.

But first, she had stunning objections to raise about the councillors on the screen before her.

One of them, Paul stated, “has said that he supports my indictment at the International Criminal Court.” Others, she said, are active participants in online groups “that have called for my physical assault, that have made multiple antisemitic tropes against me, and as recently as today.”

Paul said she had spoken of this before, and criticized the council for failing to act. Then she was told, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by the Star, that there is a process to submit complaints and that nothing could be done without direction from party staff.

“I do not think that it is difficult,” Paul responded. “I hope that those who are observing this call will bear witness to what equity, diversity and inclusion looks like in our party.”

This is how the first Black person and Jewish woman to lead a mainstream national party is leaving her post: dejected, demoralized, and defeated, after clashing with top Green officials from the very beginning. For Paul’s supporters, it is a story of how a historic political figure was undermined by a party that is rotten to the core with incompetence and systemic racism, and still operating in the shadow of its formidable former leader. For others, Paul’s downfall is the result of her own failures to communicate and build relationships as she tried to take control of an organization that prides itself on constraining the authority of its leaders.

Either way, the stark divisions inside the Green party have now been exposed. A movement purportedly devoted to the highest ideals of public service — such as saving humanity from the threat of climate change — has publicly collapsed into a self-destructive cycle of squabbling over arcane procedures, accusations of racism and bad leadership, and legal confrontation.

Now, in the wake of an election campaign that saw the party’s vote share tumble to its lowest level since 2000, some longtime Greens believe the past year of turmoil has left their party all but dead.

“Clearly the party is broken and divided,” said Daniel Green, a former deputy leader who sat on the federal council for most of the year.

“Will the Green party survive? … I do not know.”

How did it come to this?

In November 2019, the Green party was at a crossroads. It had just finished its fourth federal election with Elizabeth May as leader. And although it had won three seats, its best result ever, there was a sense that a golden opportunity had been squandered. The Greens polled high ahead of the election, concerns about climate change were prominent in the public discourse, and the party was raking in record amounts of money.

But there were two big worries about the party’s performance in that campaign, said one senior official, who has since left the Greens and only agreed to speak about internal matters on condition they aren’t named.

The first was the embarrassment that the Greens had fielded a less diverse slate of candidates than any of the other parties, including the far-right People’s Party, the official said.

The second was about May. Was it time for her to go?

“She was really well past her best-before date, and we recognized as we went through the 2019 campaign that she was making mistakes,” the official said, pointing to May’s comment to the CBC that Greens wouldn’t restrict their MPs from trying to restrict abortion access — a statement that opened the party to an onslaught of attacks from the rival New Democrats.

“The organization recognized after 2019 — and we saw Elizabeth did as well — that it was time for her to move on.”

May had been re-elected in 2019 as the MP for the British Columbia riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands. Just days after that election, she told the Star she was preparing to step down as leader, but not immediately. She said the other two Green MPs didn’t want that to happen “any time soon,” but that she would certainly no longer be leader by 2023.

Less than two weeks later, May submitted her resignation during a three-day session of the Greens’ federal council, according to official minutes that were obtained by the Star.

Another senior Green operative, who attended the meetings but only agreed to discuss internal matters on condition they aren’t named, said they were surprised May resigned so soon.

“While Elizabeth knew the time had come for her to move on,” the insider said, “it happened very quickly … and I don’t know if she emotionally prepared herself for the change.”

May declined to speak to the Star on the record for this story, stating that Paul — who has not yet officially resigned as leader — ordered her to remain silent.

A senior Green source with direct knowledge of the situation denied that May faced any pressure from inside the party to resign after the 2019 election and said she came to the decision on her own.

The party also decided during that marathon council session to take action to address concerns about a lack of diversity in the party. Paul — who was a Green shadow cabinet member at the time — gave a presentation on the issue, according to the minutes, just before the council voted to hire a new “diversity co-ordinator” for the party and audit how the organization’s structure and practices impact members from equity-seeking groups.

