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Captiongate: How a Single Zoom Call Propelled Canada’s Greens Into Pronoun Meltdown

Amita Kuttner claimed that online text reading ‘she’ instead of ‘they’ illustrated a ‘system of oppression.‘ Now the party’s president has resigned, and the movement is in chaos.

· 7 min read
Captiongate: How a Single Zoom Call Propelled Canada’s Greens Into Pronoun Meltdown
Green Party of Canada leader Amita Kuttner, who self-describes as non-binary, transgender, and pansexual, appears on a public September 3rd Zoom call.

Green parties have become a significant political force in many Western nations and sub-national jurisdictions. While “Green”-branded platforms vary from one part of the world to the next, they all typically draw in heterodox left-of-centre political figures who trumpet ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, and social justice through non-violent means. In some nations, such as Finland, Germany, Ireland, and Austria, Greens have gained cabinet representation and membership in ruling coalitions. In Latvia, Green politicians have even served as prime minister and head of state.

One might think that Canada, a country whose progressive ranks have long exhibited strong environmentalist tendencies, would feature prominently in the Green movement. But that’s not the case, in large part because Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it difficult for small parties to gain parliamentary representation unless they focus their appeal along narrow regional lines (as the Bloc Québécois has done in French-speaking Quebec since the early 1990s). Out of 338 Members of Parliament, Canada’s Greens have never had more than three MPs. They currently have two. And, for reasons described below, that number may soon be zero.

Another problem for the Greens has been leadership. From 2006 to 2019, the Green Party of Canada was led by a former environmental lawyer and Sierra Club Canada director named Elizabeth May—an affable but occasionally bumbling figure who’s made a number of front-page gaffes. In 2011, she promoted pseudo-scientific theories to the effect that WiFi internet signals might give people cancer and kill “pollinating insects.” The party has been home to anti-fluoridation activists, as well as proponents of crackpot Russian theories about “abiogenic oil.” A 2013 draft version of the party’s platform called for government-subsidized homeopathy. Two years after that, an apparently drunken May stood up at Ottawa’s annual Press Gallery dinner and delivered a bizarre homage to a returning Guantanamo prisoner named Omar Khadr, whom she said had “more class” than the national government’s “whole fucking cabinet.” In the 2019 federal election, May played to Range Rover environmentalists with sanctimonious boasts about how she always used a reusable coffee cup, metal straw, and “my own bamboo utensils” as a means to avoid using disposable products—but then blamed her staff when it was discovered that a photo of her holding a single-use cup had been edited to make it look as if she were holding the reusable variety.

Many grumbled that May was too slow to give up her leadership perch. Yet when she finally did step aside in 2019, the party learned that she’d been the only thing holding the outfit together. By the time the 2021 federal election rolled around, the Greens’ leader was a black Jewish woman named Annamie Paul, who got absolutely trounced in her own riding, winning fewer than 4,000 votes. Paul was then quickly run out of the party leadership during a complicated (and often farcical) internecine battle that involved public accusations of bigotry hurled in all directions, and which (predictably) repelled many of the party’s financial supporters.

One might think things couldn’t get any worse for the Greens. But, thanks to the installation of a 30-year-old interim leader named Amita Kuttner, they very much did.

Kuttner self-describes as non-binary, transgender, and pansexual. When asked, “What are your preferred pronouns?” in a 2019 interview, the one-time astrophysicist replied, “they/them,” but then elaborated as follows:

When I write my pronouns, I sometimes write all of them: they/them, she/her, he/him, because I don’t care. There will be days where I’m not always even aware of what my gender is, and I will notice it based on how someone addresses me and whether I respond. I was in choir for many years, and they’d say, “women sing now,” “men sing now.” And I would find myself starting with one or the other group, even though I was obviously supposed to sing soprano. I’d be like, “Oh, I guess I’m feeling that today.”

And yet, despite the fact Kuttner apparently can’t always figure out “what my gender is,” and claims not to “care” in any case, the interim leader felt the need to issue a lengthy statement on September 6th detailing the allegedly devastating emotional effects that ensued when the pronoun descriptor “she/elle” appeared in the electronic caption that sat alongside Kuttner’s name during a Green Party of Canada Zoom call, instead of the Kuttner-approved “they/he/ille.” Indeed, Kuttner described the ordeal as evidence that the Greens were infected by a “system of oppression”:

What happened here impacted me much more than a slip of the tongue. It made me feel hurt and isolated at a moment that should have been filled with inspiration and anticipation … This incident is reflective of a larger pattern of behaviours that a few in the party are perpetuating. Over the years, the party has documented reports which indicate a systemic issue disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, and racialized people and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, and I hope many more stories will be able to be shared so that this incident can be a catalyst for change … When things like this happen, people need to see those in leadership positions take some accountability, acknowledge how they have added to this system of oppression and what they must do to break the cycle.

