The Green Party’s Elizabeth May went to Ottawa to champion environmental issues. Now the country’s hardest-working politician is out to rescue the democratic process
Our scheduled forty-five-minute interview has stretched well past an hour, but Elizabeth May still has plenty to say. She launches into an answer, veers onto a different thought, sidesteps into another story, and just when I think she has lost the thread she grabs it and pulls it into a firmly knotted conclusion. Democracy, climate change, family, religion: we have covered a great deal of ground by the time her legislative assistant, Paul Noble, knocks on the door of the boardroom, two floors below her suite of offices in the Confederation Building, just west of Parliament Hill. Noble tells May that the Liberals won’t field anyone in the House of Commons today to speak to C-7, the Senate reform bill. If the New Democrats don’t fill their time either, and if she hustles over to the House, she could score a ten-minute speaking slot to address the Conservatives’ proposed reforms. Calling for a nine-year, non-renewable term limit for senators and an optional nominee selection process, the proposals fall short of the Green Party’s demand for an elected Senate, and May’s personal position that the legislative body should be abolished altogether.
May fires off instructions, asking Noble to dig up C-7 material, to click off her laptop but not close the lid until the lights are off, and to grab her green briefcase and her coat and come back in fifteen minutes. She manages to work in a please and thank you, but when the door shuts behind him she says, “This is how I talk to people; it’s terrible. I have to be very, very concise to save time.” At the appointed minute, Noble returns and they’re off, hopping onto a green minibus that shuttles MPs and political staffers between outlying office buildings and Parliament Hill. May clutches her coffee mug and calls out cheery greetings to fellow passengers from her seat near the front, while Noble perches near the back with her briefcase.
It’s a short ride to Centre Block. After quickly smoothing her hair and straightening her green jacket, which is adorned with an Officer of the Order of Canada pin, the fifty-seven-year-old Member of Parliament for Saanich–Gulf Islands, British Columbia, slips into the House of Commons, desk 309, up against the gold curtains in the back row. Parliamentary expert and Queen’s University professor emeritus Ned Franks once described the House as being much like the country it serves, “a vast sparsely populated tract dotted with isolated human settlements.” That image resonates this morning. May is stationed farthest from the Speaker, on the Opposition side, alongside the remains of the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. Beyond her, the near-empty chamber is a study in perpetual slow motion. MPs drift in, address the House, chat with their seatmates, and then disappear. High above, the public galleries empty and refill, as late-November tourists wander through.
While she remains intent on the papers in front of her, her frequent glances at the Speaker make it clear she is listening. Being the Green Party leader doesn’t mean much without official party status. That would entitle her to a slate of privileges, including a research budget and automatic membership on committees. As it stands, she has equivalent status to an independent, limited by tightly prescribed protocols that govern, among other things, who speaks, in what order, and for how long. She can claim only one question per week during question period, the final slot. She comes last in the speech rotation when legislation is debated, sharing the spot with the four Bloc MPs.
Yet a particular freedom comes with being a lone Green. “I’m one of the few MPs who never has a prepared text for everything I do, because I don’t have a bunch of people telling me what I have to say,” she says. Blessed with an ability to absorb and retain large amounts of information, the former environmental lawyer and activist can pull complete speeches out of her head. “Without sounding arrogant,” she says, “I’m good on my feet.”
She also draws from her five years as the party leader without a seat, when she was a spectator in the House watching MPs’ often rambling speeches. That’s why she has a digital timer on her desk; what’s more, she keeps her voice pitched low. “When women raise their voices to be heard over the noise, they sound hysterical,” she says. “It’s a sexist world. If you lose control over your lower register, you’re going to be seen as a nut.” That attention to detail has paid off. Last September, when she was allotted less time than anticipated to address C-10, the omnibus crime bill that bundled Criminal Code amendments with a new act for victims of terrorism, she had to distill ten minutes’ worth of her argument against the amendments into two. She did it on the fly, in measured tones, without the Speaker having to cut her off.