Both matters — May’s resignation, and the party’s efforts to deal with concerns about diversity — would set the stage for the coming internal conflict.

From the very first moment of Paul’s leadership, on Oct. 3, 2020, Noah Zatzman knew his boss was in for a rough ride. She had just become Canada’s first Black person and Jewish woman to lead a mainstream political party, but the first question from reporters was about a leaked internal report on how the Greens’ executive director at the time had allegedly mishandled workplace harassment complaints at a previous job.

The Green party’s drama and dysfunction was officially Paul’s problem now.

“From day one, no room was given for Annamie to succeed,” said Zatzman, who was one of Paul’s top advisers until he became the centre of his own controversy inside the party months later.

“They certainly didn’t get off on the right foot, by any means.”

Paul did not respond to interview requests from the Star this week, and her executive assistant said Friday that the outgoing leader is not currently speaking to reporters.

One issue that soon became apparent to Zatzman, as well as to numerous other Green sources, was that May remained a force in the party. She had been the face of the Greens for 13 years, and was still the party’s parliamentary leader in the House of Commons.

In the months after she resigned in November 2019, May publicly supported a group of candidates in an election for the party’s federal council. And many of them — including her husband, John Kidder — were elected in 2020 and held top positions on the governing body when Paul took over.

By that time the governing body had already endured months of infighting, with the resignation earlier that year of president Jean-Luc Cooke, who stated on Twitter that he would come back only if “several” other members of the council stepped down. Another councillor who resigned, Joey Leckman, described a “toxic” dynamic that predated Paul’s leadership, while a third councillor at the time — Stephanie Coburn — attributed tensions to “lots of ego” amid virtual sessions in the pressure cooker of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, May’s influence was felt during the leadership race. Her decision to help Paul raise money as an “equity-seeking” candidate upset some leadership contestants. And emails obtained by the Star show she tried to get party officials to disqualify Paul’s top rival in the race, eco-socialist Dimitri Lascaris, for reasons that included alleged antisemitic statements.

The day before Paul won the leadership, May told the Star she might return one day as leader, and that whoever held that job would not have the authority to dictate party policy or control how Green MPs vote in Parliament.

“We came into a situation where the party was institutionally wrapped around Elizabeth,” Zatzman said.

As Paul transitioned into the leadership, Zatzman said May “would be upset” if the new leader held news conferences or issued statements without notifying her. A senior Green source with direct knowledge of the situation said caucus simply wanted advance notice to make sure its positions in Parliament were consistent with the leader’s.

That source also confirmed that Paul wouldn’t allow the Green MPs to speak to the media or issue their own statements without her approval, and said that May “willingly backed off” speaking to reporters at Paul’s request.

Another insider, who spoke about Paul’s political style on condition they weren’t named, suggested she was more at ease discussing precise policy than engaging in this “no holds barred, political world that she was put into.” Paul had only run in one federal election before she won the leadership, and her career before had been as a lawyer, diplomat and executive with non-governmental organizations.

But Paul and her team soon discovered it wasn’t just her caucus they had to contend with.

Samuel Moisan-Domm was already sour on Paul’s leadership when the Star published a story in April that he calls “character assassination by proxy.”

As Quebec representative on the party’s federal council, who ran with the group that included May’s husband, Moisan-Domm disagreed completely with how one of Paul’s top political lieutenants described the “resistance” the new leader faced inside the party.

That lieutenant, Sean Yo, said the obstacles confronting Paul could not be understood without looking through the “lens of race, gender and religion.”

The comment struck a nerve and sparked a string of denials from within the party — denials that in turn provoked anger from Greens who agreed that systemic racism was a problem that stretched back to the noted lack of diversity in the 2019 slate of candidates. The party’s diversity co-ordinator — who was hired amid concerns after that campaign — penned a scathing letter to top party officials that demanded resignations and declared the Green party has a “very real problem with racism.”

