How Elizabeth May, Canada’s Green MP, is changing Ottawa

 June 2011 — a month after the last federal election. In the scrum area of the House of Commons, media wait to cull quotes and sound bites from politicians still coming to terms with Canada’s shocking new order. After four tries, the Conservatives finally hold the majority. Liberals and Bloc Québécois have been decimated. For the first time in party history, the NDP can claim the title of Official Opposition, a bevy of kids in its ranks. In from the floor comes NDP leader Jack Layton, his back as proud and straight as the cane he’ll use until his death a couple of months later. Here’s Bob Rae, the Liberal Party’s interim leader, confused he isn’t boss; and the striding Peter MacKay, minister of national defence, waving away the press as he mounts the stairs out of bounds to them. And then the newcomer who could fairly be described as a piece of living history: Elizabeth May, the first Green Party MP Canadians have ever elected. Jubilant, effusive, she points to the single aide by her side. “Meet my cabinet,” she says.

If a statue is ever made of May, then it should be in this pose — arms filled, a loaded bag on one shoulder, the gaze pointed skyward because there are issues to be sorted and no time to be wasted, and a smile that is genuine because May’s fundamental decency will not be compromised, not even by Parliament. In the House, the campaign for civility the newcomer is formulating will demand that she take her seat should someone heckle, no matter how important the argument she is trying to make, just as in personal encounters May is approachable and sincere because otherwise there’s really no point in talking. She is the sort of indomitable and spirited outsider Hollywood loves to make movies about. An independent working with insufficient means to make the principled point of some impossible case.

In 2012, that impossible case was Canada — or at least the version of the country imperilled by the Conservative Party’s omnibus Bill C-38, the Jobs, Growth, and Long-Term Prosperity Act that prompted May, foremost among a broad coalition of opposition MPs, to raise alarms. In April of this year, when I visited May in her parliamentary offices, she had its 452 pages in hand and a look of urgency and astonishment on her face. The several interns and staff members squeezed into the two rooms worked around her, the door adjoining them open out of necessity.

“Stephen Harper poses a terrible threat to the Canada I love,” May declares. “Any Conservative I can defeat is a good thing for the country.”

The role of adversary comes naturally to May; turbulence, too. Born in 1954 in Hartford, Connecticut, to an English-born father and an American mother, both activists, she attended the prestigious Miss Porter’s girls’ school and was raised on a seven-acre farm with “forest and horses and pet ponies and sheep.” It was a life she remembers “idyllic,” at least until the war in Vietnam, her father’s disillusionment with American corporate culture, and her mother’s with chauvinism overpowered the couple. The family took a holiday in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the father was smitten. In 1972, they migrated to Margaree Harbour where they founded a restaurant and gift shop in a disabled schooner. Despite being popular, his folly did poorly enough to tumble them into poverty and May needed to quit Saint Francis Xavier University to help make ends meet.

“Nova Scotia was a great leveller,” says May. “It provided me not just the gift of identity but a total understanding of what it’s like to work on your feet seven days a week in a minimum-wage job — and so, a better ability to relate across income lines and experience.

“I expected to be a waitress all my life.”

Well, that was never likely. In 1975, aged 21, May campaigned successfully against the use of aerial insecticides in Nova Scotia. In 1980, still working as a waitress in the family restaurant, she founded the “Small Party” (its moniker a tribute to the British economist E.F. Schumacher, author of the seminal activist text Small Is Beautiful), running against the Conservative deputy prime minister Allan MacEachen in his Canso riding. May lost, taking a mere 272 votes, but the course was set and that same year she entered law school as a mature student. The law, says May “gave me a sense of rigour. I saw the law as a way to protect the environment, the people, the world. I was so impressed at what you could find if you really studied all the details.”

May, whose referee was a young Bill Clinton, recounts with a smile that her favourite professor, Graham Murray, “used to slam down on his table for emphasis — whack! — and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, develop the habit of thoroughness!'”

The law would come in handy in May’s fight for the rights of residents affected by the toxic tar ponds of Sydney, Nova Scotia, and in her tenure as the first executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, but winning a parliamentary seat would take three tries. Elected in 2006 as leader of the Green Party, she ran a failed campaign in the London, Ontario, by-election that same year, then contested Peter MacKay’s Central Nova riding in 2008. There May won more than a third of the vote, a respectable loss despite having been initially excluded from the party leaders’ national television debates.

