Part way up Old Baldy Mountain trail on southern Vancouver Island, Sonia Furstenau paused on a rocky outcrop. The view was stunning. Verdant hills undulated to the skyline, and gleaming cool and blue in the valley below was Shawnigan Lake.
B.C.’s Green Party leader considered the scene, contemplating the beauty perhaps, or more likely, looking beyond the picturesque to what wasn’t there: clearcut forests; contaminated soil she and others prevented from being dumped above the lake; and watershed protections yet undone.
Furstenau gestured to the swathes of forest swaddling Shawnigan Lake. The varying hues of green indicated the age of their last harvest, she said. Then she pointed to the rolling peaks of uninterrupted deep moss green to the south in the Capital Regional District (CRD) watershed, which includes Victoria’s drinking water source.
“The CRD, very mindfully and thoughtfully, and rightfully, bought their watershed,” said Furstenau. “Our watershed is owned by logging companies.”
Imbued with an activist’s enthusiasm and optimism for the possibility of change, Furstenau seems equally weighted by, upon perceiving an injustice, the need to correct it; driven, it seems, more by duty than choice.
“It’s why I’ve gotten myself into this whole (politics) thing,” she said. “It feels like people aren’t taking care of the things they should be taking care of. Watersheds and drinking water. Rules and regulations. People who are falling through the cracks. The environment. Forests. Children. Climate.”
Fossil fuel dependence and climate instability loom especially large and unresolved for Furstenau, who has been MLA for Cowichan Valley since 2017.
“A destabilized climate is going to be a relentless chaos machine. It’s very hard to navigate with unrelentless uncertainty,” she said, pointing to the cascade of recent B.C. disasters – wildfires, drought, lower river levels, floods, and decreased food production.
“The phrase ‘overlapping emergencies’ is becoming commonplace right now,” said Furstenau. “It’s hard to get out of reactive mode and be proactive.”
She understands people’s fatigue with escalating calls to action and their longing for pre-pandemic conditions, because she feels it too. “But the reality is not normal.”
One solution, she said, lies at the community level. People need to create social networks, social structures, and emergency preparedness to deal with events like summer heat waves or winter power outages.
The tasks may be endless, but Furstenau’s purpose is clear: Change the goals of governance and shake up the rules of political engagement. To do that, the BC Greens must gain enough voter support to influence how B.C. is governed.
The idea of her party forming a majority government may seem outrageous given it’s never happened, in B.C. or anywhere else in Canada, but the chances of another minority government with the Greens as tiebreakers is probably when, not if.
“It’s important that the Greens have enough strength to kind of interrupt the regular programming of the BC legislature,” said Furstenau, who maintains the previous minority government was more productive than the current majority.
“Without a strong third party, we fall back into the pattern that has always existed in B.C., which is two parties in complete opposition to each other, unwilling to find ways to work differently.”
Furstenau has often spoken out about what she says are the flaws of a confrontational, adversarial political system, advocating for more collaboration across party lines for the good of the electorate.
Unwavering in her truth, she speaks easily and with conviction on most topics. Some critics have characterized her demand to end fossil fuel projects naive, and her calls for political reform condescending, as if she knows best what more seasoned politicians have failed to grasp.
But Furstenau is undeterred. “Now the stakes are so real, beyond the politics and me as an individual, I’m just not interested in adapting myself to how I’m supposed to be in this political arena. I just can’t. I don’t want to waste my time doing that,” she said.
“Those are the outcomes that I see as where the province could get to, should be trying to get to. They’re very heart-centred. They’ll think I’m flaky – but I’m not,” Furstenau said of the New Story of BC, which she created on a poster board. [Image supplied]
Furstenau is convinced a minority government is more effective, responsive and respectful to citizens than a majority.
The problem lies with a political system geared towards power over collaboration, she said during debate in the legislative chamber last June. Since the pandemic began, three provincial minority governments went to the polls in Canada, she said, “motivated to have more power and less collaboration, because a minority government relies on collaboration.”