In retrospect, Yo now acknowledges that his statement made Paul’s position in the party “much worse,” but he says he had failed to get officials to respond to his concerns privately.

“I didn’t think discussion of systemic oppression would be so hotly contested,” he said. “That was probably naive of me at the time.”

Still, he added that “if you have a large group of older white people consistently telling a brand new Black woman, ‘no’ … I just can’t see it any other way.”

According to Yo and Zatzman, that pattern of “no” established itself soon after Paul won the Green leadership. That October, she immediately dove into a byelection in the riding of Toronto Centre. It was a bold decision for the new leader; she had already lost there in 2019 to then-Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau, and the riding was a formidable Liberal stronghold that has been red since the Blue Jays last won the World Series, in 1993.

But in the middle of the race, the party shocked Paul’s team by asking it to refund $50,000 in campaign money. The organization also sent just one junior staffer to help Paul’s effort in the riding, Yo told the Star, prompting confusion about its general lack of support.

At the same time, tensions started to mount between Paul and the party’s federal council, where May’s husband Kidder was the English vice-president.

That fall, the party was searching for its fourth executive director in less than one year. Paul’s top choice, according to multiple party sources, was Velma Morgan, an advocate for more diversity in politics as chair of Operation Black Vote Canada.

But the federal council favoured Dana Taylor, a former construction industry association executive from B.C. who ran unsuccessfully with the group of council candidates that May endorsed.

Taylor was hired against Paul’s wishes in late November, and still holds the job today.

Zatzman interpreted the decision as a sign that May still had influence, although a source with knowledge of May’s thinking denied that she had tipped the scales in Taylor’s favour.

In any event, the disagreement over who should fill the role helped turn some federal councillors against Paul, said Moisan-Domm, the former Quebec representative.

He said they felt “pressured” by Paul to choose Morgan, even though the party’s human resources committee had recommended Taylor. And when Paul’s pick wasn’t selected, Moisan-Domm said he felt she implied during a meeting with council that the decision showed racial bias.

“Annamie said at a meeting that there can only be one reason why you would not choose Velma Morgan, and for many of us it was obvious what that meant,” Moisan-Domm said.

Meanwhile, with Taylor installed as the party’s executive director, a second point of contention between Paul and the federal council soon came up. As a leader without a seat in Parliament, Paul needed an employment contract with the party.

One source with direct knowledge of party affairs told the Star a contract was ready for Paul the day after she won the leadership, and that it included a salary of around $85,000.

But according to Yo, there was an unreasonably drawn-out process to negotiate Paul’s contract. She didn’t end up signing it until Dec. 16.

When council learned the details of what was being negotiated between Paul and the legal entity that runs the party’s finances — the GPC Fund — Moisan-Domm said several members were concerned. In particular, he said they were “shocked” that Paul would be paid about the same salary as an MP, which is roughly $170,000. Not only was that far more than the $70,000 per year that May was paid before she won her seat in the House of Commons, but Moisan-Domm said some councillors saw the large salary as inconsistent with Green values.

It was also significantly more than the contract that one source said was ready for Paul two months earlier when she won the leadership.

“For us, the Green party electing a new leader, it’s almost like choosing the next Mother Teresa — someone who will sacrifice themselves for the cause. But then we get a leader whose asking (for) so much … It’s shocking,” Moisan-Domm said.

Yet Moisan-Domm said they ended up voting to approve the contract anyway, because Paul was refusing to compromise and they worried she would either resign or refuse to participate in the normally lucrative year-end fundraising for the party.

Zatzman, meanwhile, felt that the contract dispute entrenched a growing feeling of “bad blood” that started for Paul’s team when it felt unsupported by the party during her byelection run.

Disagreements continued over the next three months. According to recordings of meetings obtained by the Star, Paul objected in February when councillors voted to elect new members to the board of the party fund, and expressed frustration when they later sided with May to appoint a Green caucus representative to the party’s campaign working group.

