14 min read

Eco-Socialist Dimitri Lascaris Is Considering Running Again For Green Party Leader

"I don't have a plan, but I'm weighing it very carefully. I've been encouraged by a great many people to run."

Eco-Socialist Dimitri Lascaris Is Considering Running Again For Green Party Leader
Dimitri Lascaris/Facebook.

By Alex Cosh

This week, Annamie Paul announced that she will be stepping down as leader of the Green Party, following months of infighting and disappointing results in last week’s election.

Paul described her embattled tenure as leader as “the worst period of my life,” and has said racism and sexism were driving attacks against her leadership.

At the same time, back in May, some in the party strongly criticized Paul’s statements regarding Israeli airstrikes against the people of Palestine, and her refusal to distance herself from a staffer who called for the replacement of Green MPs who called out Israeli apartheid.

Following this dispute, former Green MP Jenica Atwin crossed the floor to join the Liberals.

With this internal division, it is perhaps not surprising that the Greens’ popular vote share plummeted to 2.3 per cent. And although the party picked up a seat in Kitchener Centre, thanks largely to the withdrawal of the Liberal incumbent in that riding, the Greens lost MP Paul Manly in Nanaimo-Ladysmith.

Questions remain about who will take over as the Greens’ interim leader, and who will enter the race to take over the party’s top job permanently. The Maple spoke to former Green Party leadership candidate and self-described eco-socialist Dimitri Lascaris, who is considering running again to be party leader.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. To Listen to the audio version, you can download the podcast episode on Apple, Spotify or Google.

Alex Cosh, managing editor of The Maple:

Let's get straight to the question that I know many people will be anxiously asking: Do you have any plans to run to become the next leader of the Green Party of Canada?

Dimitri Lascaris:

I don't have a plan, but I'm weighing it very carefully. I've been encouraged by a great many people to run. Of course, the result in the last leadership contest, where we were actually ahead on the fifth ballot, and finished a close second was encouraging in terms of our prospects.

But, frankly, I wasn't expecting to be confronted with this choice so quickly. That came as quite a surprise. And I must say that last year's leadership contest took a significant toll on me personally. From a health perspective, there was a significant amount of toxicity.

It was not something that began this year, and I'm still dealing with the health issues from that and recovering from that, frankly, so I have to think a little bit more about it. I may very well do it. But I just don't know if I'm up to it.

AC:

Some people who paid close attention to your leadership campaign last year may not be aware of what you've been up to since then. Can you tell us a little bit about your work since the campaign, and about the Green Left Canada project?

DL:

Throughout the leadership contest, and right up until the current time, I am a lawyer, and I do practice on a part-time basis. I still do some, although a limited amount, of class actions work. But I've been involved in doing a lot of pro bono work, and the case that I've been litigating before the federal courts on a pro bono basis involving Israeli settlement wines has consumed a considerable amount of my time since then.

But on the political front, when I came in second place (in the leadership race), we were very encouraged by that, and we thought we needed to build upon this momentum. A lot of people who didn't traditionally support the Green Party were very encouraged by the fact that an explicitly eco-socialist candidate was running, and joined the party.

There was already a very sizable contingent of eco-socialists in the Green Party base. So we decided to extract from our leadership platform 15 policies that we regard as being really key eco-socialist policies, and submitted them for the members' consideration in the biannual policy process, which began right after the leadership contest.

We got the preliminary results of that a month ago, and most of our policies were preliminarily approved with enough support that they should be automatically adopted at the convention in November. So we're very encouraged by that.

But then, after we did that, we formed this organization called Green Left Canada. And I want to be clear: It's not a political party. It's not intended to be a political party. We never planned for it to be a political party, because there is some misconception about that. It is an advocacy organization that seeks to encourage the implementation of eco-socialist policies at all levels of government. We aren't committed to any particular political party, even though specific members, including me, are committed to the Greens — others may have a commitment to the NDP.

And so right now we are in the early stages of thinking about a people's summit next year — we really are at the very beginning of that conversation. However, a lot of the people who formed this organization with me were heavily involved in my (leadership) campaign. So if I decide to run in the leadership contest, I think we may have to park our people's summit idea for a little while, and focus our attention on that.

