A conversation with BC Green leader Sonia Fursteneau
Ever since her efforts to stop toxic waste from being dumped into Shawnigan Lake—an action approved by the Government of British Columbia—Sonia Fursteneau has sought deeper change in government. In 2020, she was elected to be the leader of the BC Green Party, a position which she still holds today. Standing for the voices of the people and the environment, Sonia works hard to redefine what it means to be a politician. CoSphere team member Meg talks with Sonia to learn more about her views on system change and what role she sees politicians and government playing in it.
Q: Whereas the vast majority of politicians seek change through personal power, you are taking a very different approach. As we understand it, you’re seeking rule changes that would limit any individual’s power in government and make parties take a collaborative approach. Can you explain what you’re proposing?
A: I wouldn't frame it so much as I'm looking to bring in rules that would limit power, but to really look at what is possible in the current system that we have. In our system of a parliamentary democracy, there is enormous opportunity for collaboration across party lines and recognizing what is meant to be built into the system. In our case, you have 87 representatives from across the province and each of those representatives are equal in that realm of the Parliament.
What we've typically experienced in BC and largely in Canada is that these majoritarian governments—where one party has all of the governing power and the other party sits in opposition—operate in a conflict-oriented manner. But what we saw for the three years of British Columbia’s minority government between the NDP and Greens, is that it's possible to do things very differently in our legislature. In fact, the legislature already has the mechanisms for that to happen. What I'd like to see is a recognition that the burden, the responsibility of governing, is best shared. When we create the capacity for perspectives to be brought forward that represent the public more completely, we actually end up with better outcomes that are longer term and more stable.
Q: Other nations have systems that are similar to what you’re suggesting. Can you say a bit about the experience in these other nations?
A: What a lot of democracies have around the world is of course a different electoral system, which is proportional representation. That electoral system delivers generally more outcomes that are about sharing of governance and sharing of power. When you look at Scandinavia, most Western European countries, and a lot of democracies around the world, they operate with a proportional representation system. The outliers are the United States, Canada and the UK in terms of big democracies.
What you find in the longer term outcomes in countries that have proportional representation systems is, for example, better progress on problems like climate change. You see better progress on issues like equality and long term policies that really benefit people in the society.
In a majoritarian government though, the pendulum of who is in power is constantly swinging back and forth. For example, whenever the NDP is in power, we go to a card check system for your union certification, and then whenever the social credit party or the liberals are in power, we go to a certification vote or a secret ballot approach for union certification, and then it swings back, and then it swings back, and then it swings back. This is an example of uncertainty that underpins a lot of policy and legislation that comes out of these pendulum swings of governance, which we don't see as much in countries that have a proportional system.
Q: The plan you propose is so different from the status quo in Canada and B.C. in particular. What inspired you to think of this as a solution, and one that could possibly work here?
A: It's been a long standing goal of a lot of people in Canada to have us moved to a proportional system. In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau promised that that would be the last election under a first past the post system in Canada, and then reneged on that promise. But of course looking at evidence, looking at the policy outcomes and legislative outcomes from countries that have a proportional system that translates into a more collaborative approach to governance, you can see the benefits laid out in terms of where these countries are on a wide measure of policies.
Q: Despite decades of platforms that provide policy positions well beyond the environment, Green Parties still have this reputation as one-issue parties. When people hear more in depth about your ideas for changing how the government works, you must have witnessed some interesting reactions. Can you share some of your favourites?
A: I think that what has been really important for me to articulate is that, ultimately, what is at the centre of our policy and platform is the notion that good governance should be focused on the health and well-being of people, communities, the natural world, and that these things are all interconnected. You can't have healthy outcomes for people if their communities are struggling, if the natural systems that we depend on for clean water, soil, air, and food aren't functioning in a way that leads to health. So at the core, it's really about health and well-being.