Can legislators make majority governance and decision-making more collaborative?
“Yes, we can. I really believe that,” said Furstenau. “The reality is, 87 people in here got elected by their communities to come in and do good work as legislators – let’s respect that.”
Lately, the BC Liberals and the Greens have collaborated on several issues of shared concern, including calls by Furstenau and BC Liberal interim Opposition leader Shirley Bond for the government to initiate a cooperative cross-partisan effort to tackle the opioid crisis and Indigenous reconciliation.
“She kind of takes the politics out of it in a lot of ways and just sticks to her beliefs. Which I think is really honourable in this profession,” said BC Liberal Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier.
Furstenau’s big picture goal for the party is not to gain power, she said, but to influence government to reorient its goals toward achieving specific overarching outcomes: meeting people’s needs; helping communities thrive; enabling healthy ecosystems; and building trust in government.
Achieving such ambitions will require a shift from the political status quo. Who knows but incremental change may already be afoot. Following the return of a minority government to Ottawa the second time in a row last September, Canadian journalist pundits Andrew Coyne and Chantal Hébert speculated during election night commentary about whether the national two-party political system – with strong majorities alternating between conservatives and liberals – might be waning.
Nearly 39 per cent of the federal governments formed in Canada between 1948 and 2012 were minority, according to a 2015 study by University of San Diego researchers. If Canada does veer away from majority governments, toward more frequent multi-party, power-sharing arrangements – as is more common in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France and New Zealand – might not some of the provinces follow suit?
In B.C., seat counts never tell the whole story. The NDP won a decisive majority in the 2020 election – 57 of 87 seats – with only 48 per cent of the popular vote. Of the total seats, 21 had less than 10 per cent vote difference between the winner and runner-up, with five of those separated by one per cent or less. And despite only running candidates in 74 ridings, the Greens placed second in 15.
Even in 2001, when the BC liberals won 77 seats to the New Democrats’ two, the race was more competitive than the numbers suggest.
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a close election. It actually was. There were a whole lot of close ridings,” recalled Mary Polak, a former long-time MLA and BC Liberal cabinet minister who lost her Langley seat in the 2020 election. “In British Columbia, the percentages are always fairly tight, even if you get lopsided results.”
For Furstenau and her two Green MLA colleagues – Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA and then-party leader Andrew Weaver, and first-time MLA Adam Olsen, representing Saanich North and the Islands – the 2017 election was a breakthrough, tripling the size of their legislative caucus and transforming them into so-called kingmakers.
Ironically, prior to her campaign for all-party cooperation, it was Furstenau’s refusal to work with the BC Liberals which ultimately tilted the Green caucus toward an alliance with the New Democrats, according to the meticulously researched book, A Matter of Confidence, by BC legislative journalists Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman.
While the Greens were under relentless pressure from their party base to align with the NDP, it was Furstenau’s unwillingness to return the Liberals to government which likely sealed the deal.
In 2013, the BC Liberal government issued a permit allowing contaminated soil to be dumped in a quarry above Shawnigan Lake’s drinking water source in Furstenau’s home community. A four-year legal fight ensued, pitting residents against the provincial government until the permit was eventually pulled.
“I was disappointed that a government, and a governing party, could act in ways that seem so counter to the role and responsibility of what government should be,” said Furstenau. “Now I can see that government policy is doing this all the time.”
Long-time governments forget what they owe the public in terms of transparency and accountability, she said. “That’s where we were at with the Liberals.”
Which doesn’t mean she’s happy with the confidence and supply agreement the Greens eventually negotiated with the New Democrats.
“We were so unprepared as a party and a caucus for what we were embarking on,” Furstenau said. “We lost so much that we didn’t need to lose in those negotiations.” The Greens were adamantly against liquified natural gas projects but didn’t demand their termination in the agreement. “LNG should have been on the table.”
In opposition, the New Democrats were against the LNG project and the building of BC Hydro’s Site C dam.