AC:

About those progressive policies voted for by Green Party members earlier this month — do you think there's been a shift inside the party? Has there always been this level of support for that type of policy? Or has there been a heightening of political consciousness that would be more favorable for an eco-socialist leader?

DL:

Well, you know, the Green Party, in its origins, going all the way back to its founding in Germany, was a radical party, by the standards of mainstream German politics. And that's the tradition out of which we come. And "radical," interestingly,  basically means getting at the root of things, and somehow it's become synonymous with extremism.

So when I say we were a radical party, that's what I mean. And that means confronting truths and asking questions which may be uncomfortable for the elites, but have to be asked, and have to be articulated for the benefit of all humanity.

So I think what's happened is the party did begin as a radical party, just like the German Green Party did. And then there was a shift sort of to the centre under the leadership of (Jim) Harris. By the way, I have a lot of respect for Harris, even though he and I are not necessarily oriented politically the same way. We have things in common, and we have different views about economic matters, for example. And I think Elizabeth May also pursued a more or less centre-left approach to politics. I think that tradition was more or less perpetuated in the short time that Annamie Paul was in office.

That radical core was always there; it wasn't necessarily in control of the party. And then, when the financial crisis struck in 2007 and 2008, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, and then the pandemic and (former Democratic presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders in the United States openly espousing democratic socialism — there were a lot of things going on which emboldened and grew the eco-socialist movement, not just in our party, but outside our party.

Things really came to a head last year where we had two quite starkly different political orientations contesting for the soul of the party, and it was a close call. So we as a party are still grappling with that, and I think part of the problem — we have to be candid about it — that Annamie encountered, is that we haven't resolved that philosophical difference yet.

I'm hopeful that we'll be able to do that, whether or not I run, in the months ahead in a respectful manner. Somehow, we lost the ability to communicate with each other productively and constructively over the last couple of years. We need to gain that if we're going to resolve the philosophical differences in the base of the party.

AC:

Your leadership campaign ran on an explicitly eco-socialist and anti-imperialist platform with some strong pro-worker policies, and support for movements like Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. Why is this kind of program needed for the Greens, the country and international community?

DL:

Well, number one, because without it, we're going to render the planet unlivable. It's as simple as that. The capitalist system is wrecking the planet, and personally, this aspect of my advocacy, I don't regard as a political opinion; this is an empirical observation.

We have a capitalist system, which is designed essentially to maximize the wealth of a privileged few, and enables them to exploit the masses of the population for their own personal benefit. They are able to effectively treat the planet as though it is an unlimited, inexhaustible supply of wealth.

It's an empirical observation; so if you don't agree with me that socialism is the way to go, that's fine; let's have a discussion about what the way to go is. But let's start by agreeing that we're destroying the planet with the current capitalist system, because that's just obvious. David Suzuki says it; Naomi Klein has said it — these people are not coming from the extreme fringe of the Canadian political scene.

Innovative Research did a poll two months ago which showed that 35 per cent of Canadians want to move away from capitalism. The number of those who are opposed to moving away from capitalism was smaller — 25 per cent. So you would think that when over one-third of the population feels that way, then we would be having a debate about capitalism.

I don't think I heard a single leader throughout the entire election say the word "capitalism" once, let alone critique the system, let alone raise questions about whether we can survive with this economic system — they won't even talk about it. And does anybody even say the word "socialism"? That's why we have to have this discussion; our lives depend on it, frankly, and the future of our children depends on it.

And relatedly to that, you talk about anti-imperialism. Nobody wants to talk about imperialism either, or foreign policy more broadly, because all the major political parties are in essential agreement on our morally bankrupt foreign policy.

We've all basically ceded to the United States government the authority to decide Canada's foreign policy, and nobody has the political or moral courage to stand up to the U.S. government and say 'you are an imperialist, hegemonic, militaristic force that is contributing to the destruction of the planet, creating enormous geopolitical instability at a moment when we need unprecedented levels of cooperation to resolve the climate emergency, and we will oppose you; we are not going to be dictated to by you, because you are at the core of the problem, the military industrial establishment within the U.S.'

