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Could the queen of green be mean?

Supporters call Elizabeth May driven, generous and inspirational. But even some in her own party call her duplicitous, a bully and a sellout. Meet Canada’s wackiest politician.


 

Elizabeth May bustles through her crowded living room mother-hen-like, carrying a fish-shaped glass platter laden with canapés. Everything’s ecologically correct, she jokes — the bread is homemade, the devilled eggs free-range, the smoked salmon and lobster wild. The occasion is May’s annual Twelfth Night party in January 2007; her cozy, ramshackle house in Ottawa’s New Edinburgh neighbourhood is packed. Former colleagues from May’s 17 years heading the Sierra Club of Canada mingle with new associates from the Green Party of Canada, of which she was elected leader in August 2006. May’s 15-year-old daughter, Victoria Cate, herself newly elected as an organizer of the Green’s youth wing, mingles with parishioners from May’s parish, St. Bartholomew’s Anglican, who chat with politicians of various stripes, among them Liberal MP John Godfrey and NDP MP Paul Dewar. And, of course, there’s a smattering of media who’ve covered May’s headline-grabbing crusades over the years, including her 17-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill in 2001 which drew attention to the high cancer rates near Cape Breton’s Sydney tar ponds.

May’s transition from non-partisan to partisan appears imperceptible save one absence. “Where’s Jack?” a number of guests ask, referring to NDP Leader Jack Layton, an attendee in years past. May shrugs, her eyes wide. “He won’t return my calls,” she says in her girlish sing-sing voice. May has made it no secret she’s furious with Layton for helping to bring down the Liberal government in December 2005, on the first day of the international climate change conference in Montreal. It diverted media attention from the cause to which she’s dedicated her life. That Layton wouldn’t return her calls became a mantra for May, even though it’s a version disputed by Layton’s chief of staff. Still, the protestation’s vintage May — presenting herself the wronged innocent when the truth is more complex.

The house is filled with mementoes from May’s activist past. At the top of the stairs, there’s a mock newspaper front page of her meeting Prince Charles. In one of many photographs, May, holding Victoria Cate as a baby, stands beside Bill Clinton, a family friend, in the Oval Office; on Clinton’s other side is May’s mother, Stephanie May, once a well-known American activist with deep connections to the Democratic party. Nature imagery abounds — a batik of a zebra adorns one wall, sea shells line shelves, lobster lights surround a kitchen window. Books lie everywhere; the latest thinking on ecological devastation sits next to tomes by May’s close friends — David Suzuki, who has called her an “eco-hero,” Farley Mowat, Victoria Cate’s godfather, and Margaret Atwood. Over the years, this place has served as a commune of sorts for friends and colleagues. Crowding became so bad that Victoria Cate once asked her mother if they could limit the number of guests to the number of beds. Such generosity is typical, say friends for whom May is a saintly figure — known to give everything, never thinking of herself.

At midnight, per tradition, the Balsam fir is stripped of decorations — of the angel fashioned from a Sunlight bottle, of the Star of David made of pipe cleaners — and tossed out the front door. Circulating among her guests, a glass of white wine in hand, May describes her recent appearance on The Rick Mercer Report in which she chopped down a dead birch tree. “Maybe it should have remained for habitat reasons,” she frets. In a flash, her mischievous humour appears as she spies two guests ready to leave. “You guys are such losers,” she yells out. “The sex orgy doesn’t start until after midnight.”

It’s not the parting salvo one would expect from the leader of a Canadian political party, particularly one who teaches Sunday school, but then again, since taking over the Green Party of Canada, Elizabeth May has confounded expectations. Back then, she appeared primed to vitalize a party that’s been but a blip on the political radar, winning only 4.5 per cent of the vote in the 2006 federal election. Green parties have made ground in more than 30 countries, but the Green Party of Canada, founded in 1983, has yet to elect a candidate to the House of Commons. A charismatic orator and a media magnet, May appeared ideal to deliver the Green message — an ideological hybrid who’s rightward leaning in terms of endorsing marketplace solutions and tax-shifting from income to fossil fuels, but more to the left in social policy.

Climate change of another kind — in the political landscape — also bodes well for a Green breakout. No federal party holds a commanding lead in the polls. Loyalties are shifting, as seen most recently in Quebec. Voters say the environment tops their list of concerns. In her first outing as a Green candidate in the London North Centre by-election last November, May surprised, placing second to Liberal Glen Pearson with 26 per cent of the vote, the party’s best federal result.

Yet since entering the partisan fray, the 53-year-old cherubic, self-described “eco bitch” has proven a polarizing force of nature herself — announcing plans to run against Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay in the next federal election, dissing Prime Minister Stephen Harper at every turn and, most notoriously, backing another party’s leader, Stéphane Dion, as the best prospect for prime minister. Under May, the party has never been more popular: membership has more than doubled, to 11,000, in a year; a September Decima poll showed support at 14 per cent, a new high. Behind the scenes, however, the Greens are a phosphate-free soap opera, riven by backbiting, infighting, and defections, including the departure of four executive directors since May has taken over. The Greens’ new leader is alternatively heralded as the best or the worst thing to happen to the party. Her many acolytes praise her charm, her cunning, her drive, her selflessness. Her critics portray her as duplicitous, conniving, and a bully who’s more interested in self-promotion than party-building. They call her E-Me, and paint a picture of a Machiavellian St. Francis of Assisi — the plucky underdog who’s also a consummate Ottawa insider, a skilled negotiator willing to do whatever it takes to save The Planet. As a politician, she’s a conundrum — less interested in acquiring power than harnessing the change power can effect. Mowat doesn’t regard his longtime friend a politician at all. “I would say she’s a politician in quotes — ironically,” he says. “She’s a dedicated goddamned visionary. That’s what she is first and foremost.” With a federal election looming, May’s goddamn vision is destined to find its place centre stage, affecting both the political landscape and the Green party’s very sustainability.