“We believed them,” said Furstenau, who likened the dam to the massive public works of decaying civilizations. “You start building monuments to your own stupidity. Do I think it’s going to produce electricity? I would not put money on that. It’ll just be a $25 billion stranded asset that somebody has to pay for.”
Furstenau recalls getting an earful from Canadian environmental icon David Suzuki for not making Site C cancellation part of the deal. “Site C did get squandered. That got played very, very badly. We should have done better. It’s one of the many, very big regrets,” said Furstenau.
“There’s all sorts of things you can look back on and say. We trusted them, there was no playbook, all these things. I want to be smarter next time. This is my mission,” she said.
An educator and historian by training, it was Furstenau’s activism on behalf of Shawnigan that launched her into elected office, first as regional district director, then as MLA, and party leader.
Doing what she was meant to do
“All of her dedication which had manifested itself in her becoming a teacher just led naturally to her becoming a community organizer and activist. Once she got on that trajectory, every step has made perfect sense to me. It’s what she was meant to do,” said Sonia’s brother, Dr. Marc Furstenau, a philosopher of art, and assistant director at the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carlton University.
“When I met Sonia, she was still teaching,” said Sean Hern, who was partner in Farris and company, the law firm hired by the Shawnigan Residents Association in 2013 to fight the permit. In the months after Hern began working with the group, Furstenau advanced from letter-writing with her students, to helping organize, to a community leader, he said.
“Many people (were) devoted to the issue, building support and building opposition. Sonia was, as far as I could see, integral to that,” Hern said. “She has a reservoir of hope and optimism she draws upon when things get hard, that propels her forward to try to make positive changes.”
Hern helped the community file an appeal with the province’s Environmental Appeal Board, which was rejected a year later when the permit was allowed to stand.
“It was so incredibly shocking to me that a government would purposely put drinking water at risk. What kind of government would do that? Isn’t it the government’s main job to protect people?” said Furstenau.
“It was a huge issue. It made the media, over and over again,” recalled Polak, BC’s Minister of the Environment at the time. From the minister’s, and ministry’s, perspective, the situation was complicated.
“It was just this layer upon layer of decision making,” said Polak. “And much of it very, very constrained within the bounds of the law, in terms of what you’re allowed to discuss, not discuss; consider, not consider.”
Ministers are bound by law to only consider certain reasons for a decision, which doesn’t always make sense to the public, said Polak, who endured no small amount of pressure from Furstenau and other residents to revoke the landfill permit. “The intent is to make sure that the decisions are very objective. But there are conversations you literally cannot have, that you’re not allowed to have, with people.”
From the perspective of protesting Shawnigan residents, the case was unequivocal. They filed for a judicial review of the Environmental Appeal Board decision at the BC Supreme Court, which later overturned the board decision in 2017.
Several weeks following, Polak announced the permit was cancelled on different grounds, which nonetheless stopped the flow of contaminated soil to the landfill and ended court proceedings.
The save-our-water campaign significantly shaped Furstenau’s politics going forward as “building community” became a core tenet in her strategy for achieving change.
“Some advocates you meet, they’re kind of mercenary. It’s not a firm personal belief they have. It just happens to be a convenient flag,” said Polak. “That certainly wasn’t Sonia.”
Three months after the landfill permit was revoked, Polak and Furstenau met again when the latter was elected to the legislature. Soon after, the two women were appointed house leaders of their respective caucuses, which Furstenau said eventually led to “a very effective and very collegial relationship.”
“You learn in a political world pretty soon that the people you value are not necessarily the people you agree with all the time, but the people that at least are giving you a straight answer, dealing with you honestly,” said Polak, who is now a strategic advisor with the Canadian lobbyist firm Maple Leaf Strategies. “That’s the most valuable piece you can find in a relationship in politics.”
Furstenau credited Polak’s early influence on her BC Liberal colleagues for the positive dynamics she and Green colleague Olsen now enjoy with official opposition members. “Thanks to Mary helping them not hate me as a starting point, we’ve been good,” said Furstenau in December 2020. More than that, the two parties collaborated to the point of issuing a joint press release in December 2021.
