THE CONVERSATION: Jessica Tillmanns

At centre, Jessica Tillmanns. SUPPLIED PHOTO

The Green Party’s 18-year-old candidate in Niagara West is learning the campaign ropes

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

 

There’s an old joke about soccer in the United States: It’s the sport of the future, and it always will be. One can be forgiven for thinking that the same prognosis applies to the Green Party of Ontario.

In 2007 the Greens garnered just eight percent of all votes cast, and four years it managed only three percent. Though it was back up to five percent in 2014, the party has still never had a member elected to Queen’s Park.

(Full disclosure: On two days during the 2014 election, I campaigned for the Green Party of Ontario. I am not a member of this or any other party.)

But despite this electoral impotency, the issues that the party has been talking about for decades, principally climate change, have made it to the mainstream. Indeed, up until Patrick Brown’s ouster as leader of the Progressive Conservative party, all three major parties had made environmental policy a focus of their platforms.

Jessica Tillmanns, the Green Party’s 18-year-old candidate in the riding of Niagara West, is all right with this. During our meeting last week at a cafe in Beamsville she showed herself to be Green to the point of bleeding chlorophyll (she joined on her 18th birthday), yet she is far from dogmatic. Her gentle partisanship is refreshing in an increasingly polarized political climate.

In once sense Tillmanns does not come across any older than her 18 years. She is polite, deferential, shy—with none of the swagger that comes with being in the public eye. When, during our conversation, a woman in the cafe asked Tillmanns if she was running, and then followed up by saying that she liked the Green Party, at first Tillmanns seemed at a loss for words.

Then, quickly remembering that there was a sales pitch to make, she gave the woman a campaign button and a pamphlet. Her youthful enthusiasm was a striking antidote to the cynical fever that can so easily grip an electorate.

Tillmanns is clearly thoughtful and deeply conscientious (and perhaps on her way to wrestling stardom). Anyone who starts thinking about politics at age six and then runs for office at 18 deserves to be taken seriously.

Conversations Cafe, where we met, is an open and austerely modern establishment, and we were not sitting in a discreet spot. At one point, a man overheard one of our mentions of Tillmanns’ candidacy and stopped to wish her well.

“When Sam [Oosterhoff] ran in the by-election and people said he was too young, I thought, ‘You know what? In World War Two, people that age were out doing bombing missions,’” he said. “I think if you’re dedicated, that’s all that matters.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Tillmanns. “Thank you.”

PICCOLO: I’m told that this is your first interview. Why don’t you talk about yourself for a little bit? This is going to be the first time that most people have heard of you. You’re eighteen. That’s pretty much all that I know about you. Where did you grow up. How did you get involved in politics.

TILLMANNS: I’m eighteen and I just graduated high school at Beamsville. As soon as I turned eighteen, I became a member of the Green Party. I was just really excited.

You just couldn’t wait?

Yeah. I was like, “I get to vote!”

Most people go and buy a lottery ticket, but you—

I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to become a member.”

Were your parents members?

No. I don’t think my mom votes ever, and my stepdad…I don’t know. And my real dad, he doesn’t vote.

So was there someone who got you interested?

I remember hearing about it on the TV, and my grandma is really in to politics. She helps out with the elections.

With the Green Party?

Just with Elections Canada.

Ah, at polling stations and such.

When I was younger she told me about all the parties, including the Green Party. And I was like, I really like that one. Ever since I was six. I was trying to convince everyone to vote Green.

For any particular reason? When you were six, I mean.

I really liked how they would talk about protecting the trees, and I remember being like, “I always want those to be there.”

Well, sure. When you’re that young—it’s not just politics—everything’s impulse-based. Your world is small.

Yeah.

A year and a half ago when Sam won and was the youngest-ever MPP—

That was amazing.

I just talked to him a half hour ago, and I told him that he was no longer the youngest candidate in this race. He said, “That’s good. I hope that all of the candidates are under thirty.” He said he’d heard that the NDP was going to nominate someone young.

Oh really? That would be so great.

Another thing he said to me once was that he has a lot of young people who come up to him and say, “Sam, I disagree with everything you stand for, but because you’re young I’ll vote for you, because I think we need more young people.” Is that something you can understand?

I think that you should be educated. You don’t want to just vote for someone because they’re young. Right, you should vote with someone because you believe them.

Or vote against someone just because they’re young.

You should vote for what you believe, because that’s what’s really going to make a change and a difference. If you believe that young people are going to change things, then vote young, I guess.

That is interesting. You hear that idea of youth representation a lot. I wonder about politics. Is it somehow different? If I got to the hospital I don’t really want a doctor who’s in training. If I have to be defended by a lawyer, I probably want the most experienced one. But politics is funny in a way. You want someone with experience, but at the same time there’s a sense that being around makes you jaded or cynical and unable to puncture through the status quo. What do you think about that?

It’s a hard part. It depends on the person and how dedicated they are. If they’re thinking about the best interests of the people, or if they’re thinking about their pocket. I really do think there’s a fine line there, but it’s hard. There’s so much stigma around politics. I hear young people talking about it all the time, like “Every politician is a liar.” It’s hard to fight that stigma.

