Annamie Paul Is A First For Canada. She Wants To Make Sure She’s The First Of Many

Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Wood.
Annamie Paul is losing her voice. The newly appointed leader of the Green Party of Canada opens our call by apologizing for the raspy tone she’s acquired recently and blames the “100 calls a day” she was making leading up to her election. Paul became the first Black (and second Jewish) person to permanently lead a major federal party in Canada earlier this month. Paul, a 47-year-old bilingual lawyer from Toronto and daughter of Caribbean immigrants, is also the only woman federal party leader in the country having succeeded Elizabeth May, who stepped down after 13 years last fall. Since she won the race, Paul says she’s been doing 20 to 30 media interviews a day. And still, she’s incredulous when I casually drop into the conversation that I’m also a Black woman. “I don't get interviewed by many Black journalists, so it's always exciting for me!” she says as her voice breaks — I can’t tell if it’s from emotion or exhaustion.
As tired as she may be, Paul sounds just as enthusiastic as she did a week ago during her acceptance speech in Ottawa. Then, she called her appointment “highly symbolic and highly important” and proclaimed herself as the leader to meet the “challenges of this time” and “the needs of this moment.” It’s clear the significance of Paul’s new position — in the midst of a global pandemic and a national reckoning on anti-Black racism — is not lost on her. There’s a mix of gratitude and duty in every answer, plus a hyper-awareness that she’s still campaigning. Paul is a candidate in the October 26 byelection in Toronto Centre, the riding previously held by former finance minister Bill Morneau. It’s going to be a tough race (the Liberals have held this riding for 27 years and she’s up against Canadian broadcast legend Marci Ien) but Paul seems ready for a fight. “I am a first, and as a first you’re accustomed to fighting,” she told the Toronto Star. Let’s hope she stocks up on some throat lozenges. 
Here, Paul talks about the pressure that comes with being the first, her most-recent conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the politics of Black hair. 
A lot of racialized people, especially Black women, feel discouraged from getting into politics. We’re told we don't belong in these spaces. How did you prepare yourself for entering this system that seems designed for us to fail?
When I was 12, I was a page in the Ontario legislature and then when I lived in Ottawa at university, I was a page in the Senate. Then, after law school, I spent a year working as an intern in the Ontario legislature. So, I had that bird’s-eye view and I was able to see from an early age that it was difficult, as you said. I knew going into this what the barriers were and that certainly helped me to be prepared. That said, you are never totally prepared for some of the barriers that women and racialized groups face. You never get totally prepared for people calling you the N-word or people calling you, in my case, a f—ing Jew or people thinking that can define you because of your identities. So, I would warn anyone who is interested in politics that it is extremely brutal. I will say that, if the culture does not change, there are many fine people that are going to absolutely stay away from it, and that is a huge loss for everyone.
You’re dealing with those barriers constantly. In July, at a virtual town hall, someone said the N-word several times. You have to continue doing your job after something like that happens. How do you power through? 
It was actually [typed] in the question section, so it was a whole wall of [the N-word] over and over and over again. It was destabilizing. There wasn't a moment to collect myself. We have to be resilient, but nobody should have to be that resilient. We shouldn't have to rise above in these ways just to participate in the political and democratic process. So, that's very difficult. There is no question that all of it has taken a toll. I'm really lucky to have support. One of the silver linings of this tragic moment is that my partner who normally travels the world (he's an international human right lawyer) is here because of the pandemic, and my older son has deferred going back to university. So, I had a lot of very close support during this period, but without that it would have been very, very difficult. I consider myself to be a very strong person, but the unrelenting nature of these challenges is a lot. It really should not be this hard for good people with good ideas to contribute to political life and public policy in this country.
Talk about the pressure that comes with being the first Black leader of a federal party in this country.
It shouldn't have to mean so much. If we are seen as a non-monolithic community with a variety of points of view and interests and values, I shouldn't feel the way that I do — which is that the future possibilities for other Black women, other women of colour, depend on how successful I am. I'm very aware that whether I rise or fall, what I say, how I behave, how much success I'm able to find for the Green Party is going to have an impact on the chances of the next person. 
It’s a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, there's no question that every time a barrier is broken it becomes easier for the next person. And it’s going to be just a little bit easier today for young Black girls or Indigenous girls or other under-represented groups to imagine themselves in politics. But then on the other hand, if it doesn't work out for whatever reason, then it becomes, see, we gave them a chance, and this is what happened. I think it was great to see Leslyn Lewis, for instance, running for the [federal] Conservative leadership because Leslyn Lewis and I share virtually nothing in common in terms of politics and public policy. I profoundly disagree with her politics and many of her values, but she is also a Black woman. The more diversity we have in the political spectrum, the more room there is for me and every other person of colour who participates in politics to actually be ourselves as opposed to be the representative of our entire identity group.

The more diversity we have in the political spectrum, the more room there is for me and every other person of colour who participates in politics to actually be ourselves as opposed to be the representative of our entire identity group.