We can't even have a discussion about this, let alone take on the problem. So I think the primary role of the Green Party of Canada can and should be to start that discussion, and expand the boundaries of political debate, and let people's imaginations run free and imagine a different world.

I don't want to diminish the importance of initiatives that are very important and have practical impacts on people's lives that are quite beneficial — things like  pharmacare, free post-secondary education, these are things that we championed in the past. But we need to be far bolder, because we aren't going to get to the core of the problem unless we have that debate about our economic system.

AC:

Speaking of the foreign policy consensus that you alluded to in all the major parties: Somewhere we often see this is on the issue of Israeli apartheid. And this was obviously a major factor that has exposed some pretty significant differences inside the Green Party. You've long been a champion of Palestinian human rights. Are you worried that Palestinian solidarity is being squeezed out of the Green Party?

DL:

If you try to squeeze it out of the Green Party, you're going to destroy the party, because there's so much support for the Palestinian cause. Tarek Loubani, the Canadian-Palestinian doctor who does heroic work in Gaza, said that this is a litmus test for the moral integrity of a politician in this country. If you cannot stand up for the voiceless, downtrodden, oppressed and brutalized Palestinian people in whose suffering we are so complicit, in my opinion, you are not worthy to be a holder of political office in this country; you're not worthy to be the mayor of Timbuktu if you can't stand up for the victims of the apartheid regime.

I think the vast majority of the members of this party agree with that. We have to accept that this party will continue to defend the rights of this brutalized people, and I think the press has tried over the past year to characterize the whole debate within our party about Palestinian human rights as sort of two equally powerful factions — it's the way they misrepresent what's on what's going on on the ground in Palestine itself, that you have these two more or less equally powerful factions. That's not true within our party. We had a leader whose views about this issue, I believe, do not accord with those of the vast majority of the members.

We adopted a policy calling for sanctions on the state of Israel, and we were the first party in Parliament to do that back in 2016. It was ratified with over 90 per cent support.

Our leader during the most recent vicious assault on Gaza, and the actions in Sheikh Jarrah (a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem), and the invasion into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, did not once use the word "sanctions," even as the NDP leader for the first time, under pressure from his base, was calling for an arms embargo on Israel.

The people in our party who are not standing up for the Palestinian cause are a tiny little vocal minority. We as a party are overwhelmingly committed to justice for the Palestinian people, and for all oppressed peoples, and particularly those whose voices are not being heard in the Western media.

AC:

Let's talk about the election. What's your assessment of what happened to the Green Party on election night? Why did its vote share collapse so precipitously?

DL:

This is really getting into the realm of subjective opinion. There haven't been any careful analyses done, so I'm just giving you my own gut feeling about it. And some of this, I think, won't be controversial.

The fact that there were allegations of racism and misogyny flying around in the public domain, and coming even from the leader's office, certainly was a factor, no question about it. A lot of people probably didn't even know about this, but it was fairly widely publicized, so a very significant percentage of the voting population, I'm sure, was aware of these allegations being hurled by senior people and the leader of the party against other members of the Green Party.

The defection of Jenica Atwin, which was precipitated, let us be very clear, by repeated smears emanating from the former senior advisor of the leader (Noah Zatzman), angered a great many members of the party, and in fact caused a lot of people to decide that they weren't going to continue to contribute to the party. I received a ton of messages myself from people who were irate, who were tearing up their memberships, who said they were stopping their monthly donations, who refused to volunteer for the party.

I think Jenica's departure was a tragic loss for our party, and was an earthquake, frankly, from which we've not recovered. And then, of course, we lost a person whom I regard as the most progressive member of Parliament, Paul Manly. I'm profoundly saddened by that. Both Paul and Jenica were wildly popular. And Paul was one of the people who, along with Jenica, was attacked repeatedly in the press by the senior advisor of the leader, because they had the moral courage to say that Israel is in fact an apartheid state. So certainly, that has a lot to do with it.

