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Q&A: Green Party leadership candidate David Merner

Leadership hopeful and U of A alumni David Merner was interviewed by The Gateway about his policy ideas and directions

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Green Party of Canada is still hosting its leadership race to replace Elizabeth May.

Nine candidates are running to replace May who served as the leader of the party from 2006 to 2019. Online voting for the membership will be open from September 26 to October 3.

May resigned in November of 2019 to ensure a better work-life balance and spend more time with family after a lengthy career in federal politics. Her 13 years as leader of the Greens qualifies her as the longest serving female leader of a federal political party in Canada.

The candidates running in the leadership race include:

While the majority of campaign events for leadership candidates have been Zoom calls and online town halls, some candidates are beginning to host outdoor gatherings with proper COVID-19 precautions and physical distancing.

The Gateway interviewed one leadership hopeful, David Merner, ahead of his planned event at Hawrelak Park on August 6 to see his plans to address post-COVID-19 economic recovery, best plans to address climate change, and what its like to run during a pandemic.

David Merner is an Edmonton native who attended the University of Alberta for his masters in political science in 1983-94. He went on to study law at the University of Toronto. Merner has worked for over 30 years in law, government, and political activism. His background in the public service saw him serve in the Department of Justice and Privy Council Office in Ottawa, as well as at the Ministry of Attorney General in Victoria. 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

The Gateway: Why do you want to be Green Party of Canada leader?

David Merner: I am running for the leadership of the party during this unprecedented campaign to help make a difference for Canadians at a time when we need it most. For so long many Canadians have thought environmental and social progress would need to come at the expense of our national economy. That is not the case and I want to share that with everyone and show that environmental change can actually benefit our economy.

Walk us through some of your major policies you would want to have enacted if elected as leader of the Green Party?

A key issue, especially for Albertans, is what is going to happen with our economy now that we have this pandemic that is ongoing. We have seen big companies like Total are dis-investing from the oil sands. We can see the Norwegian wealth fund is taking all its money from fossil fuels as well. So what is the future for Alberta and for Canada? Canada is the fourth largest fossil fuel producing country in the world. We need to be thinking about how we transition and what is our economy going to look like. I want to look at that but also ensure safe secure jobs for our grandkids in a new world — a post-pandemic world that is quickly moving off fossil fuels and onto renewable energy. That is the number one issue for me.

The Greens are campaigning on the largest job creation plan in Canadian history to help get us out of the pandemic and to basically create an east-west electrical grid — just like we built the trans-Canadian railway — powered by renewables. This would be a national unity project but also a transition strategy for our energy policy. A policy like this has huge benefits but would really drive the fact that renewables would be used in a positive way. Raymond, Alberta has already gone all solar in terms of its energy use. Hinton, Alberta is leading the way in terms of geothermal projects for our country. In southern Alberta you cannot miss the large wind farms. In many ways, Alberta is leading the way forward for renewable energy. So the question is, how do we build on this and accelerate this so we can go bigger, better, and faster.

We really must get off fossil fuels but in a responsible manner. That is the core of our agenda — for Alberta and for all of Canada.

David Merner

Elizabeth May has truly built up the Green Party of Canada over the years and championed action to address climate change. Those are big shoes to fill now that she has stepped away. Why do you think you would be best to fill them next?

It would be great for a native Albertan to be the leader of the Green Party. It sends a signal that Greens are really going to be about making a transition that works for everybody. If it works for everyone in Alberta, it will work for everyone in Canada. I really understand the province. I have a cousin who is a welder on the TMX pipeline and play hockey with Calgarians who for the first time are saying the same thing I am saying: we need to figure out how to make this transition in our economy.

I have some unique skills to offer. I’ve had 28 years of experience in government, law, and politics as a volunteer. I understand the nuts and bolts of making political parties accountable to people, not just special interests.

It is true, Elizabeth May is leaving huge shoes to fill. But I ran in the riding right next to hers. I know her very well and have seen how she works. I have learned a ton from her. We really have huge hopes for the next federal election. I think I can deliver on those.

Not all Canadians believe the Green Party represents a mainstream and viable political choice for them. If elected, how would you work to push the Greens to be a choice Canadians would be able to rally around?

I think there is a gap between perception and reality. In the last federal election the Green garnered 1.1 million votes. We are continuing to grow. Once we start to break through in terms of our seat numbers to 12 to get official party status — especially as a minority government like the case is for British Columbia right now where the BC Greens hold a large say — people will really start to pay attention. For us the key is to break through. That may not happen overnight, but as Canadians become more concerned about both the environment and the economy we will see results sway in our favour.

More and more people are recognizing we gotta do something different. What we are learning from this pandemic is that there are a lot of things we should be considering to fix, including a broken economy all about growth, or our broken healthcare system — especially failing continuing care for our elderly. I think the Greens will break through because of our innovative solutions for a path forward.

David Merner

I think it’s also critical for all Canadians to realize that the Green Party has always been the most progressive party in Canadian politics. We campaigned on guaranteed livable income, free tuition, national pharmacare. The New Democratic Party have never campaigned on those issues before the last federal election. They adopted our policy on national pharmacare.