Annamie paul
You're seeing that in your current race. You're up against Marci Ien, who is also a Black woman. As a Black woman voting, it feels good to have more options, but you know, we try to root for our own. So, I feel a little conflicted. 
Absolutely. Again, there will be things that Marci and I agree on and things that we don't and yet we both remain Black women. We're just trying to move closer and closer to understanding that we are not a monolith. Black women have the same variety of points of view, of value systems, and politics as any other group. So, the more people of colour there are in politics, the more we see that. And that's a really good thing. All things considered, it's still better to have that happening more often. I wish Marci well. When she's ready to join the Green Party, she'll be very welcome.
There has been a lot of talk about the concept of “leader's courtesy,” where other parties drop out of a riding if there is a federal leader running — like how the Green Party stepped down when Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was running in his byelection last year. But in your byelection, other parties aren't dropping out. Can you speak to that and how you're feeling? Disappointment? Frustration?
Neither of those things. I really did not expect at all for the NDP or the Liberals or the Conservatives to stand down. I certainly did not ask any of them to do that. I know that there are mixed feelings. There are people commenting that feel that they should have [dropped out] because I'm the leader and also, because of the historic nature of my leadership, that perhaps they should've considered that in terms of allyship and fostering more diversity is in politics. Others disagree and say that the people in Toronto Centre should be the final decision makers on who represents them. That's great. That's very healthy in a democracy to have those different points of view.
I was hoping to turn a leaf in a chapter in our relationship with the NDP. I really think that in this moment in time, it's very liberating to have as much cross-party cooperation, goodwill, and collaboration as possible. I know they see us as competition, and they should. I know that they're probably regretting the actions that they took in BC in the last election when they used very American-style tactics to attack our BC Greens who were running. And it hurt a lot of people. Many of them are previous NDP members. I know that there was hurt and confusion about that, but I'm hoping that Jagmeet will reach out. The prime minister already has, and we had a great conversation yesterday. 
You haven't spoken to Jagmeet Singh since you won? 
No, I don't have his number. I think it would be great for me to have a conversation with him and with Erin O'Toole. We are in this moment of extreme urgency that requires true cross-partisan co-operation. The Green Party is all about finding every single possible way that we can work together. So, given that I'm now the leader of our party, given that we're now in the second wave of our pandemic, the better our working relationship, the better it's going to be for everyone. I want to speak to them as soon as I can, and I hope that [Jagmeet] will call.
What did you and Justin Trudeau talk about?
I told him that we will co-operate and collaborate when we can, but we are going to call you out and criticize you when it's necessary. In terms of the speech from the throne, I told him that we liked many of the things that we saw in it, but we just couldn't go all the way with it because of what was missing. It was a good conversation.
I think anyone looking to a leader at this time wants to know how they would handle COVID-19.What you would be doing differently than our current leadership?
We've got to make sure that we're talking about these urgent needs and how to make sure that people aren't going to be falling through the cracks. There are a lot of things in our COVID plan, but one thing in particular is long-term care. So, beyond my personal tragedy [Paul’s father died in May of an non-COVID-related infection while in a long-term care facility], thousands of people have died in long-term care because of the failures in the system. Also, I'm very, very disappointed to see how people with disabilities and students have been treated throughout this pandemic. They've both been treated like second-class citizens. Neither one was included in the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit. Neither one had access to those benefits. So, our plan includes urgent reform to long-term care. It includes extending eligibility for CERB for students and people with disabilities until the end of 2021.
Let’s talk hair. We’ve heard other Black women in politics like former Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes and Ayanna Pressley in the U.S. discuss how political Black hair can be. You've got this beautiful shaved cut. Have you had to think about your hair in relation to your work?
I've had my hair like this for over 20 years. For a lot of women who cut their hair short, it is liberating. It's a real time-suck having hair. And for someone who's travelled all over the world and has lived in a lot of places where I don't have access to a Black hairstylist or even a Black barber, being able to take a barber's razor and shave my head in five minutes is very convenient. That’s it. I tried growing my hair again a couple years ago, and as soon as I decided to run in the election in 2019, I cut it again because I didn't have time. I get a lot of questions and comments about my hair. I've been asked if I have alopecia. There was someone who wrote and said that my hair confused them. There was one person who said that they were entitled to know whether I had a medical condition and if that was the reason for my short hair. 
These are the kind of things that women of colour get asked that our white male counterparts do not. But I don’t think the comments are intended with any malice. I try to use it as a moment for education and teaching with the hope that once the person has the knowledge, they won't ask someone else that question again. You make a decision early in life when you're a woman of colour and on top of that a Jewish woman, you just say, am I going to get bitter about these things? Or am I going to use these as moments for education? Once the mind is open, it's hard for it to close again.

You make a decision early in life when you're a woman of colour and on top of that a Jewish woman, you just say, am I going to get bitter about these things? Or am I going to use these as moments for education? Once the mind is open, it's hard for it to close again.

Annamie paul
In theory, the Green Party — especially given the current climate crisis — seems like the party to meet the needs of this moment. To be blunt, I don’t think the country has taken the Green Party very seriously in the past. Do you think that is changing? 
I'm not sure that we haven't been taken seriously in the past. We know from the polls from the last election that more than a third of Canadians have said they considered voting Green. More than a third of voters said that at the last moment they made the decision to vote strategically. A strategic vote is the vote that is definitely a killer for the Green Party. But we know that people are open to us. We just have to help them have that last little bit of courage to vote the way that they want to instead of voting strategically next time. 
What would you say to people who think your party’s policies are too radical? 
We are the innovation factory. We are the ones developing and proposing new ideas when the other parties are too afraid to do so and are checking their focus groups before they do. I say that frankly and in the spirit of goodwill and co-operation, but it’s not easy to be the first. It's not easy being the first one to say we need to decriminalize drugs so that we can have a safe supply to avoid the thousands of unnecessary opioid deaths. It’s not easy to say we need to guarantee a livable basic income or that we need universal Pharmacare. Or that every single person who wants to have a full post-secondary education should be able to have it for free. It's not easy to be that party, but those policies are all correct and someone has to say them.
My job is to let people know that they have the strength of a party that is always going to work with the other political parties on everything that matters. Also, we are ready to govern. We're ready to lead if we're given the opportunity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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