Annamie Paul is running to succeed Elizabeth May as leader of the Green Party of Canada. (photo from Annamie Paul)
Annamie Paul wants to be the first woman of colour and the first Jewish woman to lead a political party in Canada. But, in the process, the human rights lawyer and former diplomat who is running to succeed Elizabeth May as leader of the Green Party of Canada has been taken aback by the overt antisemitism thrown at her since it became widely known that she is Jewish.
“You almost can’t believe what you’re seeing,” said the Toronto native, who has worked extensively overseas. “There are very explicit comments questioning my loyalty to Canada because I am Jewish. There are those who have suggested that I am seeking to infiltrate the party on behalf of Zionist elements.”
Paul said what disappoints her most is the almost complete silence from others when antisemitic posts are made on social media, such as the Facebook group for Green party supporters.
“The comments were whispers at first, innuendo, and now they’ve become very explicit,” she said. “If people are allowed to make these comments unchecked, it really emboldens them and that’s definitely what I’ve noticed over the last week or two.”
Amid a litany of such comments – including items not directly targeting her but equating Israelis to Nazis on Green-oriented social media sites – only one single individual not on her campaign team has called out the offensive posts. At the urging of Paul’s campaign, moderators removed some of the most disturbing ones.
“It’s taken me aback,” she said. “It wasn’t something I was fully prepared for, to be honest.”
She differentiates between people who are deliberately provocative and those who are uninformed.
“I accept that there are a certain number of people who still need to be educated … and, while it’s perhaps not my responsibility to do that, I’m willing to do that because I think if I can create a little more understanding, then that’s important,” she said.
Paul spoke at a Zoom event organized by Congregation Beth Israel and moderated by Rabbi Jonathan Infeld on July 8. That conversation was primarily about Paul’s life, Jewish journey and career. In a subsequent interview with the Jewish Independent, she delved more deeply into policy and her experiences with antisemitism and racism.
Born in Toronto to a family from the Caribbean, she was among the first students in Toronto public schools’ French immersion program. Her mother, a teacher, and grandmother, a nurse and midwife, worked as domestics when they arrived in Canada. Her mother went on to get a master’s of education and taught in elementary schools for more than three decades; her grandmother became a nurse’s aide.
Paul credits her mother’s broad-mindedness and spiritual bent for the openness that led her to embrace Judaism in early adulthood. Paul was converted by the Hillel rabbi while completing a master’s of public affairs at Princeton University. She also has a law degree from the University of Ottawa. She chose Ottawa in part because its law faculty emphasizes law through an Indigenous lens. In addition to seeking at an early age to be an ally to Indigenous peoples – she started law school at 19 – she saw parallels between the Canadian situation and her own heritage as a member of the Black diaspora.
“We have been stripped of all of the things that Indigenous peoples are fighting for still in this country,” she said. “Through colonialism, we lost our identity, we lost our culture, our language, our religions. We really can’t tell you anything with any great degree of precision about our ancestors. When I saw other peoples fighting for those things, I understood intuitively how important it was.”
Paul has worked as a director for a conflict prevention nongovernmental organization in Brussels, as an advisor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and as a political officer in Canada’s mission to the European Union. She co-founded and co-directed an innovation hub for international NGOs working on global challenges and has served on the board and advised other international NGOs, including the Climate Infrastructure Partnership and Higher Education Alliance for Refugees. She is married to Mark Freeman, a prominent human rights lawyer and author. They have two sons, one in university in London, U.K., the other in high school in Toronto.
Returning to Canada after spending about 13 years abroad, Paul looked at Canadian politics with fresh eyes. While she had been courted to run provincially by the Ontario Liberal Party in the early 2000s, she opted to run federally for the Green party in 2019. She took about 7% of the vote in Toronto Centre, which was won by Finance Minister Bill Morneau. She is one of nine candidates running for Green leader.
She chose the Green party because, she said, “we don’t have time to fool around with the climate emergency.”