“Sonia has evolved immensely as a politician. She has really stood out, for me and for us, as someone you can trust,” said MLA Bernier, who was on the BC Liberal negotiating team trying to convince the Greens to align with his party’s caucus instead of the NDP back in 2017.
He recalled how adamant Furstenau was that she “will not, will never, side with, work with, or support anything the BC Liberals were doing.”
“(We) definitely did not see eye to eye,” he said. “We had a hard time almost being in the same room face-to-face, because we were so polarized on our opinions of where we thought we should go.”
At the time, Bernier was fairly good friends with BC Green leader Weaver – whom Bernier described as fiscally conservative – and both parties were trying to find areas of agreement.
“Sonia stood her ground and wasn’t willing to compromise on a lot of her values, which, again, not that I always agree, but I really need to respect that,” he said.
Dynamics have changed dramatically since then. “A lot of that has to do with the reality of just being in the building,” said Bernier. “You start realizing that we’re all human, we’re all people. We’re all trying to do the right thing. We just have different opinions of how we get to the right things.”
“I realize now, it’s not about the party. It’s about when one party gets all the power – things go sideways,” Furstenau said. “We paint people with the colour of their political party and then we’re done. We have to stop doing that. Everybody who runs for public office, it is a sacrifice, it is hard. Nobody gets into this because of anything other than wanting to be in service.”
The roots of Furstenau’s duty to serve run deep. Youngest of three children, she was raised in the dynamic political milieu of Edmonton in the 1970s and ‘80s. “We were a very political family,” said her brother Marc, the eldest of the siblings.
Their parents were active in the Alberta NDP, then headed by Grant Notley, father of former Alberta premier Rachel Notley.
“The NDP was quite a force then. There were pockets of Alberta, like in Edmonton, that were very left wing, very progressive,” he said. “Both my parents in their different ways were very committed, almost activist-type people. I think a lot of that was imparted to Sonia especially.”
Shades of a future leader
Sonia was a “dedicated” youngster who looked at things as “a challenge to be accomplished” in almost every part of her life, from studying, to playing violin, Marc said.
“I remember her as a really young child. I would pick her up from school sometimes. She would want to be the one who led us home. She figured out which bus we had to take, what stop we had to get off at. She wanted to go up and ask the bus driver to stop there. She was the one who wanted to be the leader of the little pack we were.”
After finishing high school, Furstenau saved her waitressing pay and went abroad. A girlfriend who was supposed to accompany her pulled out at the last minute. Furstenau went anyway. She recalled her dad driving her to the airport, lamenting, “Why are you doing this? Why? Why?”
Furstenau travelled solo for a year through England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Australia, before returning to Canada and moving to Vancouver Island.
By 1998, a baby, a marriage, a divorce, and a degree later, Furstenau hit another life-changing crossroad – a law degree or a master’s in history?
Lawyer or historian?
“At the time, everybody was giving me the ‘Go to law school. You’re a single mom, this is the right path.’” Instead, spurred on by the age-old career-defining question – what do you love to do? – she chose history, finishing her master’s in 2001.
Shortly after, her world staggered sideways when her father died of cancer. Eight months later, her step-mother died.
It was too much. Furstenau took a break from academia, working as a part-time bookkeeper. “I had the least amount of responsibility I’ve ever had in my life.”
A year later, her exhaustion eased and her grief dulled, she returned to school, getting accepted into PhD programs in Cambridge, Oxford, and York universities in the U.K.
“A PhD in northern England is very lonely,” Furstenau recalled of her time at York. After her first year, she and her seven-year-old son Nicholas returned to Canada for a visit and never went back.
Instead she built a family with Blaise Salmon, a long-time activist and current CVRD director for Mill Bay/Malahat, eventually blending and expanding their brood to five children and moving to Shawnigan in 2011. Along the way, Furstenau returned to UVic and completed her education degree.