A small victory, perhaps, but in politics form matters as much as substance, and since she is a House outlier her credibility—and that of her mission—depends on getting both right. Something is emanating from Ottawa these days, contributing to a sense that the way politics is practised is slightly off kilter. Blame it on hyper-partisanship left over from more than five years of minority governments. Attribute it to a governing party in a hurry to put its stamp on the country, testing the edge of power at the very same time as the Opposition parties, grappling with leadership and identity crises, are slamming up against their limitations. In May’s view, the parliamentary system’s integrity is being undermined by those who short-circuit its rules, and she has undertaken to defend it. It is an admirable quest; whether it is also futile remains unclear. In the meantime, she has by necessity recalibrated traditional measures of political achievement, such as policies developed and bills passed. While her party’s platform champions big ideas, including a fiscally responsible green economy and empowered citizens, in the day-to-day she works hard just to be heard.
On this day, she inserts herself into the debate whenever the Speaker gives her the nod. She weighs in on proposed amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, and comments on a question of privilege raised by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler about phone calls made to his constituents claiming that he was resigning. (As it turns out, the Conservative Party initiated those calls in Cotler’s coveted Mount Royal riding in Montreal.) May’s concern about such tactics will later be quoted in a Postmedia News article. When her slot in the speech rotation finally opens up at day’s end, the House has moved on from Senate reform. So much for all her preparations. Instead, she delivers a speech about Bill C-11, the Copyright Modernization Act. She’s for it, but with reservations about “digital locks,” or protection measures, which she feels go too far.
While she’s in the House, Noble functions as her eyes and ears on the outside, feeding information to her BlackBerry, ensuring she has what she needs should she be given the floor. In this case, over the space of approximately ten hours, she logs one speech, five questions, one remark on a question of privilege, and one quote published in the mainstream media. This is how success is measured when you’re a party of one in a majority government House. By that standard, Elizabeth May has had a very productive day.
Nicknamed “the intern hatchery,” because of the number and relative youth of her staff, the suite assigned to May holds eight desks in a space meant for three. Only the large windows and high ceilings save it from taking on the air of a graduate student lounge. Her photos, many from her earlier activist days, dot the walls: there she is with Gordon Lightfoot in Brazil in 1989, protesting the Xingú River dam; and in another, several months later, next to Sting, whom she met at the Xingú protest. A folded wheelchair jammed up against the far end of the room, and her deliberate gait, are the only visible signs of her recent hip replacement surgery.
May lobbied to get into this historic Gothic revival edifice. Built in the early twentieth century, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court, the Confederation Building has long housed MPs and cabinet ministers. “Strategically, as leader of the Green Party and the first elected Green in Parliament, I didn’t want to be in a renovated bank building,” she says. “I wanted to be on Parliament Hill, in a building that screams out at you, this is Parliament!”
The symbols are significant. I ask about the Canadian and Planet Earth flags out in the hallway, flanking her office door. “All leaders and cabinet ministers are allowed to have flags outside their offices,” says May’s chief of staff, Debra Eindiguer. “It was important to us to assert Elizabeth as the leader of the Green Party of Canada and not an independent.” They are also after a brass Leader of the Green Party nameplate, she adds, to replace the standard-issue “May, Elizabeth” card affixed to the wall above the door.
After two unsuccessful election campaigns in 2006 and 2008, May’s 2011 victory kept her and the Greens in the game. Despite a platform designed to prove they were more than a single-issue party (it featured deficit reduction measures, for example, and a national affordable housing strategy), they lost more than a third of their 940,000 supporters. Focused on her own riding, May curtailed the national leader’s tour that had contributed to the party’s popular support in 2008. That, coupled with her being barred from the leaders’ debates, stalled the Greens’ momentum. Now their immediate challenge is money. In three years, the per vote subsidy that has funnelled nearly $12 million into their coffers since 2004 will dry up. May is their biggest asset, and trading on her parliamentary profile is crucial to their survival.
Their hopes that she could play a key role in some sort of ruling progressive coalition were dashed, however, when the succession of turbulent minority governments ended abruptly in 2011, ceding to a majority House ruled by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, which hit May with a double blow. She made no secret of her displeasure when Harper became prime minister six years ago, largely because he made no secret of his disregard for the Kyoto Protocol limits on greenhouse gas emissions. At the time, she called him “the Canadian version of George Bush,” and then left her job as the Sierra Club Canada’s executive director to lead the Green Party and face him in the political realm.