Sometimes I'll talk to people about the idea of having a more collaborative approach to governance and a coalition government like we've seen in other countries, and for many it provokes a reaction of relief. Relief to be able to think of our politics and our governance as being less partisan, less conflict-oriented, and more focused on “How do we serve the best way we can? How do we serve the public good? How do we make sure that we're, as a government, really ensuring that we're putting that focus on the well being of people?”
We're seeing this rise in partisanship and this divisiveness that's creeping into politics. That is in and of itself very anxiety provoking for a lot of people. This becomes an existential battle over who ought to and who ought to not be in power. In this role we are servants of the public, we have this duty and this responsibility. We need to orient our work towards that instead of orienting our work towards “How do I make sure my party stays in power or gets in power? Or what kind of maneuvers do I take or how do I attack the other side?”
We have a number of crises that we're facing now such as climate change, housing affordability, healthcare crisis, and biodiversity collapse. We are in a time where we need all of the best ideas and an approach to governance and decision-making that puts that care and that service at the centre of everything. But as long as we're trapped in these partisan maneuvers, that becomes too much of the work that gets done here; we don't have that kind of luxury anymore.
Q: One aspect of your platform that stood out in particular was your emphasis on the importance of youth in decision-making, and engaging youth in politics. Could you talk a bit more about that?
A: I grew up in an environment where being engaged in politics was a part of our responsibility as a citizen. We were paying attention, we were always aware of what was happening politically. It's so critical to understand that politics isn't something that's separate from our lives and our daily lives and experiences. It has an enormous amount of influence and impact on many aspects of our lives, like what our cities are, what kind of services are available, what our public education system is, what our public health care system is. The decisions that are being made in Parliaments, legislators, and city halls are decisions that truly shape the world and the future.
It's important, especially in a democracy, that there is that engagement. It’s seeing and recognizing that we actually all have the shared responsibility to ensure that our government is living up to what we need it to be and what our expectations are. It is young people who are going to live the longest with the impacts and implications of decisions that we're making, which is why it's so critical that the young people are involved.
Q: Do you have any sort of advice for young people who are looking to immerse themselves in the world of politics and the best steps to take to get involved?
A: It was never in my plans or my life trajectory to end up in politics. I'm here because of circumstances in my community where the provincial government gave a permit for a contaminated landfill site at the headwaters of our drinking watershed. When this unfolded, I couldn't believe that it was actually happening and that the government would not live up to what my expectations were—which is you protect the public good, you protect public health and public interest. We built a community as a response to this. It took us four years to get that permit revoked and over the course of those four years I really came to understand some of the deep flaws in the decision-making process. So when I decided that I was going to run to be an MLA, it was really with a sense of purpose of “there's this aspect of policy and decision-making that I'd really like to be a part of solving and fixing.”
While there have been some pretty big strides to solve some of the problems of partisan lines, there's still work to be done. But at every point in my time as a politician, I'm driven by a sense of purpose. By a sense of “what do I want to be a part of solving”, “what kind of shape do I want to be participating in in creating.” So my advice to anybody is: figure out what that purpose is. What I would say is that the purpose shouldn't be “I want to be a politician” or “I want to be elected and be in that building”, because that's secondary to the purpose. Understanding why it is that you want to be involved in politics is really crucial because it's not an easy realm to be in and it can be really demanding and draining. Knowing where and how it is that you want to participate in building a better future is absolutely key.
One of the things that I've reflected on a lot since becoming leader of the BC Green Party is, again, I have pretty limited agency in the big scheme of things inside the legislature, we are only two out of 87 people. In our work, we are pushing giant boulders up mountains and we have succeeded in getting some pretty big boulders up to the top of the mountain. But it takes an enormous amount of work and effort. Some days it's hard when you feel like you cannot get that boulder up the mountain; it's too heavy and it's too steep. But having that clarity about what I wanted to achieve is important. My friend Laura Colpitts—who is part of the Shawnigan Lake efforts—used to say: “How you do things is so critical. How you do one thing is how you do everything.” Working on this place of purpose and joy, really seems to be the way that I have found to make it sustaining for me and hopefully for my team as well.