Zen of gardening
“She wasn’t cut out to be an academic but she was cut out to be a teacher,” said her brother Marc. “Everything goes too slowly in academia. The results take too long. The process is almost interminable. She wanted to have a more immediate effect in the world.”
Despite her family’s affiliation with the NDP, it was perhaps logical Furstenau ran for the Green Party.
“It’s not so much about the party. It’s about the vehicle to making change, to making things happen.” said Furstenau. “I’ve never really wanted to do things the way that they’ve always been done. It seemed to me that the NDP were not that vehicle for big change.”
Besides, she said, despite her high profile as a community activist, NDP leader Horgan didn’t want her to run for his party. “I like colouring outside the boxes. And there’s no colouring outside the boxes with the NDP,” she said. “I think they saw that in me, and I saw that in them, and we were not ever really attracted to each other.”
Back in her activism days, it was BC Green leader Andrew Weaver, more than Horgan as opposition leader, who advocated strenuously for Shawnigan residents. And it was Weaver’s diligence, coupled with support from former federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May, that cinched Furstenau’s decision to run for the Greens.
“The NDP and the Liberals operate in this sphere, this way of being in the legislature, this way of doing politics, that doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.
Nowhere is that perhaps more apparent than in Question Period.
While substantial and useful debate does transpire between Opposition members and the government bench, it’s equally probable interactions will backslide into posturing, hectoring, accusatory political theatre, or “baying at the moon,” as Horgan once put it.
In the midst of this rivalrous verbal jousting, Furstenau or her colleague Olsen stand for their allotted two questions, usually beginning in a slow-burn, data-dense preamble and closing with a righteous demand for justice.
In the old NDP-Green alliance days, the Greens presented a somber interlude amid the sometimes hyped-up Question Period dramatics. Under the majority government, however, the New Democrats often as not heckle their former Green partners for perceived lecturing, while Olsen, and a handful of BC Liberals, retort back across the aisle.
The politics sometimes wear on Furstenau, but she’s committed to cross-partisan cooperation as the most effective way to serve the electorate.
“We agree on so much across the board, whether it’s as individuals or as political parties,” she said. “We have to find ways to start from that common ground, as opposed to how we’ve done politics for so long, which is to look for the few things on the edges that we disagree on and make those the focal points of our efforts as politicians and elected people.”
Furstenau’s convictions were tested in September 2020, when Horgan did what pundits predicted he’d be unable to resist doing – he called an election. One of the most popular political leaders in the country, Horgan’s government also enjoyed an unusually high approval rate for its handling of the pandemic.
Horgan denied opportunistic motives behind the election call, asserting Green support had become “hamstrung by uncertainty” and the minority alliance unreliable for decision-making. As evidence of the Greens’ intransigence, Horgan referenced two bills the Green MLAs had refused to pass and sent back for revisions that summer.
Furstenau was incensed. “What that agreement didn’t stipulate was utter and total obedience to the NDP. That’s not part of how a minority government works,” she said, pushing responsibility for the election back on the Premier.
“I think Sonia wanted more visible influence on what was going on with government,” said Maclean Kay, editor of The Orca, a political news analysis publication. “She didn’t let things like (the NDP-Green agreement) stop her from saying, ‘Well, this particular bill could be fixed in this way,’ and did so publicly. Which the NDP didn’t like.”
And the decision to announce an election seven days after Furstenau was elected leader was “just awful,” said Kay. “There’s no respect there at all.”
Horgan not only called the election one year earlier than stipulated in the NDP-Green power-sharing agreement, he also implied the political alliance had deteriorated since Weaver resigned as Green leader in 2019 and divorced himself from the party to sit as an independent in early 2020.
By all accounts, Horgan and Weaver had enjoyed a friendly working relationship. However, an underlying implication was unmistakable: Furstenau did not enjoy the favour or the confidence of the premier.
It was one thing for Furstenau to defend against Horgan, a shaky political ally-turned-opponent, and quite another to have her former colleague of nearly three years – the previous leader and man who had, to a large degree, convinced her to join the party no less – throw his support behind Horgan as well.