It was not until May 2011 and the decision to run in Saanich-Gulf Islands that May ultimately won. “It was a result of a very, very studied effort — unlike all my personal decision-making,” she says, laughing. “I couldn’t get the party to support me in 2006. If I had, I might have won. There was no sense that ‘Oh, Elizabeth is running. Let’s put some money into it.’ And I would have loved if the Green Party had decided that it mattered to support my campaign in Central Nova, but that didn’t happen. What the party did in 2011 was to stop sabotaging me.”

Does she regret having won, not in Nova Scotia but in B.C.? The author of How to Save the World in Your Spare Time (2006) confesses to “a tinge of regret” — but delight at the way her British Columbian mandate has thrust her into the fulcrum of the environmental issues of the day. “Who would have thought that I would come to be the spokesperson on the Enbridge pipeline?” she asks. “A lot of the mantle of leadership on ecological issues has fallen to me, and given that they are the top issues in the country right now, I consider myself very, very fortunate.”

Those “top issues” were all touched by the omnibus Bill C-38 that May has dubbed the Conservatives’ “Environmental Destruction Act,” what with its drastic reduction of federal and provincial processes of review, the permission it provides the Prime Minister’s Office to override contrary decisions, and its alterations of the definition of protected species and other vital clauses. The fight against the act in which she would play such a role may well be regarded, in future years, as the defining moment of the fledgling MP’s early career. May leading the charge, the joint Liberal/NDP/Green opposition to C-38 tabled approximately 1,000 amendments (she proposed some 300 of them herself), compelling Speaker Andrew Scheer to scratch many and bundle the rest, resulting in 159 votes over a 24-hour marathon session of Parliament.

On June 14th, well into the morning of the 15th, opposition MPs recorded in the Twittersphere their string of ineluctable losses with a certain stoic triumphalism, one that recognized the importance of the moment. As Liberal MP Justin Trudeau Tweeted, “Every individual CPC MP is now personally accountable for every single heinous element of the Bill.”

May did not leave her seat for a single vote, Tweeting relentlessly. Says Trudeau: “She has shown that one individual MP can have an impact. She works incredibly hard, and takes Parliament and her role as a Parliamentarian seriously. Even in these times of rampant cynicism and extreme partisanship, she continues to believe in Parliament’s capacity to get it right.”

“Elizabeth May’s steadfast determination and likable personality make you almost want to root for her in the Commons,” says Tory backbencher John Williamson, “though as a government MP, I’d stress ‘almost.’ ” He criticizes her degree of comfort with the Liberal Party but concedes that “Her understanding of the budget rules and her willingness to use them — particularly on advancing amendment as a third party — was impressive. She held the government accountable and it’s a display I hope not to see again anytime soon.”

May’s Twittering is fuelled by her activist pedigree and her affinity with grassroots movements. In standings recorded by, she runs second only to Liberal MP Dennis Coderre for original Tweets and is top overall in general replies and replies to MPs. But tellingly, May doesn’t rate high in the Retweet category. This would suggest that most of the ideas May likes are her own — and, furthermore, that a lot of members don’t feel much need to engage with them. Such is the burden of the independent.

On the mid-August morning of the Green Party’s convention, May stands on the threshold of her Sidney constituency home. “They’re Tweeting that I own a 6,000-square-foot house!” she exclaims. “How ridiculous. Look at the size of it. Someone even Twittered to ask how many houses I own. I rent!”
The house in question is a modest bungalow with the sort of shabby yard that a kid with an imagination could lose herself in — a yard that understands it is loved but that cannot possibly be a priority in the full-steam-ahead, six-months-away life of a federal politician with meagre funding. Inside the house hangs a picture of May with Clinton, the same one that is in her Parliament office. The couch in the small front room has sheets piled on it, ready for a guest attending the convention.

“It’s a full house,” says May as she shuts Spunky, her Pomeranian, in the kitchen, moving to a stack of the Green Party’s most recent newsletter on the dining room table — the house is an extension of her office now. Her daughter and three stepchildren live elsewhere, but her maternal experience is germane. “In the face of runaway global warming,” she says, “I’m absolutely terrified by what the future holds for my children.” It takes a few tries before Spunky is safely in and May can step out the door and into the white Prius belonging to chief of staff Debra Eindiguer. (The lesson of Elizabeth May is that the good warrants several tries.)

The first business of the convention, where some 300 members of the Green Party of Canada and a few international delegates have gathered, is a meeting of the shadow cabinet. It begins with the 10 or so present introducing themselves, their briefs, and the number of times they’ve contested elections and lost — two, three, four times. May listens. The discussion is quickly bogged down with procedural questions and, though never hostile, there is certainly no fawning before the leader and single Green candidate to have won an election. May shrugs it off.