The other federal parties are talking about small steps. We are the only ones talking about big changes that will help the most Canadians and our planet.

If you were elected as leader, what types of policy and supports would you champion for post-secondary students?

We would campaign on free tuition for all post-secondary students from trade schools, college, and university. This isn’t just about increasing our pool of people entering the economy. This is about equality. We have seen a huge gap growing between the richest and the poor in Canada. A good education with equal access for everyone is absolutely critical. We have to open the doors to education — no one should have to fall behind simply because they cannot access education.

We also would campaign on debt forgiveness. Too many Canadians are having trouble entering the workforce now while their debts pile up after initial post-secondary education or having to return to change careers.

These two measures are absolutely critical for how we move on as an innovation economy; one all about artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics. The critical element for that is enabling Canadians access to the right education.

The big economic shift for Canada’s environmental and social wellbeing is moving from an economy that relies too much on brawn to one relying on brains. We need innovation and creativity to move forward.

David Merner

In the past couple of months there has been a poignant cultural moment of critical reflection on how best everyone can play a role in bettering structures of power to be more equitable towards everyone. If elected, what would you do to champion diversity and equality for people of all skin colours and backgrounds?

My first job in law was helping the Hobbema reserve, now known as Maskwacis. I worked for a lawyer at the reserve named Willie Littlechild. I went into law because of an awareness of the deep sense of injustice that Canadian history had done and continues to do on Indigenous communities. Indigenous justice has been core to my whole career as a lawyer. I believe that Canada must do more to repair the black marks of history which have adversely affected Indigenous Canadians.

The same goes for Black Canadians and people of colour. We do have a history that is not well known by many Canadians of discrimination. We must fix this.

If you just look at all the candidates running for the Green Party leadership right now you see such a diverse set of people. There has never ever been such a diverse group of people running for leadership of any Canadian federal political party in our history. This is really encouraging. Each of them are fantastic candidates and it is impressive how much our slate of candidates represents all Canadians — based on gender, geographic diversity, economic background, and ethnicity. As leader what I would do is form a team with all other candidates from this leadership competition and work with them to champion all the issues facing Canada like equality and police brutality. This team would work together to reach out to other partners and allies across Canada to develop policy and solutions accessible to all. Diversity is a systemic problem and it requires systemic solutions by active teams and leaders who want to empower others.

As leader I would also ensure we do our absolute best to recruit the diverse candidates reflecting all of Canada to run in ridings for the federal election. We need a government that better represents all Canadians.

I am also a fan of creating a new leadership structure based off of models like the Green Party of Alberta and other Green parties in Europe. The Greens in Alberta recently changed their leadership model to allow for two leaders — a co-leader structure to better build diversity into the system. The two leaders would help shape a better federal party.

I am also fully in support of having a support team with more diversity built in. I want to create more diversity in our federal council which is our senior administrative group elected by the members of our party. I want to add two seats for Indigenous people and two seats for people while also creating spaces for economically marginalized people as well. This would help include more people that are traditionally excluded from politics in Canada.

What is it like campaigning during a pandemic? How has that experience been for you?

It’s been really tricky. Campaigns are all about meeting people and having conversations with them. You just can’t have the same level of interactions face-to-face with people now.

This is the second time I have travelled across the country to meet, speak, and have discussions with Canadians. I started my first trip in February and March when the pandemic really started to pick up and so am back now in Edmonton, and meeting with Greens and also trying to recruit people to join up.

Since March we’ve mainly been on Zoom and phone campaigns. Earlier in July we tested out in-person outdoor socially distant and mask wearing campaign events. It worked out okay; definitely was weird the first time looking out into the crowd and seeing people distanced and wearing masks. But we are getting used to it and being very very careful. We bring our tape measures and map out spaces for people but we are doing it for everyone’s safety. We are properly prepared with hand sanitizer and masks for those who have forgotten theirs. It’s definitely a lot more logistical planning than campaigning in pre-COVID times.

It’s a bit of a challenge to bring people together and also campaign safely. But we are doing a great job so far and we will continue to do so. There are lots of people who are saying they would love to attend in-person events but are worried about COVID and don’t want to attend — and that is totally okay! Yet what I am finding is that there are a lot of people out there who are really really worried about the pandemic and what it will mean to them, their family, their role in the economy, and their overall future.

Politics cannot just end during a pandemic.

David merner

Despite all the restrictions, I am back here in Edmonton in my old stomping grounds and very excited to be back at the University of Alberta as well. I was at the U of A to do my masters where I had a fantastic experience! I did my masters thesis in Canadian federalism, specifically the negotiations that led to the patriation of our constitution. So to be back is great.

Adam Lachacz

Adam Lachacz is the Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway for 2020-21. Previously, he was the 2019-20 News Editor, 2018-19 Staff Reporter, and a senior volunteer contributor from 2016-18. He is a fourth-year student studying history and political science. Adam is addicted to the news, an aspiring sneakerhead, and loves a good cup of black coffee.

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