Green Party interim leader Adam Olsen’s goals include building bridges between aboriginals and non-aboriginals
When Andrew Weaver made history on May 14 by being elected the first-ever Green Party MLA, most expected he would take over the party leadership.
It didn’t work out that way. The rumpled university professor – a member of the Nobel-prize-winning UN panel on climate change – said he preferred that someone else take the reins.
Enter Adam Olsen, a former Victoria-area municipal councillor who nearly made it into the history books with Weaver on election night.
“I lost by just 379 votes,” Olsen said with a sigh.
“I thought I was going to win. I had a tremendous feeling walking around the streets that there was this surging support for the Greens.”
That surge put Weaver over the top in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, while Olsen finished a close third in the hotly contested neighbouring riding of Saanich North.
He’s had little time to feel sorry for himself, however, after Olsen was named interim leader of the Greens in August, taking over from Jane Sterk.
The 37-year-old married father of two – who resigned as a Saanich councillor to run provincially in May – is being paid $20,000 a year by the Greens to lead the party.
“They’re getting pretty good value for their dollars,” quipped Olsen, who said he’s working full-time hours as the party’s interim boss, something that suits Weaver fine.
“The day-to-day constituency stuff takes a lot of time and is incredibly rewarding,” said Weaver, just off the phone with an Oak Bay mom seeking help with an issue at her son’s school.
“You just can’t be an effective constituency representative, deal with all the issues at the legislature as an MLA and travel the province developing policy and building the party as the leader. I just couldn’t have done it all.”
There’s also Weaver’s duties at the University of Victoria, where he’s still on staff as a part-timer. (He said he’s collecting one-fifth salary, or about $20,000.) Did Weaver turn down the Green Party leadership because it would interfere with his work at the university? Shouldn’t he devote his fulltime energies to his full-time job as an MLA? “I took a huge salary cut to take this job,” Weaver said. “It’s not like I’m double-dipping.”
He said he only decided to stay on at the university to preserve several research grants that employ colleagues working on climate-change projects.
“This is only being done for the other people who are up there (at the university),” said Weaver. “I owe it to them to make sure they’re not losing their jobs just because I get a whim to run for politics.”
It’s a brand of politics both men say they want to do differently – without the fierce partisanship that fuels British Columbia’s nasty political wars.
“We’re not interested in the quick sound bite,” said Olsen. “We’re interested in actually having a dialogue about putting this province into a better place.”
Many other politicians have said similar things, of course, though Olsen and Weaver tend to back it up more than most. They’re not afraid to admit when they agree with the rival Liberals or NDP.
Olsen, for example, praised NDP ferries critic Claire Trevena for her work holding the Liberal government to account on ferry-service cuts and runaway executive bonuses.
Trevena did a tour of Washington state comparing the two ferry systems. “That’s the way an Opposition should work,” he said.
And Weaver refuses to slam the Liberals for the recently announced hikes in B.C. Hydro rates, calling instead for a rate rebate to help lowincome families.
“The rate hikes should have happened last year, but they didn’t because of the election. They were kept artificially low,” Weaver said. “Rather than just oppose the ‘reckless rate hike’ and pander for votes, we say, ‘Look, we recognize rates have to go up. But let’s have a safety net for the most vulnerable in society.’ That’s a constructive approach, not a hyper-partisan one.”
It’s an approach that could appeal to some voters, but can the Green surge that elected Weaver – and nearly elected Olsen – spread to the rest of the province? Doubtful, said University of the Fraser Valley political scientist Hamish Telford.
“It’s going to be a struggle for the Greens to break through,” Telford said, noting the party’s strongest support is concentrated on southern Vancouver Island and Olsen is a political unknown.
Olsen wants to change that through hard work and bringing his First Nations perspective to politics.
Olsen is of mixed heritage. His father is Coast Salish and his mother is European. He was born, raised and still lives on the Tsartlip Indian Reserve near Victoria.
As a Saanich municipal councillor, he often heard complaints about that.
“Every election I get attacked for where I live and who I am – that I don’t pay taxes,” he said.
“I was attacked for not being subject to the property taxes I was making decisions about as a councillor. Actually, I’d say I was the only person at the table who was not in a conflict of interest in that regard.”
He points out the tax-exempt status for aboriginal people generally applies only to property and income for natives living on reserves.
“There is no mechanism for me to pay those taxes even if I wanted to,” he said, saying one of his key goals in politics is to promote understanding between aboriginals and non-aboriginals. “Guys like me are bridges across the cultures.”
He said one commonly held misconception is that First Nations are against industrial development in their traditional territories.
“First Nations are not opposed to development, they’re opposed to not being part of the discussion around development. They get real ornery real fast if the ‘consultation’ in air-quotes happens after the decisions have been made.
“So when the premier comes out and says, ‘We’re going to have 10 new mines open in the next number of years,’ First Nations people say, ‘Guess what? No, you’re not.’ Because they can see the decision has already been made without them.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, Olsen said, pointing to a proposed $600-million wind farm near Victoria that’s backed by a local First Nation.
“First Nations were brought on board for the project before it was announced publicly,” he said. “It’s a good example of how to do business.”
Still, the Green Party will be on the front lines opposing key resource megaprojects like proposed pipelines from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast, and marine exports of thermal coal, Weaver said.
And he thinks it’s “utterly crazy” for Premier Christy Clark to continue promising enough riches from proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to eliminate the province’s $58-billion debt.
“It’s economic madness,” Weaver said. “We are pinning all our hopes on one desperate dream. There’s no backup plan. It’s LNG or nothing.
“Forget about counting your chickens before they’re hatched. That’s counting them before the rooster has even entered the henhouse.”
Allan Warnke, political science professor at Vancouver Island University, thinks the Weaver-Olsen Greens are still a “movement party” running a distant third in B.C.’s political race.
But he thinks that could change, especially with the second-place NDP divided on environmental issues and facing a drawn-out process to replace Adrian Dix as leader next fall.
“If the current low morale in the NDP remains low, this is a great scenario for the Greens to improve their current position from one seat to a few,” Warnke said.
The big question is: Can any party defeat Christy Clark, after she staged one of the greatest political comebacks in Canadian history? “They’re absolute political geniuses,” Weaver said of the Liberals. “But now the election is over. Governing is more about policy than about campaigning. You can only get away with this political genius stuff for so long.”
Added Olsen: “She (Christy Clark) is a phenomenal campaigner. She’s got a great presence. It’s a combination that appeals to voters and it is very tough to beat.
“But now it comes down to delivering what they promised. We were sold a bill of goods that this was a government that knows how to run the economy. The unemployment statistics tell a different story.” But before they battle Clark or anyone else, Olsen and Weaver may have to battle each other for the leadership of the B.C. Greens.
The party will select a permanent leader sometime before the next election in 2017. Current Green Party policy precludes an interim leader from running for the leader’s job. Changing the policy requires a membership vote at an annual general meeting or special meeting.
Both men say they do not rule out making a run for the permanent gig.
“That’s when the niceties will end,” Olsen said, shooting a menacing glance toward Weaver.
“I will go after him. Hard.” He appeared to be joking.