By early April, Yo was ready to speak out and the Star published the story that first revealed the tensions inside the party.

For Green, the former deputy leader who sat on the council as French vice-president for most of this year, there is no doubt that “systemic racism” exists in the party. But “does systemic racism inside the Green party of Canada explain our difficult relationships with Annamie Paul? Absolutely not,” he said. “It goes much further than that.”

For a brief few weeks in the spring, however, the infighting seemed like it might calm down.

Then rockets started to fall in the Middle East.

The long-simmering conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians erupted into violence again this May, with Hamas militants in Gaza and the Israeli military firing rockets and missiles into each other’s territory. And thousands of kilometres away in Canada, Greens were concerned.

“Every day I’m hearing from caucus about what are we doing about the conflict in the Middle East,” said Zatzman, who interacted with Green MPs’ offices on behalf of Paul’s team.

“And I’m like, ‘Hello? Climate?” he said. “Why aren’t we talking about the climate?”

On May 10, Paul released a statement that condemned the violence and called for “restraint” from leaders on both sides, prompting public criticism from Green MP Jenica Atwin. Israel alone was violating human rights in the conflict, Atwin wrote on Twitter, calling for an end to Israeli “apartheid.”

Zatzman said that as a Jewish man with family in Israel, he was deeply and personally offended by Atwin’s comments. And as a member of that community, who was only working with the Green party to support Paul, he felt the need to publicly “explain that I wouldn’t tolerate that.”

On May 14, Zatzman wrote on Facebook that a “range of political actors” including Green MPs had expressed “appalling antisemitism and discrimination,” and that he would work to defeat them.

In early June, that statement became a locus of controversy when Atwin — the Fredericton MP who had won the Greens’ first seat outside of B.C. — defected to the Liberals. Part of her explanation for doing so: Zatzman’s post, and the fact that Paul never condemned what he said.

“Annamie and I had a communication breakdown,” Atwin told iPolitics at the time. “To be openly attacked and not supported (was) unbearable.”

But according to Yo, there were signs Atwin was disillusioned with the Greens before the Zatzman affair. Yo was briefly tapped to be the Greens’ national campaign chair for the 2021 election, before he resigned in March without signing his own employment contract and after another Paul supporter — Matthew Piggott — was fired from the party. But before he left, Yo said he wanted to reach out to discuss re-election efforts with the three Green incumbents. Atwin’s office, he says, refused to engage with him.

“I want to be clear, I tried multiple times,” Yo said.

Yo said he was shown a memo detailing a staff member’s discussion with Atwin’s office, which he provided to the Star, that indicates that in late November 2020 — less than two months after Paul became leader — Atwin’s team rejected working with the central party when it was contacted to discuss preparing for a general election in 2021.

Atwin’s office did not want the Green Party of Canada “to advise or support on Jenica Atwin’s re-election campaign” because it “felt there was not trust” between the party and her campaign, the memo states.

Zatzman, meanwhile, believes the fact that Atwin publicly expressed regret about her statements on Israel after she joined the Liberals casts doubt on her motivations for leaving the Greens.

Neither Atwin nor the chief of staff in her office when she was a Green MP responded to requests for comment this week.

But regardless of why Atwin left the Greens, her defection — and Paul’s reaction to it — intensified the divisions that already existed in the party. Jim Harris, who led the party from 2003 to 2006, sent a lengthy email to the federal council that called for Paul’s removal as leader, in part over her failure to condemn Zatzman’s comments. Alex Tyrrell, the leader of the Quebec provincial Greens, as well as the federal party’s Quebec wing also called for Paul to resign.

And when she didn’t, the federal council moved to schedule a confidence vote that would trigger the process to formally depose Paul as leader. Green, Moisan-Domm and three other federal councillors — all of whom are no longer members of the council — signed a letter explaining why they felt Paul had to go.

