New Brunswick MP Jenica Atwin announced Thursday she has left the Green party to join the Liberal caucus mainly due to internal strife among the Greens over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"It has been really difficult to focus on the work that needs to be done on behalf of my constituents," she told a news conference in her Fredericton riding. "It certainly has played a role."
The defection leaves the Green party with just two lawmakers in the House of Commons, reeling from ongoing fallout over policy disputes, power struggles and bruised egos.
Atwin made history in the October 2019 general election when she became the first Green MP to be elected east of British Columbia. But last month she openly challenged Green Leader Annamie Paul’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On May 11, Atwin posted a message on Twitter saying a statement from Paul calling for de-escalation of the conflict was "totally inadequate."
"I stand with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable airstrikes in Gaza. End Apartheid!" Atwin wrote.
Three days later, Paul's then-senior adviser, Noah Zatzman, expressed solidarity with "Zionists" in a Facebook post that accused some unnamed Green MPs of antisemitism and discrimination. Paul had attempted to remain above the fray, saying party debate is healthy.
On Thursday, federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, also a New Brunswick MP, introduced Atwin as the newest member of the Liberal caucus. In her opening statement, Atwin said she had "been at a crossroads" for the past month.
"It's been, in a word, distracting," she said. "So I'm going where I can do my best work."
The new Liberal said she had not been promised any particular role with the Liberals in exchange for crossing the floor. "We haven't discussed anything like that," said Atwin, a mother of two and a teacher who helped run an Indigenous education centre before entering politics.
The Greens' stance on environmental and social policy often aligns more closely with New Democrat positions, but the NDP electoral prospects in Atwin's riding of Fredericton appear bleak. The party won less than six per cent of the vote there in 2019.
Atwin's aisle-crossing marks a small win for a Liberal party looking to tout its environmental credentials and shore up the ranks of its minority government. But the change deals a much bigger blow to a Green caucus that was struggling to stay afloat even before the loss of its Atlantic beachhead.
Paul said Atwin had first reached out to Liberal brass before the fracas over Israel in mid-May, suggesting Atwin was already growing dissatisfied with her party.
The Green leader, who first heard the news Thursday, told reporters she felt "disappointment" in Atwin's decision and regrets her departure. But Paul sought to downplay the legislator's frustrations over the Mideast rift by framing the lawmaker's choice as a "personal" one.
"I still haven’t heard it directly from her," Paul said at a news conference.
“I will always try to improve relationships between members, but sometimes I will be successful and sometimes I won’t, and I have to have the humility to accept that I won’t necessarily always be successful."
Asked about the party's standoff on the Israel-Palestinian crisis that helped spur Atwin's departure, Paul said she continues to advocate for a "peaceful, lasting and inclusive resolution" but respects a diversity of views.
In a joint statement, Green MPs Paul Manly and Elizabeth May — former party leader — said they are "heartbroken at the loss of our dear colleague Jenica Atwin from the caucus."
They were blunter than their fellow parliamentarian about the impetus: "Unfortunately, the attack against Ms. Atwin by the Green Party leader's chief spokesperson on May 14 created the conditions that led to this crisis."
Zatzman said Thursday he has "left the fold" as a result of online harassment, following a vote by Green executives not to renew his contract with the party.
David Coon, leader of the New Brunswick Greens, said he knew Atwin felt abandoned by Paul.
"I am profoundly disappointed that she decided her only option was to cross the floor, after the voters of Fredericton and Oromocto had elected her as a Green, to be the kind of strong and independent voice in Ottawa that the Green party encourages," he said in a statement. "She will discover that her principles will not find a home with the Liberals."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a brief statement Thursday noting Atwin's "tireless and effective advocacy on priorities like climate action, mental health, reconciliation, and making life more affordable for families."
When asked about her previous criticism of the Liberals over electoral reform and climate change, Atwin said: "If you looked at my voting record, my comments in the House of Commons, everything that I've said and done still stands … To the voters, I would say, 'I'm still me.' "
Less than a month earlier, Atwin accused the Liberal government of "missing the point entirely" on emissions reduction in a budget that “lacked the courage required" and represented "symbolism over substance." Under the current prime minister, “reconciliation has lost its meaning” amid court injunctions enforced on unceded Indigenous lands, she told the House on May 11.
Atwin said Thursday she hopes "to push the file from the inside" on issues such as the Trans Mountain oil pipeline and fracking, both of which she opposes despite the Liberal government's purchase of one and support for the other.
LeBlanc said the Liberal party welcomes divergent opinions, even when it comes to Israel.
"In the Liberal caucus, there is enormous room … for differences of opinion," he said. "Our caucus discussions will be that much richer."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.
— With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax
Kevin Bissett and Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press