Will PEI Start a New Green Wave?

The Green Party is ahead in the polls going into the provincial election. A win could herald big changes for the rest of Canada

An animated map of Canada is filled in with Green Party logo graphics as a simulated green wave moves west from PEI.

Trina O’Brien Leggott, a retired librarian, enjoys a breathtaking view of Pownal Bay and the surrounding countryside from her rural home outside Charlottetown. But she’s worried about climate change—and she says she’s grown tired of politicians who seem unable or unwilling to address it. “The way we’re doing things is not really working,” she says. “Surely there’s got to be better.”

Leggott has reason to worry. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, global temperatures are rising faster than scientists previously believed. Even a pledge by world leaders to cap the rise at 1.5 degrees may not be enough to prevent floods, droughts, heat waves, and catastrophic species loss. According to research from a University of Prince Edward Island climate lab, incremental rises in temperature will exacerbate already powerful storm surges and increase shoreline erosion in the province. The Island currently loses an average of twenty-eight centimetres of coastline a year. By the start of the next century, 1,000 PEI homes and cottages will be at risk of disappearing into the ocean.

Leggott’s house is far enough inland that it likely wouldn’t be one of them, but she has a sense of what’s at stake. “We’re very aware, living on an island, how fragile our ecosystem is,” she says. She wonders how the decline of organic matter in Island soil, described in a report released last year, will affect local agriculture. She also worries about what will happen to Island fisheries should the Northern Pulp mill in Nova Scotia proceed with a controversial plan to discharge effluent into the Northumberland Strait, off the Island’s southern shores.

Those concerns have led Leggott to the Green Party of Prince Edward Island. She’s not alone. Nearly four in ten Islanders have suggested they might vote Green in the next provincial election, according to a recent poll from Corporate Research Associates. (The election has since been called for April 23.) Leggott, who has voted Liberal, NDP, or Green in every provincial election since moving to PEI eleven years ago, says she appreciates the party’s focus on supporting local businesses and protecting farmland. She’s also impressed with how the party connects directly with Islanders, hosting Green Drinks gatherings in pubs and cafés across the province.

The party is headed by Peter Bevan-Baker, and under his leadership, the Green Party has vaulted ahead of the governing Liberals into first place: the latest quarterly poll from CRA has the party at 38 percent, eleven points ahead of the Liberals. If these numbers hold, tiny PEI may be on course to elect the first provincial Green government in Canada.

Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates, says renewed support for the Green Party reflects wider voter concern for the environment. At a time when the majority of Canadians—particularly younger Canadians—see climate change as a serious threat to the planet, a provincial victory would vault the party and its policies into the national spotlight.

In its own unassuming way, PEI has quietly and steadfastly advanced some groundbreaking environmental policies over the past two decades. The province launched a mandatory provincial waste-sorting program in 1999 and now diverts 65 percent of its waste from landfill. It tops the country in the percentage of households that compost. A province-wide ban on single-use plastic bags will take effect in July. And PEI is a global leader in wind power, with Island wind farms producing more than 25 percent of the Island’s energy needs.

Like other Canadian jurisdictions, PEI is currently addressing robust immigration, rising housing prices, and concerns about climate change—but the small scale of the Island makes its case unique among other provinces. Nevertheless, as Prince Edward Island gradually embraces Green politics, it may become a testing ground for a party that has always been seen as an underdog rather than a serious contender for power. And whether or not the Greens win the next election, their influence on PEI politics may offer Canadians a chance to reflect on the broader splintering of traditional party loyalty across the country.

Before the 2015 provincial election, no Green candidate had ever come close to winning a seat. But, since 2017, Bevan-Baker has been the preferred choice of premier. A former dentist and father of four, he made his way to the Island from Scotland, via stints in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario. He cut his political teeth running (and losing) nine times for the Green Party at the federal and provincial levels before a resounding win in his own rural riding in the 2015 election brought the Greens their historic breakthrough. A surprise by-election win in a Charlottetown seat in 2017 proved the party has momentum.

Don Desserud, a political scientist at UPEI, says the Greens’ appeal can be attributed not just to their environmental focus but also to the current electoral mood. The province’s Liberals are a three-term government with an unpopular leader. The Opposition Progressive Conservatives, on their sixth leader in as many years, have been languishing in the polls.

“There’s an underbelly of frustration with the standard parties doing the same things over and over again,” says Desserud. It’s a phenomenon seen in other recent provincial elections. In New Brunswick, neither the Liberal nor Progressive Conservative parties could eke out a majority victory as support for smaller parties increased. In Quebec, the upstart CAQ surged to power and Québec solidaire made huge gains, at the expense of the once dominant Liberals and Parti Québécois.