What do people your age say when they find out you’re running?

Some of them say, “Wow, that’s amazing, how are you managing all this?”

Because you have a full-time job too? Where are you working?

I work at Parker Hannifin. I just got a job there a few weeks ago.

What do you do there?

I work on the carousels. It’s hard to explain, but I basically pull parts off of all these shelves, then put them in orders, and ship them out. And I just do that for eight hours a day.

Obviously the election hasn’t started yet, but after May ninth you’ll be out campaigning and door-knocking. Have you done any of that before?

No, never. I’m really excited to do that.

I campaigned very briefly. Before the first door, your heart leaps up into your throat. You feel like a beggar or something, like you’re intruding in someone’s life. Are you expecting resistance at first?

I’m kind of nervous about that, about how people will react. I’m always really nice to anyone that comes to my door, but I know that a lot of people aren’t. Interviews and pictures are weird too. I’m not used to all this attention, I guess. But it’s something to adjust to. It’s good.

It’s no secret that this riding is a pretty conservative riding. It’s been that way for a long time.

Absolutely.

Is that on your mind? That this is a tough spot to break in?

I’m hoping that the young people—my school, and their family and such—will hear me out, and take some time to listen to what we’re running for. Maybe that will change their mind. I know that, if your family is conservative, sometimes you just vote conservative. But there are some Green specks in the area. I’m feeling hopeful.

And there are going to be debates as well.

I think there’s going to be two. I hope that there are two—the first one is going to be a little bit rocky, but the second one, after I get used to it.

I watched some of Sam’s first debate and you could see the same thing. Now he’s had a year and half of speaking in the legislature, and he has the advantage of talking in front of people all of the time.

Yeah, he’s really good at it—I’ve seen him before.

Going back to the party—you mentioned that when you were six you were attracted to it because of nature, and wanting to stand for conservation. That’s probably the general perception of the Green Party, that it’s this one-trick pony. That’s the perception, but you have a comprehensive platform. Do you think you have to change the name to the [all-colours] party or something?

I don’t know if we should change it. We are getting more recognition now. People are starting to see, even the changes in the weather. This year’s been crazy. My flowers started blooming in my garden in November. And then the frost killed them. Global warming is happening. People are starting to realize it. In the younger generations, people are thinking that they want to conserve our land so their kids can maybe see a polar bear in its natural habitat.

One line that stuck out to me on the party website was something like, “We’re the only ones with a track record of taking climate change seriously. But now—I was looking at the Green Party platform, and at the Liberal platform, and the NDP platform, and even looking back at some of the Liberal policies— it seems as though they are all taking climate change seriously. Until Doug Ford threw his grenade in the ring, the PC party was taking climate change seriously. It seems as though the other parties of co-opted the foundational reason for the Green Party. Where’s the place of the Green Party in an environment where everyone’s taking climate change seriously.

[We’re] just the party of the people. Getting big money out of politics, and spreading it among the people that actually need it. I find that part of their policy really inspiring. They’re not in it for the money. They’re in it to make change in people’s lives who really need it. I don’t see a lot of other parties doing that. They just want to increase taxes, or decrease taxes. But it’s all pulling away from things low-income families need and want. [We] really support mental health issues, and that’s a huge thing right now, especially for young kids. Getting educated on that stuff, increasing funding for that, affordable housing would be great.

Do you think the Green Party takes those things more seriously than the NDP or the Liberals? Because, to be honest, I was looking at the NDP’s platform and comparing it to the Green’s platform, and it was pretty much the same thing with a different colour. One of the NDP’s big things is mental health. Then there’s affordable housing and health care. And of course action on climate change.

[It’s] whatever [party] people want to vote for more. Some people won’t vote Green just because they don’t want to waste their vote, but if the NDP’s doing the same thing and we’re still going to make a difference then that’s good too.

The role of the Green Party is almost advocacy in some way, even if the chances of forming government are low.

Yeah. Just inspiring other parties to change would be great.

That’s interesting. The purpose isn’t to win the election—it’s a different mindset.

Yeah.

Now, I know in 2014 a lot of the party’s resources were pushed into Guelph in the hopes of getting Mike Schreiner a seat. Is that something that’s going to be done this time around?

Yeah. I would like to see Mike in there. That would be amazing. He’s just so passionate about what he does, and he really just wants to make a difference.

One of the other common criticisms of the Green Party—and probably the same of the NDP—is that it’s easy to be critical when you’ve never had to actually wield power. When you’ve had to say, “Okay. We have limited resources. We have limited goodwill from the public. We have do either to this, or that, and we can’t do both.” Pre-1990 in Ontario the NDP may have been thinking one way, and then Bob Rae becomes Premier and he realizes that they have to make hard choices. And by the end of his tenure he’s hated by a lot of people. He’s hated by a lot of teachers for his Rae Days. He’s hated by the left wing of his party—Peter Kormos famously didn’t like him. Or even in a place like Alberta, where the NDP is very different, in some ways supportive of the oil and gas industry, by necessity.

Yeah.

I suppose what I mean to ask is, how much easier is it to make these sorts of critiques when you’re on the outside looking in?