Kuttner’s attempt to weaponize this (apparently very oppressive) instance of miscaptioning forms part of an ongoing civil war that’s been playing out for weeks within the Green leadership. That battle goes to the question of whether the party should proceed with its ongoing party leadership race, or pause it so that Green functionaries can investigate all of the (vaguely expressed) accusations of antisemitism, racism, and transphobia that were flung in every direction during the tumultuous last days of the Annamie Paul era back in 2021.

On one side of this battle are the party’s leadership contestants, along with interim leader Kuttner, who’ve urged that the leadership race go ahead as planned. On the other side are members of the party’s Federal Council, who’ve urged that the race be paused. On September 9th, Krystal Brooks, the Ontario Representative on council, resigned her office (though she’s since changed her mind, apparently), authoring a J’accuse-style manifesto in which she alleged that council members had been inappropriately pressured to vote in favour of keeping to the current schedule. Most explosively, Brooks alleged that the Green Party’s only two MPs had threatened to abandon the party, and sit as Parliamentary independents, if they didn’t get their way. Making this even more explosive is the fact that one of these two MPs is none other than Elizabeth May herself, who—in another weird only-in-Green-Land plot twist—now says she wants to lead the party again.

May also put her name to a dramatically worded group statement expressing “solidarity” for Kuttner, and declaring (somewhat ominously) that Captiongate was “but the latest in a number of similar behavioural patterns.” Altogether, four of the six Green Party of Canada leadership contestants signed that letter, including Jonathan Pedneault, a self-described “queer person of colour” seeking to become May’s “co-leader.” He solemnly denounced the incident as a symptom of “ignorance and hate”—and just to remind everyone, we are talking here about an incorrect Zoom caption—while promising to “prioritize a safe and inclusive space for all.”

Another party official who resigned (this resignation hasn’t been rescinded yet) is Green Party president Lorraine Rekmans. Compared to Brooks, Rekmans was more precise with her critique, scathingly describing the Greens’ back office as being under siege by Kuttner and the party’s leadership contestants. Speaking with the CBC, Rekmans explicitly accused this group of using Captiongate to demean Rekmans and force her out of the party.

It’s notable that Rekmans was the party’s first Indigenous president. Brooks, too, is Indigenous. And in a country whose progressive class still describes “reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples as its most morally urgent objective, that should count for something. But Kuttner has instead put pronouns on top of the Green agenda. And in this astrophysicist’s claims of caption-induced trauma, the leadership-contestant faction seems to have found a single cosmic trump card that, in this surreal Green game of intersectional poker, bests even a pair of Indigenous females.

Those who’ve followed the general pattern by which pronoun politics tear progressive organizations apart will note that something similar has been happening in the UK. And just two years ago, the leader of an even smaller Canadian Green-style party, British Columbia’s Ecosocialists, was forced to resign when it was discovered that he’d (properly) defended J.K. Rowling from claims of transphobia. (Quillette readers may recognize his name.) In that case, too, the entire furor was largely sparked by a single gender activist—a trans woman named Nicola Spurling best known for once claiming that Rowling “couldn’t be trusted around children” (a claim that Spurling backed away from once Rowling threatened legal action).

Is this kind of dogmatic attachment to avant-garde gender dogmas reflective of what rank-and-file Green (or Ecosocialist) voters really want—or just a fixation of tiny activist cliques? It so happens that there’s a natural experiment that allows us to answer this very question—thanks to none other than Amita Kuttner.

You see, after I’d tweeted out some cheeky commentary about the Greens’ pronoun fixation a few days back, Kuttner tried to seize on my tweets as a fundraising opportunity. The interim Green leader christened the campaign, Let’s Platform Anti-Oppression, and sought to raise $68,321, one dollar “to counter each of Jonathan Kay’s followers on Twitter.”

It’s a 12-day fundraising campaign that started a week ago. As of this writing, Kuttner has raised exactly $249.83. And $10 of that is from me.

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is a Quillette editor, podcaster, and advisor to The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. His books include Among the Truthers, Legacy, Panics & Persecutions, and Magic in the Dark.

On Instagram @quillette