Considering the hundreds of candidates running across hundreds of ridings in thirteen diverse provinces and territories—each with their own distinct concerns and priorities—getting opponents to engage constituents and each other on the same topic at the same time sounds like a herculean (if not impossible) task. But that’s exactly what nonpartisan nonprofit GreenPAC set out to do with its ambitious 100 Debates on the Environment.
GreenPAC’s mission is to elect and support environmental leaders across all the major parties running for office in Canada, so the 2019 federal election presented an opportunity to raise climate issues to the top of every candidate’s list as they worked to earn voters’ trust in the weeks leading up to election day on October 21. Most importantly, with a day of action that would bring candidates and constituents together into a single conversation, they could do what a nonpartisan organization like theirs is uniquely suited to do—bridge ideological divides in order to face a challenge that impacts everyone.
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“What we really wanted was to make the environment a talking point that no candidate or politician could ignore, and the way we wanted to do that was to have it all on the same day, so that it dominated media attention, candidates’ attention. It became this national campaign where all eyes were going to be on the environment on October 3,” says Kate Belmore, who handled communications for the project. In these open conversations, candidates could not only discuss their plans for addressing environmental issues; they could hear back from constituents about their needs and expectations.
Looking for an action-focused website platform with event functionality to integrate with their database, they built their infrastructure on NationBuilder, where they could create over one hundred event pages with cohesive, unified branding. When site visitors arrived at 100debates.ca, they could get a sense of the scope and aim of the debates, see all planned events on a map, search for their postal code, and RSVP to their nearest debate. Behind the scenes, Project Lead Ari Pottens organized the candidates along with more than a hundred organizers who would lead the debates—making initial contact, walking them through the website and toolkit to get their event up and running, and facilitating regular webinars to help them stay up to speed as the big day approached.
According to Pottens, “One of the unanticipated benefits of the project was [finding] people who felt strongly about an issue but didn't feel like they had the tools to do something about it, and helping those individuals to feel more comfortable taking action than they otherwise would have. Watching folks march up that ladder of leadership and [say], 'Alright, I've issued my third press release and confirmed that in three days one hundred people are going to be showing up at my local event, and I can't believe it's all happening’— seeing that kind of journey has been really rewarding for me and the rest of our team. It also speaks to [how] the project is helping to build and strengthen the capacity of citizens around the country to take action. None of this would have been possible without all the individuals and organizations who gave their time and resources to this project.”
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He’s also quick to say that, “there were ten million things that surprised us every day.” Working on the first project of its kind, Pottens and team were wayfinding on their own, navigating challenges like rescheduling around last-minute federal party events, growing concerns that discussing climate change could be considered partisan according to Elections Canada, and ensuring compliance with Canada’s election rules. “There were all the things you might anticipate in putting on one event, and then there were all the things that might happen while putting on a hundred of those events,” Pottens says.
Once they hit the critical mass of forty scheduled debates, they launched the project publicly and continued to promote it via press releases each time they reached another key milestone on their way to one hundred. Both Pottens and Belmore had tempered their turnout expectations for October 3, and both were blown away.
As Belmore recounts it, “There were [more than] 16,000 people at the debates and hundreds of candidates showed up. As someone who does a little bit of event planning and has heard politicians say, 'We've had candidate meetings and the same ten people come every time,' I expected a handful of politically engaged people per venue. But with this campaign, most events had at least one hundred people attend, and some had over 500 people there. We had hosts who had never been engaged in politics before sending out press releases, creating debate questions and phoning their candidates. They said it was a really good opportunity to get involved.
[When I checked] Twitter that night, I could not believe the photos, how packed the venues were. It's one thing to go from phoning an organizer, having a webinar for an organizer—all those things behind the scenes, [but it’s another] to actually see all the people in the room, all the candidates there. It really went from a bunch of emails, to a bunch of phone calls, to packed venues across the country.”
Having helped turn 2019 into a “climate election,” the next step is to look at the answers from all the candidates across one hundred ridings and unpack a vast amount of information on what was said in each province, across each party—and collect insights that will fuel ongoing efforts to keep the climate a top priority for Canadian officials. With the help of the engaged volunteers and debate attendees they energized this year, GreenPAC can keep organizing to hold elected politicians accountable through 2020 and beyond.