Her misgivings about Harper have grown to include the view that his governing style endangers Canadian democracy. His government’s control over information and parliamentary process was laid bare in its failure in 2010 to release documents requested by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, triggering a contempt of Parliament finding and, ultimately, the latest federal election. The government has since used its majority muscle to speed legislation through the House at an unprecedented rate. It has signalled its intent on the environmental front by championing projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline; in an open letter to Canadians, it has served notice on “environmental and other radical groups” with “ideological” agendas to block the expansion of Canada’s energy markets; and it has announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.
These moves strike at the heart of May’s agenda, and she aims to carve out parliamentary space from which to mount resistance. For starters, she believes civility can be established as a tipping point in the practice of politics. Heckling “tunes people out of their democracy,” she says, and if MPs behave more respectfully, Canadians might tune back in. It’s a long shot, and idealistic. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, who views May through the experienced lens of his years as a parliamentarian, says civility is “a nice thought.” But in the face of an implacable government, “it’s hard not to throw snowballs at the car,” he says. “There’s a sense that it’s one of the things you have to do in order to get any attention. Now, Elizabeth doesn’t do that, but she has relatively few interventions that she can make in the House.”
Limited as she is, if it really is possible to reverse voter disengagement and advance political accountability, one polite and well-delivered House speech at a time, well, that’s what May is prepared to do. Never mind that substantive and sustained cross-party co-operation will prove difficult to achieve, with the New Democrats intent on retaining their ground, the Liberals focused on reclaiming what they have lost, and the desires of Canadian voters difficult to predict. As for full-blown electoral reform—beyond tinkering with the Senate and passing Bill C-20 to add seats in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario while maintaining Quebec’s seat proportion—the Conservatives show no sign of wanting to push it forward. Overhauling Canada’s first past the post system remains as distant a dream here as in Britain, where a preferential voting system was rejected last spring.
May was born and raised in Connecticut. Her brother, Geoffrey May, who is two years her junior and shares her activist bent, describes a politically charged household where humour was a highly valued family currency, along with an equal dose of passionate engagement. The siblings were shaped by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement. They were taught, Geoffrey says, “that there was a war going on, the war between good and evil. And there are no non-combatants.” Elizabeth, a precocious child, wasn’t afraid of sharing her opinions. She was a straight-A student, who was labelled a goody two-shoes. “You couldn’t get away with a damn thing with Elizabeth,” Geoffrey says. She gave him a hard time about his environmentally unfriendly habits, such as playing an electric guitar rather than an acoustic one.
Their American-born, British-raised father, a kind and methodical man, worked as an insurance company executive, while their spirited American mother, who died in 2003, served as a high-profile activist and the defining influence on May’s life. “I was raised to be extremely productive,” May recalls. “That was how my mom would put it; she’d say, ‘I had a very productive day.’ ”
When Elizabeth was eighteen, her family moved to tiny Margaree Harbour, Nova Scotia—an impulsive compromise between her father, who wanted out of the US, and her mother, who didn’t want to live in England. Though they had no business experience, they opened a restaurant on the Cabot Trail, prompting Elizabeth to take a correspondence course in restaurant management. It was the early 1970s, and the environmental movement was nascent. While she waitressed and cooked to keep the struggling restaurant afloat, she proved her activist mettle in high-profile battles against spraying programs in the province, first taking on aerial pesticides and then Agent Orange.
She landed in law school as a mature student at the age of twenty-six. Later, she moved to Ottawa, where she spent two years as a special policy adviser for then environment minister Tom McMillan under the Mulroney government, and was a key player in the deal that established a national park on BC’s South Moresby Islands. Later, she accepted the founding executive director position with the Sierra Club Canada.
From the beginning, she had a knack for attracting headlines. In 2001, frustrated with the lack of progress on the toxic Sydney tar ponds in Cape Breton, she staged a seventeen-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill, pressuring the federal government to relocate residents. John Bennett, who now fills her old post at the Sierra Club, calls her approach “air campaign” tactics. She first interviewed him for a policy job in 1998, on a train between Kingston and Ottawa—and that, he says, was the first and last time he had the multi-tasking May’s full attention. She asked him about his theory of media. “I’ve been interviewed for a lot of environmental jobs, and nobody ever asked me that,” he says. “Nobody ever recognized that part of what we do is understanding the media and knowing how to work it.” His answer? “I believe in opportunity.” It earned him a smile from May, and ultimately the position.
