The Greening of Prince Edward Island (Well, Sort Of)

Green Party of PEI Spring Conference in Emerald, Prince Edward Island. Reproduced by Permission of the Green Party of Prince Edward Island.

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Prince Edward Island turns green every spring – sooner or later. But this year the greening was different. The national media paid unprecedented attention to the general election there on 23 April, not because of any intrinsic interest in Canada’s smallest province, but because the contest threatened to set two national precedents: the election of a Green Party government and referendum approval for fundamental electoral reform.

Neither happened, and yet, the outcomes did make history. Given rural voters’ profound distrust of how list candidates would be nominated in the proposed Mixed Member Proportional system, electoral reform came shockingly close (within three ridings and 3.5 percentage points in the popular vote) to meeting the thresholds set for change (that is, approval in 60% of the electoral districts and 50% + one of votes cast). And while Peter Bevan-Baker’s Green Party did not win the election (despite leading in pre-election polls), it became the first Green party in Canada to form the Official Opposition. The Greens took eight ridings in the 27-seat legislature, and finished second in ten more. There is one more vote scheduled for July, a deferred election made necessary in District 9 (Charlottetown-Hillsborough Park) by the tragic drowning death of the Green Party candidate just days before the general election. Even if the newly formed Progressive Conservative government were to win the vacant seat, it would remain one seat short of a majority, leaving the Green Party very much a government-in-waiting.

Although the April results fell somewhat short of an electoral revolution, the Green Party’s rapid ascent to relevance has been astonishing. From one seat after the 2015 provincial election and two at dissolution, the Greens have tripled their popular vote (from 10.8% to 30.5%), and quadrupled their representation in the house. Their charismatic leader, a Scottish-born rural dentist with a long history of electoral setbacks, remains easily the most popular and trusted political figure in the province, preaching an idealistic approach to governance that puts (general) principle over expedience and collaboration before conflict.

So, what are we to make of the Greens’ breakthrough in a province that is habitually dismissed (even by young Islanders) as bedrock conservative and stubbornly resistant to change? Voters were clearly restless, discontented with a Liberal government that had out-lived its welcome despite a strong economy and a surge in immigration (much of it Asian in origin). But if that were the whole story, past patterns would simply have re-asserted themselves, and the Progressive Conservatives would have swept to a lopsided victory, instead of winning four additional seats while actually slipping a percentage point in the popular vote. For Prince Edward Island has never until now been kind to third parties. The simple answer is that today’s Islanders are not quite as conservative as their brand suggests, and the Island Greens are not as radical as outside observers might expect.

Drilling down a little further into the April election results provides further clues to explain the Greens’ success. Who voted Green? Six of their eight seats are situated in some combination of urban or suburban ridings. The other two might be classified as “rurban” (that is, rural, but adjacent to — and closely tied to — urban areas); one of the latter is Bevan-Baker’s own seat. In the Tory stronghold of Kings County and, especially, western Prince Edward Island, where traditional rural communities struggle but persist, the upstart Greens either finished a distant second, a dismal third, or (as in District 25, O’Leary-Inverness), dead last. In other words, the Green Party platform appealed most strongly to middle-class, educated, suburbanites and urban dwellers whose relationship with the landscape is more aesthetic and personal than economic or genetic. Put simply, urban Islanders care about the land but are no longer rooted in it. Even rural Islanders are no longer agriculturally oriented; unofficial estimates put the number of “serious” farmers at about seven hundred. (By way of context, in 1941 there were twelve thousand farms in the province.) Rural voters remain more conservative than their urban counterparts here (as elsewhere), but even in the country the swing vote is larger than ever, and instead of accentuating the upstart Greens’ lack of success there, perhaps we should be remarking on how many votes they garnered. In urban environs, the Greens appear to have attracted disaffected Liberals, but also, their credibility sucked most of the oxygen from the provincial NDP party. Despite an articulate, intelligent, and amiable leader, the NDP lost two-thirds of its already slender support, claiming just 3% of the popular vote (and most of those votes went to a rural candidate, former NDP leader and ex-MLA, Dr. Herb Dickieson).

What did voting Green mean? Does Green support translate a growing sensitivity to environmental issues on a small island (the canary in the mine of climate change)? Well, yes and no. The massing of support from the centre (Liberal) and the left (NDP) is instructive. Voting Green in 2019 meant something different than voting Green in 2007 or 2011. The Island’s first Green Party leader, environmental activist Sharon Labchuck, took an intransigent, frequently confrontational stance that alienated most Islanders, but in pushing the environmentalist continuum defiantly to the left, she created room in the middle for Bevan-Baker to focus his party’s platform on fiscal and environmental sustainability. The message was clearly moderation (and fiscal conservatism), which reassured Island voters otherwise attracted by his principled performance in the legislature as the province’s first Green MLA and by the mainstream nature – rather than fringe or fanatic – of the Greens’ slate of candidates. And as befitted a party leading the polls (albeit within a margin of error), the Greens offered a much broader platform than simply care for the environment (although Bevan-Baker demonstrated his eco-credentials by publicly citing the recently published Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island).[1] Indeed, the environmental plank in the Green platform was arguably subsumed within its promise to govern equitably and well. Anecdotally, voters were willing to trust Bevan-Baker more than they trusted the inexperienced Greens to know how to govern.

And so, the Greens fell just short of forming a government. Will they be able to take the next step? Can the ideological middle road satisfy enough voters on the spectrum from left to right to propel them to power? Is the Green Party a permanent presence or a curious interlude on the Island’s newly dynamic political landscape? And if they are here to stay, what effect will that have on environmental policy? Only time will tell whether the Greens’ appeal runs deeper than the popularity of their leader (who may reveal, after all, a hero’s feet of clay). The conservative province that gave Canada its first elected female premier, its first openly gay premier, and its first premier of non-European descent may yet give us its first Green government in an intimate setting where politics is always personal. The Greening of Prince Edward Island remains incomplete — but then, spring is always late arriving here.

[1] Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen and Irene Novaczek, eds, Time and a Place: an Environmental History of Prince Edward Island (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).
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Edward MacDonald teaches and studies “Island” history at the University of Prince Edward Island on . . . Prince Edward Island. He is a late career convert to environmental history, partly because of the excellent company it allows him to keep. Actually, he was doing environmental history before that; he just didn’t know it.

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