Dennis Drainville, retired bishop of the diocese of Quebec, is re-entering politics by running for the Green Party of Canada in this fall’s federal election.
Drainville, who retired as bishop in 2017, announced June 5 he would be running for the Greens in the riding of Gaspésie-Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, which covers a swathe of the Gaspé Peninsula as well as the Magdalen Islands.
Drainville, who served as a member of Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario 1990-93, says he’s been involved in politics in some capacity his entire life, so that returning to it feels second-nature to him. His decision to re-enter now, he says, was spurred by a realization that the coming vote, scheduled for Oct. 21, will be “an election like no other,” because it will require momentous decisions to be made on how to deal with the twin threats of climate change and unethical government.
“Those kinds of issues I think are going to be much more important than they’ve ever been in any other election,” he says.
His switch from the NDP to the Greens, Drainville says, is due partly to a lengthy courtship by Green leader Elizabeth May.
May is also an Anglican, and for a time even studied to become a priest. But Drainville says this has nothing to do with his candidacy for the Greens. He says he and his wife, the Rev. Cynthia Patterson, came to befriend May through their shared social activism. When May was in Quebec City, she would often stay with them at the bishop’s residence, and they would talk politics.
“I would be interested in what’s going on in the House of Commons and the Senate, and we’d talk,” he says. “She’d always say, ‘You should really run again, for the Green party.’ And I’d laugh it off, because I certainly wasn’t going to do that when I was bishop of Quebec! That was not a possibility—but now I’m retired.”
Meanwhile, Drainville was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the NDP. Eventually, after a meeting with former party leader Tom Mulcair, Drainville said he became convinced that decision-making had become excessively concentrated in the leader’s office—as, he contends, it has in Canadian politics generally.
“We’ve seen in successive governments the build-up of the prime minister’s office, the concentration of power—and by concentrating power there is a commensurate erosion, if you will, of the work of Parliament,” he says. “This was certainly true when I was in the Rae government. Having been elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, I naturally—being a bit of an idealist—believed that we would in fact govern differently. We didn’t. that’s the simple truth.”
Drainville quit the provincial NDP caucus in 1993, after voting against his own party’s budget when it proposed opening casinos in the province to raise revenues. He briefly sat as an independent, then left Ontario politics before his four-year term was over.
Drainville believes that a concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch has been accompanied by an increasing tendency in government to prioritize the interest of elites, the “one per cent,” that have close ties to government, and to disregard the views of elected representatives and the reports of the committees they sit on.
“Parliament is ineffective—we have no leadership, there’s a buildup of power in the prime minister’s office and we have leadership by 15-second sound bites, and Twitter and what have you. This is the politics of today,” he says.
“Governments today are becoming dangerous…. We should be electing leaders who care about the common good. They say they do, of course. The rhetoric is all there, but in fact when you see what they do and how they do it, they are not supporting the needs and aspirations of all Canadians. They have their own political and economic agenda and they pursue it, at times even ruthlessly.”
Drainville has been known to beat the odds—his victory in the provincial election of 1990 came as a surprise to many observers of Ontario politics, because his riding was considered a safe one for the Conservatives. But he says he has no illusions that the coming campaign will be easy.
“My winning in the riding here is a long shot—there’s no question, because the Greens are coming from zero,” he says.
In the 2015 federal election, Liberal candidate Diane Lebouthillier garnered 39 per cent of the votes, with the NDP following at 33 per cent. The Greens mustered just under 1 per cent—just ahead of the satirical Rhinoceros Party, which won 0.75 per cent.
On the other hand, he says he believes there’s currently widespread disaffection in Canada both with the Liberals and the NDP that could allow him a chance.
“The question is,” he says, “are people willing to change in a real way and take a chance with somebody that comes at things from my clearly left-leaning approach to politics, and someone who talks about things the way I do?”
The Green Party of Canada will be the third political party Drainville has served as a candidate. He first ran for office as a Liberal in 1977 in the Toronto riding of Riverdale, when he was 23. His affiliation with the Liberals, he says, originated from spending his boyhood in the province of Quebec at a time when its politics was still dominated by two traditional factions: the rouges, who voted Liberal, and the bleus, who tended to vote for the Progressive Conservatives in federal elections and for the Union Nationale provincially. By 1967, he says, Pierre Trudeau had come to be a focus of his political interest.
Drainville left the Liberal party in 1978, and joined the NDP some years after that, after he had gotten to know Rae.
After his stint in Ontario provincial politics, Drainville ran as an NDP candidate in the Gaspésie in the 1997 federal election. He served as a municipal councillor in the Gaspé city of Percé from 1995 to 2003. He continued to support NDP candidates in their campaigns, and says he was asked by former NDP leader Jack Layton to run in the 2008 federal election.
Drainville was elected co-adjutor bishop of the diocese of Quebec in 2007, and became diocesan bishop in 2009. In 2015, he allowed his name to stand in an episcopal election in the diocese of Montreal, hoping to merge the two dioceses, but lost to Mary Irwin-Gibson, who remains bishop.