Despite her ability to work the press, she has made her share of media missteps. During the federal election in 2008, her views about the need to forestall a Harper victory ignited a strategic voting controversy. “I’d rather have no Green seats and Stephen Harper lose, than a full caucus that stares across the floor at Stephen Harper as prime minister, because his policies are too dangerous,” she told the Toronto Star. Later, she explained that she wasn’t calling for strategic voting, but simply expressing a deep concern that Harper would benefit from a split vote on the left. But some Green Party members didn’t buy it, and attributed their negligible electoral gains to her comments.
Last summer, a tweet she wrote about possible health risks from electromagnetic frequencies (“So glad I don’t have Wi-Fi at home”) set off a Twitter debate that spilled into the mainstream media and dragged on for days. One of the more polite responses sneered, “Don’t the Greens have bigger/less ridiculous fish to fry.” The discussion unfolded too quickly for May’s twenty-year-old daughter, Victoria Cate May Burton (who often gives her mother feedback) to weigh in. “In terms of the way it gets spun in the media, which is totally outside her control, she looks like a left-wing nutbar who just follows pseudo-science,” says May Burton. “I get frustrated, because I think she shouldn’t put herself in a position where it’s obvious she’s going to get painted that way.”
May Burton (whose father is May’s former partner Ian Burton, an international climate change scientist) weighs her words carefully. She says her mother sometimes talks so freely that she risks being misinterpreted. “A good chunk of people, from what I’ve heard, view her as being extremely self-promoting, radical, or just having ulterior motives behind her work,” she says. “And that comes with people not being able to understand how anyone would be so intense and so self-sacrificing about working for a cause that’s beyond themselves.”
May’s quixotic parliamentary mission began on a positive note at the end of a long day in June 2011, when MPs gathered in the House for the first time after the election. Newly elected Speaker Andrew Scheer stepped outside tradition and recognized her, along with the Bloc and other party leaders. She stood up to call for greater decorum and respect. Her pledge—that her “entire caucus will not heckle”—earned laughs and applause, and some MPs (mainly on the Opposition side) even rose to their feet. Tradition also gave way last fall, when she was permitted to pay her respects, alongside other leaders, to late NDP leader Jack Layton.
But on similar ceremonial occasions, her fellow MPs shut her out, seemingly just because the rules said they could. Shortly before Remembrance Day, a handful of MPs honoured Canadian veterans with short speeches in the House. Some Conservative members withheld the unanimous consent that would have allowed her to join in. She was denied consent again this past February when MPs gave short speeches in tribute to Václav Havel, the late Czech Republic president. Behind the scenes, she experienced a smaller but no less symbolic snub: the NDP refused to allow her and the Bloc MPs a place to sit in the room adjacent to the chamber reserved for Opposition members, a tradition-steeped space where they can work, hold meetings, and yet remain close to the House in the event of a vote. Bob Rae says the NDP, newly installed as the Official Opposition, was acting “particularly triumphalist,” and behaving like “alpha dogs.” He donated three Liberal chairs, which now sit up against the wall, not far from the coat rack at the entrance.
May’s political footprint is in many respects smaller than her former activist one. She can only speak at committees if the members unanimously agree—not something she can count on. In her view, the Conservatives are running committees “as though they’re a branch of the Harper government,” hence her preoccupation with House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition (2009). “That was my first impulse,” she says, “to make sure that I dove into those rules and used my rights and powers as an individual Member of Parliament to their utmost.” The government, she adds, “is only reined in by people who understand what Parliament is supposed to be.” It comes as no surprise that the goody two-shoes of yore has become the parliamentary hall monitor, a stickler for the rules in the interests of keeping the process honest.
