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Reflections on Changing a Polluted Political Culture

Politics must be less partisan. That might sound funny coming from the leader of a political party, but it’s true. Solving the big issues of our time, like climate change, requires that we start doing politics differently and bridging the gaps that divide us. For the last two decades, I have committed myself to these things. My work started as a businessperson in the local food movement, where I partnered with farmers and policymakers to start building a sustainable farm-to-fork food system in southwestern Ontario.

Seeing farmers stand side-by-side urban entrepreneurs, environmental activists and people of all ages and political persuasions showed me the power of community to find solutions. It didn’t matter how folks had voted in the past, or if they had voted at all. What mattered was that our work was improving access to nutritious food, creating jobs and reducing impacts on the environment, issues that almost everyone can get behind.

Ten years ago, I made the move from small business to provincial politics, becoming the leader of the Green Party of Ontario at a time when environmental issues were starting to be debated more and more in political circles.

But despite the urgency of threats like climate change and biodiversity loss, Queen’s Park seemed perpetually unable to tackle the important issues of the day, with political leaders who consistently put partisan posturing ahead of community interests. I sincerely thought that the lessons and successes from the local food movement could help unlock the gridlock.

Entering the political fray only accelerated my activism for clean water, bees and butterflies, and reducing greenhouse gas pollution. During that time, I helped protect Guelph’s drinking water from reckless quarry projects, helped move the province to reduce the use of the most harmful pesticides and became a voice for vibrant communities and small businesses.

But I kept seeing much more progress at the community level than in the halls of power at Queen’s Park. So I continued my push to get a seat in the Ontario legislature. It was 9 years before I was finally elected. After all, taking the lead of an unconventional party in a province dominated by status-quo politics is not something you do for immediate gain.

St. George Park Clean-Up, April 2019. Photo via Twitter.

When voters in Guelph put their trust in me on June 7, 2018, to become their Member of Provincial Parliament, the first Green MPP in Ontario, my goals didn’t change, nor did my values or beliefs. But I had reached a whole new platform to defend the people and places we love in this province and put forward solutions. Now on the floor of the legislature, I work with elected officials of all political stripes, searching for ways that we can find common ground to act decisively on issues that we should all care about and to create solutions that we can all benefit from. Just like in my local food days. Don’t get me wrong, this can sometimes feel impossible at a time when partisan politics is becoming super-charged and respectful debate appears to be on the decline. It can be a challenge when slogans and gimmicks are sprinkled around to get your “team” in the news more than the others.

Lost in all of this political attention-seeking is real action on the issues that matter today and for a sustainable future. And that is exactly why we need to be less partisan.

Whether your political colours are green, orange, blue or red, we all share a responsibility to leave our children and grandchildren a livable planet.

To do so, we must get back to a value we all hold in common: health and happiness for everyone, everywhere.

To do so, we must talk openly, honestly, and with respect.

To do so, we must make decisions that are informed by evidence and in the interests of people rather than motivated by political gain.

I think when we do that, we can change politics for the better. We will have the right conditions for meaningful progress on climate change and on solving all of the other serious issues that we have an obligation to lead.


Mike Schreiner is the MPP for Guelph and leader of the Green Party of Ontario. In 2018, He was the first person elected to the provincial legislature outside the big three parties since 1945. He tweets @MikeSchreiner.


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