A media magnet and suddenly a populist hero, can Elizabeth May win seats?

ANNE KINGSTON September 29 2008


A media magnet and suddenly a populist hero, can Elizabeth May win seats?

ANNE KINGSTON September 29 2008



A media magnet and suddenly a populist hero, can Elizabeth May win seats?


A triumphant Elizabeth May smiles and waves as she enters the Centre for Social Innovation in downtown Toronto. The strains of the Scottish piper who ushers her in on a Friday morning provide theatrical yet deft homage to the Central Nova riding where May is waging her plucky David vs. Goliath battle against Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Only one week into the election and the Green Party of Canada leader has positioned herself as a headlinegrabbing populist hero who prevailed against the “old boys’ club to exclude her from the leaders’ debates, a stunning coup for a party that won less than four per cent of the national vote in the 2006 federal election and which has never had an MP elected under the Green party banner.

May stands before the phalanx of media wearing the same pale yellow sweater set she wore in Guelph when she kicked off what she termed “the most important election in Canadian history.” Climate crisis means time is running out, she said, warning that “we stand at a moment of great peril but also


at a moment of great promise.”

The same can be said of the Greens, a party that has operated at the fringes of Canadian politics since 1983. This is their make-orbreak election. They have in May a media magnet; they’ve won a place in the debates; their mission to contain greenhouse gas emissions is one Canadians claim to care about, at least when responding to polls. May has promised to bring a new, inclusive non-partisan approach to the political arenafocusing on issues, improving the quality of debate, demonstrating a decency rarely seen in politics, down to the smallest detail: “Our operating instruction to our people across the country is when you go out to repair Green signs, fix the other campaign signs while you’re there,” she says.

Yet May’s opposition to “Mr. Harper’s Conservative-Alliance-Republican Party of Canada” and all it represents can occasionally derail the civility. So much so it has been suggested her presence will split the pro-Kyoto vote and, no small irony here, abet a Harper majority. Indeed, it was the spectre of a Harper government dismantling decades of work on the environment that propelled May, a longtime activist and exective director of the Sierra Club of Canada, to run for the Green leadership in 2006. It also spurred the personal non-aggression pact she made with Stéphane

Dion last year which included not running candidates in one another’s ridings.

When it comes to “Mr. Harper” and his “campaign of fear and distortion,” May hammers away like a coastal hurricane. Her first order of business this morning is to issue a press release based on an Access to Information Act search that reveals the Prime Minister ignored an economist’s report commissioned by Natural Resources Canada that concluded a carbon tax would be revenueneutral. “I thought Mr. Harper was supposed to be an economist,” says May. “But he has shifted his credentials to propagandist.”

Smoothly May shifts the topic to the Green message of “hope and reality and opportunity.” Climate crisis “presents this generation with the single largest economic opportunity in the history of human enterprise,” she tells the crowd, speaking of new technologies. She links the Canadian Greens to more successful Green parties worldwide, citing the fact that under the leadership of the German Greens, that country has created 400,000 new jobs in the sustainable energy sector. Then, she cannily fesses up to a plagiarism that allows her to simultaneously appear guileless and name-drop: the “single largest economic opportunity” line isn’t actually hers, she says; rather, old family friend Bill Clinton once said it to her.

Such is the ever-entertaining, ever-provocative one-woman Green party crusade, a campaign that has a still-under-construction feel to it. Just what the Greens stand for other than “green” was made public with the release of a full policy platform Wednesday. Still to be announced is the roster of 306 candidates dangled by May as a reason the Greens deserved a place in the debates (the only two ridings the party is not contesting are those of Dion and Independent Bill Casey, who May named an “honorary Green” after he was expelled from the Conservative caucus last year for voting against the budget on principle). As of this week, only 286 candidates have been announced. A leaked email from director of organizing Sharon Labchuk, dated Sept. 1, suggested that names were being solicited just to fill the ballot: “So that everyone in Canada has the opportunity to vote Green, we’ll also take names of people willing to just put their names on the ballot in the event we do not find enough candidates,” she wrote. May, speaking from her office in New Glasgow, says 306 names will be submitted by the Sept. 22 cut-off date: “I am on a moment-by-moment basis reviewing files of their background checks.”

The official strategist is Jim McDonald, a one-time director of communications for

Pierre Trudeau who worked in the telecom sector before being hired as the party’s executive director in November. This is his first national campaign; in 1984, he organized the federal Liberal leadership bid for Mark MacGuigan, who placed fifth on the first ballot.

The budget is shoestring—$4 million, says McDonald, though a big increase from the $900,000 the party spent federally in 2006. “We have to be efficient in how we do things but for the first time certain tactics and strategies are possible for us,” he says. These include national television ads, though airdate timing is uncertain. “Maybe after the debates,” he says.

