Paul Manly. Photo: Green Party of Canada/Facebook

Green candidate Paul Manly has won the federal byelection in Nanaimo-Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, a seat formerly held by the NDP’s Sheila Malcolmson. Commentators are saying the result is a wake-up call for all of Canada’s political class. It means Canadians might be much more serious about climate change than most politicians seem to think, they say.

That may or may not be true. One byelection does not tell the whole story.

What is definitely true is that the result is a great one for the Green Party. It gives a thumbs-up to the excellent work Green Leader Elizabeth May has done in the House since first winning a seat in 2011. Opinion polls routinely show that May is the only federal leader with a positive favourability rating.

But there is also an important backstory to this victory.

During the 1980s, Paul Manly’s father, Jim Manly, was an NDP MP for the federal riding that lies just south of Nanaimo-Ladysmith. When he left politics, the elder Manly became active in advocating for the rights of Indigenous people in Canada and in Central America. He wrote a book about martyred Kaqchikel Presbyterian minister Manuel Saquic Vásquez, one of the thousands of Guatemalans murdered by the military and by paramilitary death squads.

Jim Manly also vigorously supported the Palestinian people.

In 2012, he was part of a mission, on the sailing vessel the Estelle, to breach the Israeli embargo on the occupied Gaza Strip. The aim was to deliver much needed non-military supplies to the people of Gaza. Israeli troops boarded the ship in international waters, before it could reach its destination, and arrested 30 activists, including Jim Manly.  

When that happened, Paul Manly immediately went to work to attain his father’s release. The junior Manly was more than annoyed that Israeli authorities required his father to sign a document falsely confessing that he had entered Israel illegally. The Estelle was not even destined for Israel; it was headed for Gaza.

More important, Paul Manly was bitterly disappointed that neither the Conservative government of the day nor any of the major political parties, including the NDP, showed much interest in his father’s case.

Jim Manly got out of detention quickly and unharmed, but the incident created a rift between Paul Manly and the Tom Mulcair-led NDP. When the junior Manly attempted to run for the NDP nomination in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, in 2015, party headquarters blocked him. Rebuffed by his own party he switched teams and ran for the Greens, but only managed a fourth-place finish. Monday’s byelection told a different tale.

There is some wind in Green sails

The Green victory in Nanaimo-Ladysmith might only be a local, personal and evanescent phenomenon. But this writer has been picking up indications from erstwhile NDP and Liberal supporters in other parts of the country that they are thinking of voting Green next time.

The fearsome scientific forecasts of potential environmental and climate catastrophe — of which the UN report on biodiversity released on Monday, May 6, is only the latest — could be having a greater impact on public opinion than the mainstream media and political class seem to believe.

One long-time NDP activist privately wrote this writer not too long ago to say she had recently switched to the Greens from the NDP, because, as she put it, “Elizabeth May is clearly the strongest, most articulate and sage leader.”

The party switcher added that the Greens have “a great local activist in my riding of Ottawa Centre, who is going to bravely stand up and take on our Liberal incumbent, the Minister of the Environment.” She concluded that she was “hearing from a lot of other progressive peoples that they too will be voting Green this fall.” 

One letter does not a movement make, but there is evidence that this Ottawa activist is not alone. For instance, in British Columbia some progressive voters have expressed irritation at their NDP government’s tergiversations on such issues as the export of natural gas and fracking.

During the last federal election campaign, when NDP candidate Linda McQuaig suggested that the sane environmental course might be to leave some of the tar sands product in the ground, the party quickly forced her to retract. If the same were to happen again in the coming election, we might not see the same result.

Like the Trudeau Liberals, New Democrats have often affirmed they believe it is possible to conciliate the environment and the economy. With good reason, most politicians shy away from telling workers and entrepreneurs in the energy or any other important economic sector that, for the sake of the environment, their jobs and businesses will have to be phased out, and in fairly short order.

Many voters, however, might now believe it is past time for efforts to conciliate interests that are, at heart, unreconcilable. Their view is that we will not have much of an economy if the floods, storms, droughts and other disastrous weather events we are currently experiencing presage much worse to come.

Commenting on Monday’s U.N. biodiversity report, scientists have noted that while it is not possible to forecast the environmental future with pinpoint accuracy, our experience to date is that adverse climate related events have engulfed us at a faster rate than most experts had predicted.

That sort of talk is starting to scare many Canadians. As folk singer Pete Seeger wrote many years ago about another threat to humanity, nuclear war: “Einstein says he’s scared and if Einstein’s scared, I’m scared.”

Good for Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives?

Those who are, mostly, terrified that our first-past-the-post electoral system could deliver a cheap victory to Andrew Scheer’s climate-change-denying Conservatives next time will worry about what the Nanaimo-Ladysmith results portend. In October, the three parties that (at least rhetorically) recognize the reality of the climate crisis could split the left-centre vote, normally 60 per cent or more of the electorate. That would allow the let’s-make-gas-cheaper Conservatives to slip into power with less than 40 per cent of the vote.

Indeed, the Conservatives might be the happiest of all the parties at this week’s result. Not only did it reveal multiple rifts on the centre-left of the political spectrum, it showed that Maxime Bernier and his Peoples’ Party, which only garnered three per cent of the vote, do not appear to pose a serious threat.

Then again, it is possible even the Conservatives are hearing the message of intense environmental concern that emerges from Nanaimo-Ladysmith.

Today, Tuesday, May 7, is the federal Conservatives’ day to propose an opposition motion to the House of Commons, and theirs reads: “That the House call on the government to stop raising the price of gas by clearing the way for pipelines and eliminating the carbon tax on fuel.”

Conservatives have gone ahead with this motion, and as they usually do, have devoted all of their time and energy to ranting and raving against carbon taxes, uttering not a word about what their alternate climate-change solutions might be.

However, Conservative front-bencher Pierre Poilievre had been scheduled to hold a media availability on the kill-carbon-pricing motion on Tuesday morning, but, seemingly in the wake of the Green byelection victory, cancelled it at the last minute.

Is it possible federal Conservatives are afraid of facing tough questions from reporters as to what they have to say to the many Canadians who, to all appearances, are deeply worried about the future of the planet?

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo: Green Party of Canada/Facebook​

Help make rabble sustainable. Please consider supporting our work with a monthly donation. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...