She zeroed in on two standing order rules: the first forbids one MP from interrupting another except on points of order, and the second bars them from using offensive words against each other. “So these two standing rules, if observed, would mean that you didn’t have any heckling in the House of Commons,” she says. She also noted a provision that accords certain MPs the right to submit amendments to legislation at the report stage, which means that although her participation on committees may be blocked, the entire House must consider her proposals. Still, there are detailed rules governing what sorts of amendments are permissible and when they must be filed, and much depends on the pace at which proposed bills move through the committee process.
To track committees, she deploys a team of interns. At a weekly staff meeting in November, she looks around at her charges. “What are you seeing in terms of either trends or flashpoint moments that don’t get reported in Hansard? ” she asks. “Anything, local colour. Colour commentary on committees—that’s what I want.” A dozen pairs of eyes fasten expectantly on May, who sits at the head of the boardroom table with two BlackBerrys going, as well as a daybook for handwritten notes. She scans the young students before settling on her one seasoned volunteer, a former Green candidate from Toronto: “Okay, Ellen, you go first.”
May turns back to her BlackBerrys and notebook as the interns work their way around the table: Ellen, Joshua, Lindsay, Jenny, Emma. An hour in, they get to Jesse, a full-time staff member who has been following the justice committee and C-10, the omnibus crime bill, which has two parts: a Victims of Terrorism Act, and Criminal Code amendments; May primarily objects to mandatory minimum sentencing provisions in the latter. It suddenly strikes her that she might be out of town, maybe even out of the country, when the bill reaches the report stage. “C-10 is such a nightmare, because we’re going to have a ton of amendments,” she says. “And I can’t present them unless I’m physically there.”
She muses aloud: Cancel her appearance at the Green Party fundraiser in Toronto? Forget about attending the climate change talks in Durban, South Africa? The interns sit silently. The sound of traffic on Wellington Street bleeds in through the windows. Only Debra Eindiguer, who has worked for May since her Sierra Club days, seems unfazed at the prospect of ripping up the schedule. With nine years under her belt, she is May’s longest-serving staffer, probably in part, she says, because she can handle the pace May sets. As she put it to me, “Sometimes, working with Elizabeth, I feel as if I’m working in an emergency room.”
May has seized every opportunity to assert herself and the rules of the House. Early on, the Conservatives needed unanimous consent to deviate from procedure and fast-track Bill C-2, the mega-trials legislation designed to streamline the court process in cases involving multiple defendants. The bill was prompted by the releases of alleged gang members in Quebec, amid concerns of undue trial delays. According to the rules, all MPs present in the House must consent when a procedural change such as fast tracking is proposed. May served notice that she would hold out, because in her view the bill needed to be studied in depth, and she made her eventual support contingent on sending it to the justice committee for review.
When members agreed to let her speak at committee, she asked that they consider rethinking such issues as the handling of mistrials. The resulting exchange, involving Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth and May, proved illuminating. “I find this very egregious that we have an observer who is making a suggestion that we should revisit decisions we’ve just made,” he told the committee chair. “Quite frankly, if that’s what’s going to happen, you’re not going to be getting my consent to hear from Ms. May very often.” Her comeback? “I think I knew that.” Moments later, the brief meeting was adjourned, and the bill received royal assent five days later. The Conservatives had made their point: the rules ultimately support the majority. She had made hers: even in a majority, the rules should champion measured consideration of proposed legislation.
She took her next stand on Libya, when the motion to extend Canada’s mission was put before the House. She could not support it, she explained, because the goal should be the protection of civilian life through diplomacy, not military means. “We have a role within NATO to be the nation that stands and says, enough of the aerial bombardment; now is the time to send in the diplomats,” she argued. In the end, all parties voted to extend the mission—except May, on behalf of the Greens, who robbed the government of the chance to announce that Parliament had presented a united front. Was this a bid to grab headlines, as defence minister Peter MacKay suggested in a subsequent news report? “Gosh, no,” she responded. “It was principled and had nothing to do with headlines.” Rae didn’t agree with May’s views on the Libya mission but says he admires her feistiness. “Sometimes she’s a bit too self-righteous, but that’s part of her theological makeup; she can’t help it,” he says. “The thing about why she aggravates some people is, she’s entirely her own person. She’s not afraid to be the one person out of 308 to vote a different way.”