“All around the world,” says May, “the Green Party has a grassroots culture of resisting the idea of the leader as boss. It almost translates as an anti-leader culture. The leader is there as chief spokesperson but, without making it sound too harsh, the party has no tradition of putting the leader in a position superior to even the lowest person on staff.”

The Greens, she knows, need to alter this culture, both in their outward stance and within, if they’re to build upon their traditional support of about six percent of votes cast. It is also incumbent upon them to convince the public of their authority beyond ecological issues. Brian Brett, a Saanich-Gulf Islands resident and the author of the prize-winning 2009 memoir Trauma Farm, describes May as someone who is “finally bringing the Greens around to having solid policies on non-ecological issues, though the media is still ignoring her on those questions.” Ronald Wright, also a constituent and the author of A Short History of Progress, calls May “the most impressive party leader in Canada today.” He applauds, above all, her “tenacity in defending Canada’s democracy from dirty tricks, notably the dodging of confidence votes, the use of electoral fraud, and the abuse of omnibus bills.” Wright believes that “her ability to transcend political polarization has won her allies and supporters across the board, including Conservatives disturbed by this government’s extremism.”

During the shadow cabinet meeting, May leaned over and confided that author and urban and environmental activist Chris Turner would contest Calgary Centre in the coming by-election made necessary there by Conservative Lee Richardson’s resignation. (The Green Party is also running Donald Galloway in another upcoming by-election in Victoria). “I never had any intention of trying for public office,” says Turner, “and I’m pretty sure I never would have if it wasn’t for Elizabeth May. The turning point for me was Elizabeth’s election and particularly her heroic stand on Bill C-38. I can’t think of another moment in my lifetime where something that transpired in the House of Commons has been so inspirational.”

In the convention’s main hall, Arctic scientist John Streicker deftly navigates his way through motions about motions about motions and defuses a recurring confrontation between a tall young delegate from Toronto, dressed head-to-toe in black, striving to overturn a proposal to reverse the party’s position on the seal hunt and another, somewhat older, wrapped in a Newfoundland flag. At a meet-and-greet for the party’s youth wing held earlier, a handful of university grads had thanked elder party members for donations that helped pay their way to attend. The event lasted perhaps 10 minutes, cut short by a frustrated elder with a Dutch accent asking how it is that so much enthusiasm for Green issues exists at universities yet so few young people are in the room. The handful of youth drifted out without reply, past tables for Fair Vote Canada and Campus Greens, and others selling biodegradable soaps, oils, candles, dried fruits, and books with titles such as What Would Gandhi Do? and A Season of Non-Violence.

The party needs the bedrock of young members for continuity. (May credits her own daughter, Victoria Cate, someone “quite disenchanted with politics but still very political — an activist,” for having pointed out that the Green Party had no youth wing. May promptly instituted one.) Eindiguer, however, worries that they’re hard to keep. “We put all this energy into recruiting youth at universities, and then after a couple of years they move on and we have to do the same thing again.”

“Speak to Ghaith El-Mohtar,” May says. “He was the first Ottawa intern we hired, and he’s really special.”

When I find El-Mohtar, now male co-chair of the Young Greens’ Council, he is standing by the doors to the hall, and we move to a bench outside to speak. May’s electoral victory, he says, came “at a time of despair for the party. She kept it alive and opened a lot of doors for us.” I enquire after his own reasons for joining the Greens and he says, “There are a few. A general dissatisfaction with the other parties, there not being enough done about climate change — and because UN laws should be respected.”

“What UN laws are those?”

“The right of return and a solution to Israel-Palestine along pre-’67 borders. The Zionist lobby has too much of a say in the other parties.”

Clearly, there is work to be done. Serious judgment will come in the 2015 election when May will be fighting for herself but also the standing of her party. So she continues the local work that a constituency-minded MP must attend to, even in the face of the imperatives of Ottawa.

“I am convinced that being constantly fixated on partisan advantage is tearing the heart out of our country,” says May. “If we believe in restoring Canadian democracy, then we know that MPs are accountable to Canadians at large but must be primarily to people in their community.”

And then, “My number one priority is my riding.”

The modus operandi of May’s family, tested over generations, serves her well. Pay attention to the small. The large will follow.

Noah Richler is a Toronto-based writer and a 2012 nominee for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his book What We Talk About When We Talk About War