Meet Annamie Paul, the new leader of the Green Party of Canada
|Toronto Star 17 Oct 2020 at 21:09|
OTTAWA—There is no such thing as “free time” in Annamie Paul’s world. The new leader of the Green Party of Canada laughs at the very idea.
It’s early October, and the 47-year-old lawyer from Toronto has just made history as the first Black person elected to lead a party with seats in Parliament, winning a race that last months through a global pandemic. But even before that contest was over, Paul entered a new one. She is now vying for her own seat in the federal byelection in Toronto Centre, a riding she acknowledges as a Liberal “fortress.”
Asked what she does outside of work, Paul jokes that she doesn’t understand the question. Through this year of pandemic and politics, Paul says she has spent about “95 per cent” of her time indoors.
“I’m happy to describe to your readers what my days were like,” she says over the phone during a lengthy interview with the Star this month.
“I would roll over in the morning and reach for my laptop and my phone, which were within arm’s length, and begin working immediately upon waking up,” she says. “And then I would do that all day long until around 11 o’clock at night. And then I would try to unwind for an hour… then go to sleep and usually wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning with something on my mind, fall asleep for a few more hours and then just roll over and start the whole thing over again.”
Call it what you want — the product of determination or workaholism — but you get the sense, hearing Paul tell her story, that she comes by it naturally.
That story begins with her grandmother on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, a former British colony that now forms a country with neighbouring St. Kitts. Paul says her grandmother grew up there in the 1930s, “literally in a one-room shack.” When she was 18, she had a daughter, Paul’s mother, Ena.
In the early 1960s, when Ena was in her twenties, she emigrated to Toronto with her mother under a work sponsorship program. They soon learned the credentials they relied on to earn a living in Nevis would not be treated equally in their new home.
Paul’s grandmother, a trained nurse in Nevis, spent years working as a personal support worker in hospitals around Toronto. Ena was a teacher and needed to go back to school before she was able to continue her career in Canada.
But, as Paul tells it, it wasn’t that her credentials weren’t accepted; it’s that the relevant authorities didn’t believe they were real. Paul sees it as part of the racism of the time.
“Had she been someone else, had she come from Britain instead of the Caribbean, she would have had probably five more years on her teaching career… But she was never bitter about any of that,” Paul says.
Ena met Paul’s father Peter — who came to Canada from the Dominican Republic — in Toronto, and they had four children. Paul, their third child, was born in 1972. After her mother was able to work as a teacher, Paul said she would work nights to earn more money to support the family, send some back to relatives in the Caribbean, and to sponsor those who wanted to emigrate like they did.
At the time they lived west of Toronto in Bramalea, but Paul’s mother was adamant that the kids go to a French immersion school. Since her mother already taught in the city — she was a teacher for more than 30 years at various schools, including Central Tech, Fairbank Memorial and Jarvis Collegiate — they enrolled at Rawlinson Community School near St. Clair and Dufferin. At since their mother was also doing her master’s after hours, the kids slept most nights at their grandmother’s apartment near Caledonia Rd. and Eglinton Ave. W.
“We would be at my grandma’s apartment…and then me and my siblings and my mom sleeping out in the living room,” Paul says.
After graduating high school at Runnymede Collegiate Institute, Paul made for the University of Ottawa, where she earned early entry to law school and met Mark Freeman, a fellow Torontonian who now works around the world as a human rights lawyer, and grew up not far from her grandmother’s apartment. They married in 1996 and now have two children: Malachai, 20, and Jonas, 16.
William Kaplan remembers Paul, who was his student at the University of Ottawa’s law school.
“Here is the thing about Annamie,” Kaplan wrote in a glowing email about Paul. “She has presence. I remember the first time I saw her… she was advocating for something — I can’t remember what — but I turned to my colleague and asked who she was.
“She came to law school when she was just a kid, way younger than almost everyone else. She stood out for speaking up and out.”
He added, “In all my years of teaching, Annamie was, by far, the most impressive student I ever encountered… I am not sure if the term ‘force of nature’ is gendered or not, but that is what she is. Unstoppable. Unbeatable.”
Paul says she was always motivated at school, and that her drive was something she simply inherited from her parents, who had “very high” and non-negotiable” expectations for their children.
That’s typical of people from islands like Nevis, Paul says.
“My mother said she loved Canada and believed it was a land of opportunity. And in her mind, there were no impediments to success. And that was an expectation that we just grew up with, that we should be taking advantage of every opportunity.”
Paul went on to complete a master’s in public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, where she converted to Judaism under the tutelage of the campus rabbi, a Winnipegger named Jim Diamond.
“We were really committed to have a Jewish life, my partner and I,” she says, describing long hours learning Hebrew and studying religious texts.
“It was definitely something that I always imagined (doing), especially around the time that we started having kids,” she says.
She graduated from Princeton in 2001, and embarked on a wide ranging career over the next two decades. She started the Canadian Centre for Political Leadership, an organization to promote diversity in public life. She moved to Europe with her family in 2005, where she worked in Belgium for Canada’s mission to the European Union, as an adviser at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and as director for Crisis Action, an organization that works to protect civilians from conflicts around the world.
The family then decamped for Barcelona, where Paul started another organization, BIPP HUB, which helps other groups work on global challenges like climate change and conflict prevention.
Along the way, Paul added Catalan and Spanish to the French she learned at school in Toronto as languages — other than English — in which she is fluent.
Paul and her family always planned on coming back to Canada though. When they did, Paul say the chance to fulfil her long-time desire to jump in the political arena as a partisan player rather than an outside advocate.
After attending meetings in her local riding for the Liberals and NDP, Paul felt she connected best with the Green party. She believed the Greens take the climate crisis more seriously than the other parties, and that the power in the party is less concentrated among a small group at the top.
She joined and was selected as the Greens’ shadow cabinet minister of foreign affairs, and ran for the first time in Toronto Centre in the 2019 federal election, where then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau was re-elected with a strong majority of votes. Paul placed fourth, behind the NDP and Conservatives candidates, with seven per cent.
She knows she faces long odds again in the current byelection, running against Marci Ien, a celebrity broadcaster who is the Liberal candidate in a riding that party has held since 1993.
But Paul has been slogging on the campaign trail for seven months already, a period in which her father Paul died at a long-term-care centre where — because of COVID — her family was unable to visit. Paul has called his death “unnecessary,” and has held her father’s death as an example of the need to bring long-term care into the universal public health system.
She says she is ready to keep campaigning, and that she is open to running elsewhere in Canada if she loses the Oct. 26 byelection in Toronto Centre.
And having won the Green leadership on a pitch to broaden the appeal of the party, the task ahead is not easy. Elizabeth May, Paul’s predecessor as the Green leader for more than 13 years, stepped down after the party won three seats and almost 1.2 million votes in the 2019 election — its best result ever.
Looking back at the work it took to get where she is, Paul says that giving it everything is simply what she has to do.
“When you’re running as a woman of colour, with this level of politics, that is definitely what it takes,” she says. “You have to be as near to perfect as you can be. And you have to be completely dedicated.”