Rookies of Parliament Hill: Green Party’s Jenica Atwin learns the ropes from Jody Wilson-Raybould

Rookies of Parliament Hill: Green Party’s Jenica Atwin learns the ropes from Jody Wilson-Raybould
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Canada elected 91 rookie MPs to parliament in the 2019 federal election. The National Post spoke with a selection to discover what was behind their political drive. Today, Brian Platt’s interview with Green MP Jenica Atwin.

OTTAWA — When rookie Green Party MP Jenica Atwin took her new seat in the House of Commons on Dec. 5, she looked to her right and was starstruck by her deskmate.

“I can’t believe I’m on a first-name basis with Jody!” she recalled later, sitting in her office. She’s referring, of course, to former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, now one of the most famous people in the country thanks to the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Atwin, one of just three MPs for the Green Party, and Wilson-Raybould, an independent MP after having been ejected from the Liberal caucus, are tucked away in the back corner of the 338-seat House of Commons. But Atwin said Wilson-Raybould — who she admired even before the SNC story — has been a great guide.

“I’m the rookie and just kind of looking at everything with rose-coloured glasses at this point, and she’s giving me lots of great tips and hints. ‘Okay, this when you stand,’ or ‘This is what’s happening,’ or ‘That’s why they’re doing this over there.’ I feel really lucky to have her to answer all those questions,” Atwin said.

At 32 years old, Atwin made Green Party history in the 2019 election by winning its first federal seat on the east coast, edging out her Conservative rival by just 800 votes. A three-way race (including the Liberals) had developed in the New Brunswick riding of Fredericton, but Atwin’s win still caught many by surprise. The federal Green Party has had trouble winning outside Vancouver Island, so her seat is a small but significant breakthrough.

“Oftentimes, our policies within the national Green Party can be quite Western-leaning, just with that B.C. focus,” she said. “So I think I bring a bit of that different perspective to the table. I’m also from a military town, that’s something very different to have as a conversation piece.” (The huge military base of CFB Gagetown is just outside Fredericton.)

This was Atwin’s second election, having run unsuccessfully for the Greens in the 2018 New Brunswick election. She’d spent a decade working in education and got involved in politics through activism on environmental issues such as opposing fracking. But she’d just had her second child and wasn’t sure she wanted to run federally. It was Green Party leader Elizabeth May — stranded in town during a snowstorm — who personally convinced her to run.

“I’m so glad I made that decision, because here we are now,” Atwin said. “I’m on Parliament Hill.”

The tiny Green Party caucus doesn’t have the numbers to decide votes in this minority parliament, so that makes it difficult to force action; she lists homelessness and flooding as top issues for her riding. But she also sees being a Green as an opportunity to build bridges and broker deals.

“I try to formulate my speaking notes or my statements in a way that brings people together,” she said, noting that Green MPs sign a pledge not to heckle in the Commons. She’s already had conversations with the other New Brunswick MPs — Liberals and Conservatives — about how they can work together on regional issues. “So that’s maybe my other job, is getting in there and making as many friends as I can,” she said.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the job will be ensuring time for family, as she has sons aged seven and two.

“They’re adjusting, and mommy’s adjusting and daddy’s adjusting,” Atwin said (her husband is Oromocto First Nation band councillor Chris Atwin). She talked with her older son during the campaign about what it would mean if she won. “He’ll understand why it’s such an important job and responsibility. We’re just not used to spending any time apart, so that’s really where we’ll have to just get used to a little bit of change.”

She has one other task to make things feel more at home in Ottawa: finding a hockey team to play goalie on, as she does in New Brunswick.

“I was just asked what my New Years Resolution is, I said find some pick-up games so I get some exercise,” she laughed. “I’m not a gym person.”
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