She joined the NDP-led filibuster over Bill C-6, the legislation that ordered striking Canada Post employees to return to work, logging two speeches that called for greater political co-operation to end the deadlock. Thirty-one hours into the filibuster, she implored her bleary-eyed colleagues to “surprise the people of Canada by having the members of the Forty-First Parliament act differently.” After two days, the NDP ended its procedural protest, the bill was passed, and the postal workers were back on the job, with a lower settlement than the one stipulated in the original final offer—another lost battle, but another clear and public signal that she would not slip quietly into Opposition backbench oblivion.
During the first sixty-eight days when the MPs were in the House after the election, she spoke 165 times. She raised about a dozen issues in question period, made ten speeches, and brought up another ten points of order or questions of privilege. The rest were questions or comments following other MPs’ speeches about proposed legislation. Heckling still occurs, and neither her votes nor her proposed amendments on various bills have changed any outcomes. But she is holding the House and its members to account. As a parliamentarian, that may be the best she can hope for. The question remains: is it enough?
Back when the Conservative Party was still trying to edge into power, it promoted parliamentary reforms designed to give individual MPs more heft. Its 2006 platform promised to allow free votes on all matters except budget items; and to enable committees to review departmental spending estimates, with the aim of making ministers accountable. Political scientist Jennifer Smith of Dalhousie University in Halifax explored such populist reforms in a 2009 treatise, “Parliamentary Democracy versus Faux Populist Democracy,” concluding that they concurred with Canada’s system of responsible government and could actually enhance it. Yet those 2006 promises were nowhere to be found in the Conservatives’ subsequent platforms.
The House operations and estimates committee recently began studying ways to give MPs more power, to make the government accountable for spending. But absent broader reforms, May’s effectiveness rests on her ability to bridge parliamentary rules with public engagement over specific issues. One of her first opportunities came on the climate change file. Hours after returning from the Durban talks in December 2011, environment minister Peter Kent made official what had been rumoured for weeks: Canada would formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the Conservatives would support creating a new international climate change treaty by 2015 at the earliest.
May used her question period slot that day to ask the Conservatives to remain committed to Kyoto, or at least to allow debate about it. The next day, she rose during statements from members, the daily opportunity for MPs to make one-minute remarks on any topic, to ask again that Canada not abandon Kyoto. The day after that, she presented a petition that called for a renewed commitment to the environmental targets. All the while, she conducted a steady stream of media interviews, urging Canadians to mobilize against the government decision. “Don’t give up,” she implored. “Get up and fight.”
Some 7,000 Canadians responded over four months by signing an online Green petition that called on the government to keep Kyoto—not a groundswell, by any means, but the campaign formed a bracing combination of May’s environmental activism and her political role. Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, for one, believes the integration of advocacy and activism into the parliamentary process is crucial. “For too long, many advocates and activists have almost given up on Parliament and government,” she says. May’s presence in the House serves as a reminder that Parliament has a responsibility to hold the government accountable on all issues.
It could be that May’s ultimate raison d’être will be her role as a parliamentary canary in the coal mine. If a model public servant like May—smart, civil, engaged, committed—sits in the House all day with her procedural rule book and binders of briefing notes and yet consistently remains blocked from making a meaningful contribution, perhaps Canadians will revive the discussion about parliamentary reform.
In the meantime, a more tangible measure of her effectiveness will be what she can accomplish on the Kyoto file, in tandem with the Opposition parties. Canada’s withdrawal won’t kick in until December, a year from the government’s initial announcement. “Kyoto is not dead,” May says. “We’ve got a year to convince the prime minister to change his position.”
That change may not happen in the end, but simply making the effort can send a powerful message about the value and necessity of participatory endeavours. And in pulling together politics and activism, she could well tap into the energy that fuelled the Occupy movement, and the craving for civil political engagement that surfaced in the days following Jack Layton’s death. To May, it’s all connected. “You can’t deal with an issue like climate change if you basically abandon a healthy democracy and allow a corporatist culture to make the decisions. So you need engaged citizens, and you need Occupy,” she says. “You need people who have never seen themselves as political to become political. We need maybe 15 to 20 percent of Canadians to become really engaged and demand better. And then we’ll get it.”
This appeared in the May 2012 issue.