It may or may not have been personal, but it must’ve hurt.
The situation escalated when the NDP poured money and prominent politicians into the local NDP campaigns against Furstenau and Olsen. Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, BC Health Minister Adrian Dix, and the premier all visited Furstenau’s riding during the election. Horgan went several times.
Both Green ridings were reasonable targets from a political perspective, said Kay, who was a print journalist and a CBC producer before working as former premier Christy Clark’s speechwriter for five years.
The two Green-held ridings had recently been NDP and were therefore winnable. And anytime a party had a chance to knock off a rival leader, it was going to try, he said.
“They will argue, it’s not personal, it’s political,” said Kay. “But the sheer amount of resources poured in there did still strike me as disproportionate.”
It wasn’t enough to gain a majority of seats, the NDP election strategy also included removing both Green MLAs from the legislature.
“It felt personal,” Furstenau said later.
Despite a roundly lauded performance during the only live-televised debate of the election – Angus Reid polled Furstenau’s viewer appeal nine points behind Horgan, then the most popular premier in the country, and 22 points ahead of former BC Liberal Opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson – the Greens failed to achieve the surge in voter support required to pick up more seats.
The post-debate polling held true on one key front: as much as people were impressed by Furstenau herself, it didn’t increase the number of people who voted Green.
In the end, Horgan won his government a majority, but fell short in his secondary objective “to wipe the Green Party off the electoral map,” wrote Vancouver political columnist Vaughn Palmer on Oct. 25, 2020. Instead Furstenau was returned to the legislature to be a “thorn in John Horgan’s side.”
After the 2020 election, Green support held fairly steady at about 16 per cent of the popular vote. A victory perhaps, considering Furstenau had logged barely a month as leader by election day; the party had almost zero pre-election preparation time; and the campaign was conducted the middle of a pandemic.
“I’m so proud of what we did,” said Furstenau, conceding, “A longer runway would have been a much different outcome for us. I don’t think that was overlooked by the NDP in their decision to throw the election.”
Arguably, the most important election result for the Greens was the return of Furstenau and Olsen to the legislature, albeit without their previous out-sized leverage and influence over government policy and agenda.
New Democrats no longer sought, needed, nor appreciated Green caucus approval or input.
Under the minority government, Horgan met biweekly with the Green leader. Furstenau had one leader-to-leader meeting with the Premier before the election was called.
Over the 14 weeks of the first two legislative sessions under the new majority government, Furstenau repeatedly tried to engage Horgan during Question Period. While Horgan took nearly every query directed at him from Official Opposition Interim Leader Bond, he deflected Furstenau’s questions to cabinet ministers.
Finally, in June 2021, during the Premier’s Office estimates committee – an annual review in which the premier is compelled to defend his office budget – Horgan addressed Furstenau.
It was the first time they’d spoken directly in nine months, she said.
But maybe, one door closes, another opens.
“We had to maintain a pretty complicated relationship. In the end, the other side of that relationship turned its back on us and walked away. That’s politics, I guess. But now, here we are,” Furstenau said.
And here brings a whole new freedom to the Greens. The freedom of not being tied to a much larger party, with many times the members and resources, which doesn’t share quite the same values and policy objectives. The freedom to spend less energy on maintaining a productive relationship within an unbalanced power dynamic, while struggling to leverage influence and vigilance over government policy.
And it brings perspective.
Shawnigan’s water battle taught Furstenau the effectiveness of community-building, organizing and activism. Four-and-a-half years working with both major parties showed her the humanity in their ranks and the adversarial bent of the political system under which all three parties operate. And partnering in a minority government, before and during a pandemic, gave her a glimpse of what was possible if everyone’s contribution was valued and rallied toward a shared purpose.
Still, she knows her time in the legislative arena is limited. “I already think about that future self,” she said. “Seven years from now she and I are going to ride off into the sunset with politics. We’ll have given it everything we had to try to make very big changes happen, and we will not be a fool to ourselves based on how successful we are.”
Meanwhile, “I’m doing what I can. I’m all in.”