The Green Party is all about being an honest party. If we can’t do something, we’re going to be honest about it. If it’s going to cost this much money, we’re going to be honest about it. And then people can vote to make that happen or not.

Do you think people want that honesty?

They’re going to get it. You need to be honest if you want things to happen. All these side deals that go on. It just causes problems. Not that people are always going to want it, but I think honesty is the best.

It’s tough when the news isn’t good. Back to the platform for a minute. For a number of elections, the Green Party has been pushing for proportional representation. I can’t remember the exact vote-share the Green Party got in 2014, was it five percent?

I think it was three.

So say it was three percent. And there are going to be 124 seats at Queen’s Park. So in this election that would give you four seats. I’m torn. I used to be a fan of it. On one hand, it allows these small parties to have a voice, and it allows the release of steam-pressure for extreme parties. You might have groups on the far right and far left without an outlet, or a chance at getting any seats, so they go underground, and something is gurgling down there and you don’t see it until it pops up in undesirable ways. Or you see a situation like the US, where there’s a two-party system and one party has been taken over by a wing of it and cannibalized the other. Proportional representation might fight against that. At the same time, it allows for that polarization, and allows for these extremes to have voices. In society I think that’s okay, but in the legislature it’s different—some places you have the balance of power in the hands of an extreme party. So as far as the risks go, where are you? How do you balance it?

I don’t know. I think that if we want true democracy I think we have to allow for it to happen. Yes, there is a power struggle, but making sure that everyone’s heard and in the final say, maybe it will help us work together and we won’t be such separate parties. Maybe we can share ideas.

More generally speaking about the election, I just came from a Doug Ford event in Welland. He has a rally in St. Catharines tonight. What are your thoughts on him?

I don’t know him personally…

Most people won’t, before voting.

That’s right. I think that…good luck to him and everything. I don’t want to say anything.

And Kathleen Wynne?

She is doing well.

As far as campaigning goes, are you going to have a lot of your friends volunteer for you?

Yeah. They’re very excited.

Are they surprised that you’re running? I guess if you joined on your eighteenth birthday, it couldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.

Well, I never thought I would run.

How did that happen?

They needed someone to run in this riding. The lady that I work for—her daughter usually runs, but she’s in Australia becoming a dentist. And they said, “Would you be interested?” I was like, “Wait? I can do that? I can run?” Of course I want to run. I went through all the paperwork, all the screenings I had to pass.

What was the screening like?

It was a lot of paperwork.

Did they have to fingerprint you?

No, no, just a background check and records and everything.

Yeah. In past elections there was that video of the candidate who was a contractor in someone’s house, and the old tweets from people. Nowadays with so much stuff on social media, you have to be careful. Especially young people. I’m not on it too much, but most people around our age are. They put so much on there that if you go through it, everyone will have something that they wouldn’t want getting out.

Actually, I’m not really on it that much either. The only reason I’m on them now is because the Green Party wanted me to get an account so I could talk to people. Other than that, I’m not really on anything. Instagram here and there, but I don’t post that much. I was pretty safe.

So you went through that screening, and you signed all the forms, and then what? Did you get a call from Mike Schreiner? Did you get to meet and go over the platform? It’s intimidating, I imagine. I read through the platform today, and I got the gist of it. But I just have to cherry-pick a few things to ask you about. I don’t have to answer questions on it. People can ask you about it at their doors.

Absolutely. I usually go over it for two hours every night, and take some points that I’m passionate about. On Mike’s tour we had lunch and he gave me some pointers. He’s a super nice guy. And then we went to Niagara and had the fireside chat. I didn’t really say much there…but a lot of other people did. It was a really great experience. I got to meet the other candidates running in Niagara.

Are the other candidates young too? Or is there a real mix?

It’s a mix. There’s a middle-aged guy, an older woman, and a younger guy. They’re really cool people. They really helped me out, giving me pointers.

What are the pointers? What are they telling you?

Just like, smile a lot.

The problem with smiling all the time is that eventually it becomes a grimace.

Yeah. Your cheeks start to hurt.

Smile a lot. What else?

Make sure that you talk about what you’re passionate about. And don’t get pressured by other people. If someone’s really grilling you, just let them. Just take it easy. Don’t get fired up.

So don’t fight fire with fire. Fight it with water?

Yeah.

I must imagine it’s overwhelming. Are you planning to go back to school?

I’m going to Brock in September. I’m on their varsity wrestling team—I’ve been training with them since Grade Twelve.

I did see that. You won…

Yeah, I won OFSAA. All of Ontario for the school board. And then I came third at nationals in Montreal this year, which was really cool. But I just started wrestling four years ago.

At the start of high school?

Yeah. So I’m still learning. But I’m excited.

What are you going to study?

Kinesiology.

And career path?

I think I want to be some sort of massage therapist, osteopath, or a chiropractor. Something like that.

Can you see yourself remaining involved in politics?

I think so. Even if it’s not running, even behind the scenes. They’ve really given me so much support that I’d want to give back.

Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you think is important?

No, I think we got it all.

Thanks for your time then.

Thank you.

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