Q&A: Ontario Green party leader Mike Schreiner on finally being elected, and what he’s going to do next

Q&A: Ontario Green party leader Mike Schreiner on finally being elected, and what he’s going to do next

Mike Schreiner has been leader of the Ontario Green party since 2009, but in all that time he has never had a seat in the legislature. He ran for Queen’s Park three times unsuccessfully—but then, in last week’s election, a breakthrough: Guelph elected Schreiner its MPP in a landslide, making him the first Green party candidate ever to win an election in Ontario. Now he’s going to have to function as the leader of a one-man caucus, and he’s going to have to do it under Premier Doug Ford, a guy who hasn’t shown much interest in working across party lines. Schreiner spoke with us about how he got here, and what happens next.

First of all, congratulations on your win.
Thank you. It’s a pretty historic day for Guelph.

As a one-man caucus, you’re going to have limited influence over Queen’s Park. But, supposing you were in charge of the province, what would you do?
I think first of all, I’d have us leap into the clean economy. That’s where the global job growth is. My home riding of Guelph is already a leader in clean tech and food innovation, and I think Ontario can be a leader as well. I’m a big supporter of small businesses, so we’ve been calling for lowering payroll taxes on small businesses, while at the same time raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We’ve also strongly advocated for having Ontario implement a basic income guarantee, so no one falls below the poverty line. And also, I’m a big supporter of investing more in mental health and addiction services, and actually making mental health services part of OHIP plus. Finally, just protecting the people and places we love in Ontario. So, expanding the Greenbelt to include the Bluebelt and making sure we protect prime farmland and source water regions.

Nearly everything you just mentioned, Doug Ford promised to do the opposite. Will it be possible for you to press for these types of changes in a Ford government?
I think I have a responsibility to my constituents and the people of Ontario to try to do that. As an example, Doug Ford says one of his top priorities is creating jobs. Well, if global job growth is in the clean economy, then embracing the clean economy and being a leader in the clean economy is critically important for meeting the objectives of creating jobs. I think I have a responsibility to push really hard on these issues and to find ways that I can work with the conservatives across party lines, but I’m also not afraid to be confrontational if we see cutbacks to public services that I think are important to our communities, and I’m not going to hesitate to be critical if the conservative government takes us backwards on the climate crisis.

It can be tough for the Green party to get press. Does the presence of an attention magnet like Doug Ford make your job harder than it would otherwise be?
I think it’s too early to predict that. I mean, we’ve certainly received more media attention during this election campaign than we have in any previous election campaign. Will that continue, moving forward? That’s obviously yet to be determined.

Is it true you grew up on a farm in Kansas?
That is true. I’m a farm kid from Kansas, and I moved here for love in 1994 and started my first organic food business in Guelph in 1995. It was an organic food delivery business called WOW Foods. It still exists, but I sold most of my interest in it.

What do you mean when you say you moved here for love?
My wife is a professor at the University of Toronto. So when they hired her, I moved here. And both of us fell in love with Ontario, and both our daughters have been born here, and this where we’ve chosen to make our life.

Were there any early indications that you were one day going to make Canadian political history?
No, not at all. I’ve always been interested in politics, but at that time in my life I was more interested in being an entrepreneur and environmentalist than I was in being a politician.

Smaller parties, especially in tight elections, often get flak for splitting the vote. Do you think there are situations where it’s better for voters to cast their votes strategically?
I always tell people I think it’s best to vote for what you believe in, because you’re never going to get the government you want if you don’t vote for the party you believe in. And I will continue to push for changes to our electoral system so voters don’t feel obligated to vote in ways that they don’t really want to.

Voting your beliefs is sound advice. But what if, hypothetically speaking, one of the other candidates is a divisive figure who has to be stopped?
I think that’s something individual voters have to decide for themselves. I think the larger issue from a public policy standpoint is that we have an outdated voting system that was designed for a Canada that existed 150 years ago.

Your strategy in this election took a page out of the Elizabeth May playbook, in that your campaign was intensely focused on just a few ridings. Why did you do that?
My first election as leader was in 2011, and we did a more province-wide campaign. We weren’t happy with the result, to be honest with you. We decided to target a handful of ridings in 2014, my riding in Guelph being one of them. We did very well in those ridings. For this election, we decided that we would look at our top ridings and figure out which one we thought we could do the best in. All the numbers said that Guelph would be that riding.

I think the strategy paid off, because what we’ve seen in other provinces is that once people realize a Green can be elected in our first-past-the-post voting system, voters tend to want to vote for more Greens. The BC Greens have tripled their caucus to three, and now they hold the balance of responsibility in a minority government. In PEI, they’ve doubled to two members now, and they’re polling neck and neck for first place with the Liberals. They’re in a very good position to either form government or be in official opposition, which would be historic for Greens in Canada.

What is it about Guelph that made it the ideal ground zero for the Green party in Ontario?
Guelph is a community that has led on a number of issues that reflect the Green party’s values. It’s a community with the highest recycling rates, a community that has really emphasized water conservation. And it’s a community with over 8,000 small businesses. They really embrace sustainability—financially, socially and economically. And I think people have seen me as somebody who has worked really hard in Guelph, been a big champion for the city, been somebody very active and involved in the community. Part of our success here is due to hard work on my part, and on the part of our team. Some of the members of my campaign team have been working hard here in Guelph for a decade or longer.

All party leaders have to project confidence, especially on the campaign trail. But how confident were you, really, that this was going to be the time?
We saw that our numbers were strong. I knew that I’d done well in the last election in 2014. I was a few hundred votes from getting second place, right behind the Conservative candidate. And I also knew that I’d built up a lot of positive and good relationships across the city of Guelph. And so I was cautiously optimistic, and our initial polling numbers confirmed that. But it wasn’t until the last two weeks of the campaign that we could really start to feel that something special was starting to happen.

When Mainstreet Research released an independent poll showing us in the lead, I felt a big bump in momentum. We actually ran out of lawn signs. We had all these signs in the office. We actually ran out by election day. All of that being said, even I was surprised at our final numbers. I thought the final results would be much closer than they were.

That’s right. You absolutely crushed the PC candidate by almost 15,000 votes. How did that feel?
I felt very touched, and in some ways really humbled, that so many people in Guelph embraced what our vision was, and what our campaign was all about. I’ve had so many pundits on radio or TV say that Mike Schreiner is too nice and too honest to get elected. I wanted to prove that you can be nice in politics. It doesn’t just have to be nasty, adversarial, tear-the-other-party-down, hyper-partisan politics.

If this hadn’t been the time, how long were you prepared to keep running?
You know, I told Peter Bevan-Baker—the leader of the Prince Edward Island Greens, who was finally elected on his 10th campaign in 2015—I told him I didn’t think I had nine defeats in me. I don’t know if I have that perseverance in me.

You’ve been reaching out to the other parties. Have they been receptive?
You know, it’s too early to say. I think there’s certainly a receptiveness to at least having a conversation and having some meetings and talking about where we can find common ground. In the same way I was cautiously optimistic about being elected, I’m cautiously optimistic that those conversations will happen and that they’ll be productive.

You were excluded from this election cycle’s televised debates. Do you think things will be different next time?
Absolutely. For years now, I’ve said that I actually don’t think the criteria for the leaders’ debates should be determined by media executives in a boardroom in Toronto. I think it should be something that is democratically and accountably done through Elections Ontario.

That being said, I think it would be very hard for us to be excluded from the next leaders’ debate, because the media consortium has always said you have to run candidates in every riding and have an elected member, and we’ve run candidates in every riding for 15 years. Now that we have an elected member, I think it would be hard for them to exclude us moving forward.