Signs of strategic planning exist. For one, the party no longer gives all candidates the same level of assistance. “Stronger ridings are receiving priority of staffing time, of campaign assistance, campaigns where I stop on the tour,” says May, who rhymes off four strong contenders: Blair Wilson, the former Independent MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country who joined the Greens in August, John Fryer running in Nanaimo-Alberni, Adrian Carr in Vancouver Centre and Mike Nagy in Guelph, Ont. McDonald adds Dick Hibna in Bruce-GreyOwen Sound to the list. He rebuffs the gripes of some party insiders that Ontario has been starved to feed May’s Central Nova bid. “It’s one of our two strongest areas,” he says. “So it will get more than its fair share.”

May’s run in Central Nova, a Tory stronghold held by Peter MacKay since 1997 and his father, Elmer, before that, has been contentious since she announced it in early 2007Former Green party strategist Dan Baril crunched numbers to assess her election odds in various ridings; Central Nova polled the most negatively. May overruled the data for personal reasons, among them the fact her family lives nearby. Plus, taking on a Harper insider provides a spotlight in which to bask. It’s a high-risk gambit: in 2006, MacKay won 17,134 votes while the the Green candidate received only 671. MacKay took only 41 per cent of the vote, however, with New Democrat Alexis MacDonald winning 33 per cent and the Liberals 25 per cent. Not that May can count on former Liberal votes. Green spokesman John Bennett says many Liberals in the riding were annoyed by the May-Dion pact. NDP candidate Louise Lorefice, a retired history teacher, has said some have shifted support to her.

May contends her presence in the debates creates synergy between her national and local campaigns: “It gets our message out nationally and reinforces for our local voters here that they’re not just electing an MP who would be run-of-the-mill but a leader of a federal political party. So that kind of equal-



Early days May was born on June 9,

1954, in Hartford, Conn., to John May, an insurance executive, and Stephanie May, an activist, pianist and sculptor. The family moved to Nova Scotia in 1973.

School days May had to initially abandon her undergraduate studies because of financial difficulties at a restaurant her father opened in Nova Scotia. But she eventually went on to graduate from the Dalhousie School of Law.

First job She helped to run the family restaurant and gift shop on board an old fishing schooner on Cape Breton Island’s Cabot Trail.

Getting married May never married, but she had a daughter, Victoria Cate, with climate change scientist Ian Burton in 1991. Burton and May separated after living together for about two years, but they’re still on good terms.

Likes/dislikes Spy thrillers written by John le Carré are a favourite. May is also a part-time student of theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa.

izes things.” Even supporters speak of her winning as requiring magic. Still, “she has a way of pulling off the improbable,” says Jim McDonald. May’s decision to spend more than half of her time campaigning in Central Nova limits her movement nationally. Her cross-country campaign kicks off next Sunday when she boards a private car attached to a Via passenger train in Vancouver. The five-day journey, which will make 83 short stops and end in Truro, N.S., is being framed in the romantic terms of “the first whistlestop campaign since John Diefenbaker.” May hopes the visuals will contrast with the gasguzzling habits of the other campaigns. Riding the rails also reflects the party’s commitment to investing in Canadian railroads so they will rival the level of modernization of

Bombardier-made trains in other countries.

Much rides on May’s debate performance. “Elizabeth has been preparing herself for this debate—perhaps not knowingly—her entire adult life,” says McDonald. “This is the bestinformed leader, this is the most articulate, this is the quickest wit, she is the most natural and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues. Baril, who has coached her in the past, believes she’ll do well if she can slow down her answers and doesn’t steer every question back to the environment.

May’s real test will be shedding her nonpartisanship when it comes to actually getting Greens elected. As recently as last week, she was still describing her party as “a movement that wants change.” She rejects the media’s treatment of an election as a horse race: “An election campaign is about democracy in action—to choose the right choice for our future,” she says. And the right choice for May isn’t necessarily a Green but anyone who can trounce Harper. In September, she wrote a much-forwarded email to Liberal candidate Brent Fullard, who’s running against Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in the Ontario riding of Whitby-Oshawa: “I cannot help myself!!! GOOD LUCK BRENT!!! You and Doug [Anderson, the Green candidate] together can expose the massive incompetence of Mr. Flaherty.” Last week, La Presse claimed May has made a deal to throw her support behind the Liberals in the last days of the election, a claim May dismissed as “errant nonsense.”

Yet May’s distaste for Harper is such that she’s said she’d prefer no Greens be elected if it meant the end of his government. “It’s not a partisan calculation,” she says. “It’s just that what offends me the most is Mr. Harper continuing in the direction he’s taking us.” Her logic on the matter can appear skewed. “I’m making it very clear we have to elect Green MPs and that Green MPs facing a Harper bench would be far worse than no Green MPs facing a minority Liberal bench,” she says. May wears her nonpartisanship like a badge: “I may not be a very good politician, but I’m very grounded in the reality of where we are on the planet right now and I’m not prepared for partisan gains to make statements that are morally bankrupt.” She expresses irritation that this is an issue. “I don’t understand how anyone who understands the climate crisis wouldn’t feel that a Harper victory was more damaging than any other set of outcomes,” she says. “I don’t understand why Duceppe and Layton wouldn’t also stand by that.”

That Dion is left out of that equation is telling, though it’s too early to say why. What is clear is that Elizabeth May has the potential to be the election’s spoiler. Which party she’ll damage most remains to be seen. M