But I also think, to go back to the discussion we were having earlier about eco-socialism, we were not communicating to the voting electorate a distinctly left-wing, boldly progressive, anti-imperialist agenda.

There were a bunch of statistics showing very high levels of support for increasing the minimum wage, very high levels of support for substantial increases in healthcare spending, a very high level of support for increased spending on mental healthcare — there has been a sea-change in the voting public's views about these core issues, and we as a party need to catch up. Nobody has caught up to the voting public in that regard, and that includes us. So I think that hurt us as well at the polls, and I think if we strike out and fill that political vacuum that exists on the left, unapologetically, we can regrow this party very rapidly.

AC:

Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May has been floated as a potential candidate to be the interim leader. What are your thoughts on that prospect?

DL:

Well Paul Manley was also identified as a potential prospect for interim leader. I think as interim leaders, both (May and Manly) would do an excellent job. Obviously Elizabeth May has more experience leading the party and more experience as a parliamentarian than anybody in the Green Party of Canada.

Paul has so many wonderful qualities. He has significant experience as a parliamentarian as well, and so I think either one of them would be a fine choice.

But the real question that we're going to have to grapple with is who's going to lead the party on a longer term basis — that's going to be the real question that will loom large in terms of whether we can recover from this, and how quickly.

AC:

I've always wondered whether if you had won the leadership last year, whether you would also be experiencing intense opposition from some sections of the party apparatus; I think it's fair to say that you experienced some pretty brazen hostility during your leadership campaign.

And the Green Party of Canada wasn't born out of the labour movement; it doesn't necessarily have class struggle in its DNA. So why is the Green Party, in your view, the best vehicle for a robust eco-socialist program, rather than, say, the NDP or even the Communist Party?

DL:

Well, the premise of your question, I just want to disagree with part of it. One of the people who endorsed me last year was the former Green Party leader, Joan Russow, and she was the leader back in the late 1990s. I think Joan had a very acute class consciousness and a strong commitment to the rights of the working class.

I think in the early days of our party, there was that strong commitment to the rights of workers within our party, but we kind of lost that thread to some degree in the last 20 years, so I will acknowledge that.

Why is this the right party? First of all, the core values of the party, I think, are in essence the spirit and the soul of eco-socialism: non-violence, respect for diversity, social justice, ecological wisdom. These things are fundamentally, quintessentially eco-socialism. So our values are entirely compatible with eco socialism.

Number two, because we are a smaller party, we can be more nimble, and we are dealing with a less entrenched establishment. You say I would have encountered obstacles? Oh yeah, I'm not going to pretend that I wouldn't have; I would have responded, however, to the resistance in a certain way, and that is to engage people in a constructive, respectful conversation, and walk them through the reasons why this is the right path forward for us as a party, and mandated by our core values.

I wouldn't have persuaded everybody, no question about it, and it would not have been an easy ride, but it would have been easier than trying to do it in the NDP. The NDP has got this neoliberal establishment that's firmly entrenched.

I think this kind of a project within the smaller Green Party is a much more viable endeavor than trying to do something in a larger, more sclerotic organization like the NDP.

AC:

I mentioned the the Green Party's "DNA" — would it be fair to say, then, that because the Green Party is still a relatively young and small party, you're still in a position where you can shape its DNA in terms of how it grows into the future?

DL:

Yes. And one thing I didn't mention is, you know, that our policy process is probably the most participatory democracy-oriented policy process of any significant political party in Canada.

That BDS resolution, which we passed back in 2016, you could never get that passed in any of the other parties, even with broad-based support; they wouldn't even let it go to the floor. They'd find ways to kill it before it gets there.

You just can't do that in the Green Party of Canada with the very open and transparent policy process that we have. So that too is a reason why I think the Green Party is particularly well suited to be the champion of eco-socialism.

I want to say that, whoever runs to be the leader of the Green Party, please, those of you who left, come back and help us rebuild this party. Whether or not I become the leader, whether or not I even run to be leader, there's a profound need for a party like the Green Party in Canadian politics. And, you know, we can't do this alone. We need your help. So please come back.