“I celebrate the compromise that is the spirit of Canadian politics,” Paul said. “This is the Canadian way. But there are some things that you simply have to do all the way or it really doesn’t work. One of those things is the climate emergency. If we don’t hit our targets, then we are setting ourselves up for disaster. The Liberals, the NDP, the Conservatives, they’re just not committed to that goal and so I wanted to make it clear that I was aligning myself with the party that was very, very committed to reaching those targets.”
COVID-19, for all the health and economic devastation it has wrought, also presents opportunities, said Paul. In Canada, federal and provincial governments came together and political parties set aside partisanship to an extent. Canadians who may have been skeptical that a massive challenge like climate change could be ameliorated see what concerted governmental action – and massive investments – can look like. “[Canadians] know that money can be found if it’s needed and they know that we can mobilize very quickly,” she said.
The billions of dollars being invested into the economic recovery should be directed toward projects that explicitly advance a green economy, she said, such as a cross-Canada energy grid that produces electricity from renewable sources to be shared throughout the country. This is just one of a range of opportunities that Paul sees emerging from this extraordinary economic challenge.
“For a country as wealthy and well-educated as Canada, if we want to be, we can really be first in line for all of this,” she said. “It’s exciting.”
The Green leader has limited constitutional authority in a party dedicated to grassroots policymaking, Paul said. If party members adopt a policy that challenges the leader’s core values, the leader may be required to walk away. Such a scenario emerged in 2016 after the party adopted a resolution to boycott Israel. Following a showdown, the resolution was rescinded and May carried the party into the subsequent election. As a result, Paul said, the party is on record supporting Israel’s right to exist and opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Paul opposes the Netanyahu government’s Jordan Valley annexation plan because she believes it contravenes international law. But she also urged vigilance against those who might mask their antisemitism in anti-Zionism. And she stressed the unlikelihood of pleasing everyone on either side of the Israel and Palestine divide.
“I don’t feel that there’s anything these days that you can say in terms of that conflict where you’re not going to attract criticism that you were too soft or you were too hard,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”
But, while she doesn’t have the magic answer to resolve the longstanding conflict, her background in diplomacy and international law makes her confident in asserting that negotiated settlement is the route to any eventual solution.
“Dialogue always has to be the preferred option,” she said, adding that international law must be applied to all sides. “State actors, non-state actors, they are all subject to international law. Their obligation is to respect international law and to protect fundamental human rights. There are no exceptions to that.”
At a time when North Americans and others are facing our histories of racism and injustice, Paul finds herself at an opportune intersection.
“I’m very aware of what I represent as a candidate,” she said. “I’m a Black woman, I’m a Jewish woman.… I know people are very interested in my identities and I embrace that…. I would say, though, that [I hope] people will take the time to get to know me and not to create a one-dimensional image of me simply focused around those identities. I feel that I’m very prepared because of the work I’ve done, my academic studies, etc. I’m very well prepared to take on this role and all of the elements of this role.
“You’re not just an environmental advocate as the leader of the Green party, for instance, you also need to be able to talk about foreign policy, you need to be able to talk about economic theory, you need to be able to talk about rural revitalization and what are we going to do about long-term care and should we decriminalize illicit drugs. You need someone who is three-dimensional and I know that I’m three-dimensional and I hope people remember that.”
As a Jew of colour, Paul also has insights on antisemitism in the Black Lives Matters movements and racism in the Jewish community.
“The Black diaspora is not a monolith,” she said. “The Jewish community is not a monolith, either. Don’t ever take the actions of some members of the community as an indication of how the entire community feels.… I would just say don’t let that push you out of wanting to support the community in the way that you should. In terms of Black and Indigenous lives in this country, the statistics just take your breath away. Not just the criminal justice statistics but also health, education, life expectancy, they are really very troubling and those communities need as much help as they can get from people who really understand, who have suffered a great deal of persecution historically, as well, and have had to create opportunities and overcome barriers and still do.”
The leadership vote takes place Sept. 26 to Oct. 3. The deadline to join the Green party to vote in the election is Sept. 3.