In the letter, which was obtained by the Star, they accused Paul of leading the party with an “an autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority and rejection. They also claimed that Paul displayed “anger in long, repetitive, aggressive monologues” at council meetings.

In a defiant news conference on June 16, Paul fired back at what she called a small group of councillors who were resisting her efforts to make the party more diverse. She called their allegations “racist” and “sexist.”

In an interview this week, Green said he initially supported Paul’s leadership and sponsored a motion to send $250,000 to Paul’s riding association in Toronto Centre to help her prepare for the election. (The money was never delivered, according to multiple party sources, amid financial difficulties that increased through this year.)

But Green said he came to see Paul as overly controlling, describing how she failed to communicate with key figures inside the party — even when contacted directly — and tried to “impose her vision of what a leader should be.

“The party’s culture is not a leader culture, and it never has been,” he said. “Maybe our mistake is not having communicated that to Annamie.”

After failing to resolve their differences with Paul despite “honest and persistent attempts to have a heart-to-heart,” Green said the council moved forward with a planned confidence vote scheduled for July 20. If three quarters of the council declared non-confidence in Paul, the party membership would get a chance to cast ballots on whether to keep or dump Paul as leader at the Green convention scheduled in August.

“We wanted to give members a chance before the (expected federal) election, to express their support or lack of support,” Green said.

The dynamic got even more tense when Paul sent a letter threatening to sue Victor Lau, then a federal councillor and a former leader of the Saskatchewan Greens. Lau confirmed he received a “cease-and-desist letter” from Paul, but told the Star that he was never informed why Paul sent it.

Nevertheless, according to Green, the move spooked members of council and prompted two representatives to resign.

“They were bullied to leave. They were afraid,” Green said.

Facing the threat of a leadership review, Paul used a clause in her employment contract to launch a private arbitration process on July 7, in an attempt to “quash” the non-confidence vote, according to a document later filed in Ontario Superior Court. One senior party official with direct knowledge of the arbitration told the Star that Paul’s decision to launch the process meant she had initiated a legal proceeding against the party — a violation of the code of conduct for Green party members.

And that’s why, on July 13, Taylor — the executive director hired against Paul’s wishes last November — launched a review of Paul’s membership. This happened, the official explained, because party rules say such a review must occur if a member starts a legal proceeding against the party.

For several days afterward, Greens were confused about whether this meant Paul was no longer the leader, as the party rules also state that members under review are suspended and can’t “represent the party in any capacity.” Party spokespeople refused to answer when asked whether Paul was still the leader.

These dual threats to Paul’s leadership came to an abrupt halt, however, when the arbitrator in the dispute ordered that the council could not proceed with a confidence vote before the scheduled Green convention, and paused the membership review until at least after new council members were elected on Aug. 19.

The party filed a legal challenge of these orders in Ontario Superior Court on July 21, but neither the confidence vote nor membership review has proceeded since.

Paul’s supporters thought this was all ludicrous. But some were also wary that May, the Greens’ parliamentary leader, remained silent as her successor’s leadership was under attack. And when May finally did make a statement, on July 20, it did not include a clear endorsement of Paul as Green leader.

“I fully support the Green Party of Canada, our values and our constitution. Our leader is Annamie Paul and only our members have authority to call that into question,” May’s statement said.

By this time, May’s husband was no longer on the party’s federal council; he had resigned before the governing body tried to stage a confidence vote to depose Paul.

Yet Zatzman and many others inside the party believed council members and the party’s executive director were loyal to May, in part because they ran for their positions on the slate of candidates that included May’s husband.

“The people that are doing this to Annamie are sycophants and henchmen of Ms. May,” Zatzman said. “If she had called them off when they were trying to take her membership, when they were trying to remove Annamie — at any time, right? If she would have called them off, they would have stopped.

“And she didn’t.”

Yo said he was puzzled by May’s silence through the turmoil surrounding Paul’s leadership. “She’s chosen to be absent,” he said. “I am surprised and confused by where Elizabeth May is.”

