Canada’s North was the subject of a virtual Green Party town hall on Monday, featuring the nine candidates who are vying to become the party’s next federal leader.
The event was the fourth in a series of six. Among those running is Yellowknife doctor Courtney Howard, the only contender based in a territory.
This is the first leadership race for the Greens since 2006, when incumbent leader Elizabeth May first won the position. May stepped down last November following the federal election.
NWT MLA Rylund Johnson, who represents Yellowknife North, was one of the evening’s moderators.
Answering questions from audience members, candidates tackled topics from transitioning the North out of an extraction-based economy to supporting and honouring the autonomy of local Indigenous governments.
Climate change was a primary point of concern.
“I got involved in climate change about 10 years ago because we’re melting here,” Howard said in her opening statement.
“We’re one of the ground-zeros of climate change here in Yellowknife. We’re about two and a half degrees Celsius warmer than we were when an 80-year-old Elder was born.”
Candidate Meryam Haddad, from Quebec, said: “Climate change is the biggest social issue of our time, and people in northern Canada are living on the front lines of the crisis.”
According to a federal scientific report released last year, northern Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world – a statistic projected to get worse.
Asked how the northern economy could be moved away from industries like mining, BC-based candidate Amita Kuttner expressed support for “locally-based” and “self-sufficient” economies where possible.
Other candidates, including Judy Green from Nova Scotia and David Merner from BC, spoke of increasing social safety nets such as a guaranteed basic income, free post-secondary tuition, and – a detail stressed several times – improving northern internet access.
Will spending scare away voters?
Economy talks shifted to the matter of fiscal responsibility, which quickly became a point of contention. Several candidates disagreed on what constitutes “responsibility” when it comes to government spending.
For Dimitri Lascaris, a candidate from southern Ontario, it means spending money where needed to get the work done.
He referenced a recent poll from progressive think tank the Broadbent Institute, where Canadians by a majority of two to one said the government should spend whatever is required to rebuild and stimulate the economy even if it means running deficits.
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“That’s the winning strategy, [putting] people first in all segments of our society, in all regions of the country,” Lascaris said. “[That’s] going to require public investment, and we shouldn’t be fetishizing balanced budgets in priority to investing in people and the planet.”
Andrew West, another Ontario candidate, disagreed, saying such a policy “hasn’t worked in the past” and would scare away voters from supporting the party.
How to solve food insecurity
Another issue discussed in depth was northern food security, and how to ensure affordable and healthy food is available across the territory.
According to a Food Secure Canada, nearly 70 percent of Nunavut is food insecure, while Indigenous adults across the North are five to six times more food-insecure than the Canadian national average.
Many of the candidates suggested increasing the current Nutrition North subsidy, a federal program that lowers the cost of nutritious foods in the North, as well as instituting universal food programs in schools and making clean water more accessible in remote communities.
However, concerns primarily boiled down to one thing: decolonizing the northern food system.
Based on the candidates’ responses, this could take shape in several ways. Many spoke about the need to support the harvest and use of traditional diets within Indigenous communities, as well as supporting local greenhouses such as the one in Inuvik.
Annamie Paul, an Ontario candidate, pointed out the importance of local autonomy over food and food production. She drew on the experience of her mother’s native island in the Caribbean, where “outsider” governance over food supplies has created barriers to accessing food.
“[There] has to be local control over the solutions even if … they don’t necessarily align with what we might think is the best solution,” Paul said.
Glen Murray from Quebec echoed this sentiment, stating that federal leaders should be looking to those in the North for the way forward.
“We can learn from the North,” he said. “We can have some humility, that maybe it’s listening and supporting, not asking us what they should be doing.”
Engaging Indigenous northerners
In the last question of the night, candidates were asked for their plans to engage Indigenous northerners who don’t typically vote Green.
Many aimed toward building trust with Indigenous communities by taking action on recommendations laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, as well as those laid out by the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
The current Liberal government has been attacked in recent months for its perceived lack of action regarding the Inquiry, which published its conclusions more than a year ago.
“Why would [Indigenous communities] trust us to do anything at this point in time with the history we have here in Canada?” Green demanded. “I don’t expect them to trust me.”
In her estimation, taking “honest, ethical action” on both reports is a first step in building and earning that trust.
It was a promise nearly all of the candidates vowed to keep should they be elected, as well as dedicating resources and space to engaging in constant and “meaningful” consultation with Indigenous communities – and making space for them to participate in the party.
“There’s a place for them in the Green Party of Canada if they want to fight colonialism from within,” declared Haddad, “because let’s face it, climate change is a continuation of colonial violence. And we are now in a climate emergency and we need them.”
Online voting for the next Green Party leader begins on September 26, with polls officially closing on October 3.