Although right-wing populist parties have garnered much media attention as of late, Graves, of Ekos Research, believes there’s an opening in Canada for a progressive, left-of-centre populist party that can speak to voter cynicism. According to a recent Abacus poll, nearly 36 percent of Canadians would consider voting Green in the next federal election, a number that’s remained relatively consistent in the firm’s polling since 2015. In other words, Canadians sympathetic to Green policies often vote for other parties—but, in the right circumstances, might cast their vote with the Greens.

Increased Green support on the Island follows a clutch of modest successes for the party in other provincial legislatures. The Green Party is in a position of strength in British Columbia, where it’s collaborating closely with the NDP. Ontario elected its first Green MPP in June. And, in New Brunswick, the September election saw three Green MLAs elected, giving them the balance of power. Elsewhere, however—particularly in the Prairies, where resource extraction plays a much larger role in the economy—provincial Green parties have struggled.

Nevertheless, Green legislators have taken full advantage of these wins to influence policy. The BC Greens were instrumental in providing input into the NDP government’s ambitious new carbon-reduction strategy, though it’s too early to say how successful the NDP-Green alliance will be in curbing carbon outputs. In PEI, the Greens recently managed to pass one of their own bills, aimed at recognizing the vital role of Island’s creative, cultural, and clean technology industries and designed to attract new investment, trade partnerships, and economic activity in these sectors. The Greens have also rolled out an integrated housing strategy, which calls for expanded seniors housing, tighter regulations on short-term rentals, and more dedicated housing for low-income families. By making climate change and access to housing two of their key priorities in the legislature—and possible planks in an election platform—the Green Party may be demonstrating that its politics are about much more than just saving the environment. Still, despite the party’s polling lead, Desserud isn’t optimistic it will win over the province.

On a federal level, the prospects are less clear. Under leader Elizabeth May, Greens are currently polling at historic levels of support, and Graves feels the timing may be favourable for a modest Green breakthrough in the upcoming federal election. His internal polling shows the Greens leading in three federal ridings, and in play in ten to fifteen more across the country. Yet provincial and federal voting intentions don’t always correspond. Even on PEI, the popularity of Bevan-Baker’s party has resulted in only a modest increase in the number of Islanders who say they plan to vote Green federally. Partly that’s the challenge of a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system that often penalizes smaller parties. Under a system of proportional representation, if 10 percent of Canadians voted for the Greens, they’d end up with thirty-four seats in the 338-seat House of Commons—a substantive increase over Elizabeth May’s current lone seat, and enough to be a force to reckoned with in Parliament. But, even in the best-case scenarios under our current system, that outcome is highly unlikely. (Islanders have a chance to test-case electoral reform in April’s election. In concert with the provincial election, voters on PEI will be asked in a referendum to make a clear choice between the current first-past-the-post system and a mixed member proportional representation system of government.)

In the absence of electoral reform, it would take a powerful paradigm shift to elect a federal Green government, whose Vision Green platform would pair environmental protection with fiscal responsibility. Rising environmental awareness and disillusionment with the ruling Liberals may sway some voters, but these concerns have not yet positioned the federal party any closer to power. The nature of the current electoral structure, says Graves, is such that during a tightly fought contest—as in the 2015 election—what he calls “promiscuous progressive voters” rally around the candidate most likely to stave off a Conservative victory.

“I really think people are tired of the idea that we either have to vote red or blue,” says Jill MacIntyre, twenty-two. A recent graduate of Mount Allison University, MacIntyre grew up in Summerside and rallied behind causes such as gender rights and economic equality. After flirting with the Liberals and the NDP, she’s found her political home with the Greens. Voters like MacIntyre will be key to the next federal election. She and her millennial peers recently surpassed baby boomers as the largest voting bloc in the country. They voted in record numbers in 2015, and 45 percent of those parked their vote with the Liberals—as did MacIntyre.

Now she’s frustrated by what she perceives as the government’s lack of meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities, not to mention disregard for environmental impacts, in its support for the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. MacIntyre’s concerns are shared by a growing number of Canadians. As the election approaches, the prime minister’s approval ratings have been declining among both the general population and the millennial voters who put him over the top the last time around. “People are just so tired of that,” MacIntyre says of her peers. “And they see that the Greens are doing politics differently.”

In a province that elected Canada’s first premier of non-European descent (Joe Ghiz) and Canada’s first openly gay male premier (current premier Wade MacLauchlan), Islanders have already shown a willingness to make political history. But a provincial win for the Greens would also mark a turning point in Canada’s relationship to the party, as ascension into government would expose the scrappy grassroots party and its leaders to a whole new level of scrutiny. “It would make me so happy to elect the most progressive government in Canada, coming from this tiny island,” says MacIntyre.

Trevor Corkum
Trevor Corkum’s story “Lost Boys” was shortlisted for the 2023 Commonwealth Prize. His debut novel will be published by Knopf Canada.