A History of the Green Party in Ontario: Frank de Jong
After almost 20 years of glacially slow growth the Green Party of
Ontario is at long last starting to show signs of life. In the provincial
election, expected in April, we will be fielding a full or near full
slate of candidates and we will be presenting a professionally looking
and sounding platform document. Party memory is growing and social
cohesion among party members is generally quite high. We are appearing
in public opinion polls at around 3% of the popular vote. These are
all encouraging signs for a party that has languished between the
floor and the wax for 15 years.
The Party has grown so very slowly for a variety of reasons. It was
founded too early, before the greater green movement grew to the point
that it needed or wanted an electoral wing. The "wrong"
people started the party. The other parties were "green enough"
for the average voter. Ontario was not noted for it's ecological wonders
and the voters don't consider nature conservation a priority. Pollution
and resource depletion were not serious enough to matter to voters.
Any or all of the above reasons will do.
The first setback to the GPO was that the people who founded the
Canadian and Ontario Greens in 1983 abandoned the party after it did
very poorly in the 1984 federal election. These early Greens assumed
they would do well at the polls, and even elect MPPs, by virtue of
their ideas alone. But, alas, they found out that ideas must be supported
by organization, credible candidates and money, which all had been
in short supply.
The GPO barely survived the 1985 mass exodus of members. Those who
inherited the party by default had too much time on their hands and
turned the party into a radically decentralized organization. The
first GPO Constitution defined the organization as an "anti-party
party", designed to be an integral part of the larger green movement,
not independent of it. It was structured to be controlled by local,
grassroots, green groups and not have a centralized traditional political
party structure. The Constitution didn't allow for a province-wide
membership list or policy development. There was to be no leader in
an effort to prevent careerism and prevent the media from having a
particular individual to praise or blame. The idea was that green
groups around the province would choose and support one of their members
as the Green candidate in each election. (This flat hierarchy model
was the structure de jour of the other social and environmental organizations
of the era that shared a similar distrust of top-down decision-making.)
In the 1990 provincial election we ran 40 candidates, but the party
had no leader, no support structure, no policy or platform, and no
membership base to draw support from. The fact that we had no leader
was terribly confusing to the media and the public, not to mention
to our candidates. That we had no platform or policy or support rendered
being a candidate a lonely prospect, indeed.
Traditional structure was slowly introduced into the GPO, conference
by conference. The process was often acrimonious but the normalizing
forces eventually prevailed. The Party adopted a province-wide membership
database and passed our first province-wide policy. We chose a Chief
Financial Officer and Secretary, established a party newsletter, and
modified the Constitution to have a leader mandated to speak for the
party. In 1993 held our first leadership contest and I was chosen
as the first leader.
When the recession hit in the mid 90s the party stagnated. Voters
bought the line about jobs vs. the environment. Even though party
membership was at around 100, we still put up 40 candidates in the
1995 election. Despite this being only our first election as a normalized
party, the campaign came off smoothly if with very low profile.
Party membership remained at 200 members for the next 3 years, but
in 1998 membership started growing and by the 1999 provincial election
it had doubled to around 400 members. We now had at lease some organization
in around 60 ridings. By this time we had an office in Toronto, but
we couldn't afford staff so volunteers did the work. But the increased
energy allowed the party to field 58 candidates in 1999.
The party continued to developed as an organization, expanding its
membership and improving its showing at the polls. In the 1999 provincial
election public support for the Greens was discernible growing. Based
upon votes cast (30,633 votes or 1.7% of the popular vote in 1999),
the Greens became the fourth largest party in the province, a distant
forth, but finally pulling away from the rogue's gallery of minor
Our task now is to establish the Greens as a credible, electable
organization---one of the big parties. To do that we must be shrewd
and calculating. Ontario is not BC. We don't have their spectacular
natural landscapes and can never follow in their footsteps simply
as a defender of natural beauty. Southern Ontario is considered rather
boring and our North is considered to be either too cold or infested
by blackflies to be a worthy election issue. The GPO will never get
elected as a party of nature conservation. We tried that for about
10 years and got less then 1% of the vote for our efforts.
But there are two key messages that will get us elected: health prevention
and green economics. We are the party best able to protect the health
of our citizens from pollution, and we are the party best able to
stick handle the economy through the ecological crisis. In fact, the
two are complimentary. Green market mechanisms are the best way to
conserve and protect the building blocks of good human health---clean
air, water, soil, intact forests and fishery ecosystems. And a healthy
population with access to extensive renewable resources is the basis
of a strong, sustainable economy.
Ontario is famous for its economy, for its industrial might. We are
proud of being the economic motor of Canada. We walk a little taller
when we ponder our robust, diversified, manufacturing-based economy.
We disdain the recession-prone hewers of wood and drawers of water
that are the other Canadian provinces. The GPO must tap into this
sense of pride in our economy. People will vote for us if we articulate
green economic literacy, if we can describe the win-win shift from
a consumption to a conserver economy. In the simplest terms, we must
describe how the green tax shift will conserve resources, reduce pollution
and create jobs by making people less expensive to employ. We must
provide examples of how full cost accounting will make green technology
cost effective without subsidies.
Voters are extremely worried about both their health and that of
their family. To get elected the GPO must explain that no amount of
high-tech gadgetry, expensive drugs or money in the healthcare budget
can keep them and their loved ones from getting sick. Only a clean
planet will produce healthy people. We must show that rather than
legislating micro-managing rules and regulations as other party's
suggest, that the best way achieve a healthy population is through
green economics and putting the invisible green hand to work conserving
resources and reducing pollution.
Twenty years of wishful thinking has not gotten us elected. Twenty
years of copying the platforms of other, more successful Green Parties
has not worked either. Thinking we are God's gift to politics will
not get us elected. To win voter's support we must start thinking
strategically and tap into what is unique about Ontario. We must appeal
to what people in this province really care about most deeply---the
economy and their health. The Green Party message must show that we
have the secret, the inside track on how to keep ourselves healthy
and the economy vibrant. With this message we are electable.
... A better way to live ...
Frank De Jong has been the leader of the Green Party in Ontario
since 1993. A renaissance man, Frank is a teacher, opera singer, and
long-distance cyclist as well as politician. He will be running against
Ernie Eves in the riding of Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey during the
next provincial election.