Green believes that, as a former leader, May was right to stay out of the controversy, and he denies taking any direction from her through the whole affair. “If she pressured anybody she didn’t pressure me,” he said.

Moisan-Domm, the former Quebec representative, also denied May played any role in the council’s decisions to take action against Paul. “Elizabeth was one of Annamie’s biggest fans,” he said.

May herself has recently signalled support for Paul, including telling the news website the Tyee in early September that she had offered to “step aside” so Paul could run in May’s riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands.

But through the year, Moisan-Domm said Paul made “lots of enemies in the party,” especially after Yo’s comment to the Star about racism and Zatzman’s Facebook post pledging to defeat MPs. And her leadership style of making “demands” of councillors rather than trying to persuade them turned them off, he said.

After the party failed to transfer the $250,000 that Green initially wanted to provide to Paul’s election effort in Toronto Centre, the party’s financial situation was getting precarious. With staff engaged in collective bargaining talks after voting to unionize last year, the party laid off nine employees — sparking objections from Yo and others in Paul’s camp after members of the leader’s staff were cut loose.

With legal fees from the arbitration and court challenge eating into finances, officials told a members’ meeting in late July that the party had around $300,000 in cash and was approaching a “tipping point” beyond which it would not be able to stage a proper election campaign.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the snap election on Aug. 15, Green said a “truce” dampened the party infighting. But the organization was scarred from months of vicious strife. The Greens managed to nominate candidates in only 252 of Canada’s 338 federal ridings, the lowest number in the past seven general elections. The party also did not have a national campaign chair to co-ordinate its election effort, while Paul tried again in Toronto Centre, where she had already been defeated twice.

She lost again, badly, on Sept. 20, placing fourth with less than 10 per cent of the vote.

A week later, in a small park in Forest Hill, she announced she would resign. “I just don’t have the heart for it,” she said.

Greens on both sides of this fight agree on one thing: this has been a disaster for the party. And for some, it is now an open question whether the party can ever return to relevance in the wake of this prolonged and very public battle.

“There is no place for the party to go forward,” said one former official who was a senior Green operative for several years. “They’re probably better off just deregistering the thing and starting over.”

Others say the party needs to make some structural changes to avoid a power struggle between the next leader and the federal council.

Jean-Charles Pelland, the current Quebec representative on the council, said decisions about the next leader’s salary and duties should be made long before that person takes on the role. “Those details need to be ironed out by federal council in order for us to proceed,” he said.

For Yo, the Greens must make it clear that the federal council doesn’t “run the party,” and that it exists as an oversight body that should not try to make operational decisions.

“We have a different model of how we operate and it’s much more grassroots, and the power is much more distributed, which I think is a good thing,” Yo said. “But we’ve also seen some of the challenges, and every organizational design has its trade-offs.”

Jo-Ann Roberts, who served as interim leader between May and Paul, said the “big lesson” for the Greens is to never again “lose sight” of the party’s reason for existence: it’s to elect MPs, not to squabble over arcane internal matters.

“Let’s get our house in order before ask people to support us in the House of Commons,” she said.

But one thing worries Green about whether that’s even possible: whether Paul’s experience as a racialized leader will taint the party with the stink of discrimination.

Zatzman, for one, thinks that it already has.

“They’ve declared, by the actions of their governance and the actions of council and the inability of Elizabeth (May) to basically say anything, that when it comes to racialized people, queer people and Jews, that none is too many,” he said.

Green disagrees that the party has such a profound problem with discrimination, but said he hopes Paul does not continue publicly suggesting the party is racist, which he predicts will “destroy” the organization.

In the end, he concluded, the story was really about how Paul’s style of leadership clashed with the Greens’ vision of collective decision-making.

“Annamie’s leadership style and the party’s leadership tradition collided,” he said.

“There are no winners here, only losers.”

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