Elizabeth May came by her activism genetically. Her mother took pride in appearing on Richard Nixon’s “enemies” list. Her father, John May, an insurance executive, was equally committed to social change. Peace marches and anti-nuclear demonstrations were routine outings during her posh Connecticut childhood. Together her parents founded a grassroots group credited with convincing president Kennedy to ban atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. In How to Save the World in Your Spare Time, her 2006 activism primer, May recalls being used as a “media prop” at the Washington press launch: “I represented all the poisoned innocents of the world,” she writes. So sensitive was she to environmental violation as a child that, according to family lore, she once expressed alarm at jet vapour trails overhead. “Mommy, who’s scratching the sky?” she asked. At nursery school, she warned other children not to eat the snow because it contained radioactive strontium 90. As a teenager she founded a group that won statewide bans on non-returnable bottles and phosphates.

May’s crusading shifted to Canadian soil after her parents moved the family to Nova Scotia in 1972, fed up with their tax dollars buying napalm. On a whim, they sunk their life savings into property in Baddeck and a money-losing restaurant in Magaree Harbour. May took leave from first year at Smith College to cook, wait tables and agitate. Her successful 1976 campaign to end aerial spraying of the spruce budworm with a toxic insecticide inspired an NFB documentary. In 1980, newly minted as a Canadian citizen, May ran against incumbent Liberal Alan MacEachan in Cape Breton-Canso as an independent. Her goal wasn’t to win — which she didn’t — but to force discussion of the issues. A subsequent effort to stop a provincial plan to destroy non-commercial hardwood trees with a herbicide, waged while she studied law at Dalhousie in the early ’80s, was fought out in the courts. May’s group lost, and was ordered to pay court costs; her family had to sell their house and 70 acres of property. In 1983, May took a job at a Halifax law firm but quickly became frustrated by environmental law’s emphasis on procedure over substance. “Erin Brockovich would have been an unknown poor legal assistant forever in Canada,” she once quipped.

Over the next two decades, May morphed into this country’s Brockovich — less grassroots militant than master of the procedural banality of board-sitting, government advisories, and political conciliation. Some friends expressed disapproval when she went to work as senior policy adviser to environment minister Tom McMillan in the Mulroney government in 1986. While there, May was credited as a pivotal force in turning South Moresby, in B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands, into a national park and negotiating a 1988 international treaty to protect the ozone layer. Her 1988 resignation over the government illegally granting permits for dams in Saskatchewan was given wide media play as an act of conscience.

The matter was more complicated. May admits to playing both sides to push her agenda. After taking the government job, she remained on the Pollution Probe board for months, a conflict of interest, though McMillan had agreed she could keep ties to the movement. In a 1989 interview, May said she leaked government secrets to environmental groups against McMillan’s instruction. She also went to Liberal and NDP environmental critics behind the minister’s back to keep them informed on South Moresby developments. “It seemed unorthodox but it worked,” she said. Various groups, including Pollution Probe, accused May of threatening to pull funding if they didn’t support a 1986 environmental protection act, an allegation May denied. (After the bill passed, May agreed it was flawed but “better than having nothing at all.” Other environmentalists disagreed.) Angered at May’s telling, McMillan called her a liar. May insisted she bore no malice to McMillan yet she managed to twist the knife. “He had the heart for it,” she said. “But his will was weak.” Her final verdict on the man who hired her: “He had no personal judgment.”

Moral certitude has always underlined May’s crusade. Her wilfulness was evident in her decision to join a church at age 13, long after her mother had taken the family out of their Episcopalian parish because the minister wouldn’t sign a petition against weapons testing. She flirted with Judaism until a friend’s father, a rabbi, suggested she explore her own roots. May went off and got herself confirmed. Her affinity for the metaphysical is profound, and has extended to the use of crystals. She has also used visualization techniques as a way to focus, revealing in a 1989 interview, “I used to put premier [Bill] Vander Zalm in a love light” as a means to pave the path for concessions on South Moresby. She also admitted she consulted psychics to determine weather conditions before one of McMillian’s trips to the Arctic. Currently, she’s studying for her masters in theology.

Yet there’s nothing airy-fairy or sanctimonious about May. She’s earthy, possessed of a wicked wit and the capacity for instant intimacy. She has discussed her anguish trying to reconcile her belief that all life is sacred with her conviction that abortion should be legal, lest women die. She wasn’t married to the father of her daughter, the prominent climate change scientist Ian Burton, though she does refer to him as her “ex-husband,” a fact that bemuses Burton, though he doesn’t object. The two are on good terms. “We lived together for less than two years without being legally married,” he says. “I guess it’s a matter of definitions.” Burton views the roots of May’s activism as complex and mysterious. “Elizabeth wants to change the world into a better place, and if it were not the environment that led to her activism then it would be something else,” he says.

By the early 1990s, May’s desire to change the world engaged her in so many organizations it was difficult to keep track. Her work with a group to preserve the Brazilian rainforest propelled her into the eco-celebrity orbit of Sting and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. Meanwhile, she was busy building the Sierra Club of Canada into a national presence. While heading that NGO, she participated in an advance governmental delegation planning the 1992 Rio Summit. In Elaine Dewar’s 1993 book Cloak of Green, a critical look at the internecine relations between business, government and environmentalists, getting May onside for business or government is described as the equivalent of “one-stop shopping.” Dewar writes: “Information or a position could be generated anywhere — in an embassy in Brazil, in a meeting room in Washington, in a boardroom in Switzerland — and, if fed to May, end up touted on the pages of the Globe and Mail.” Adrian Carr, now deputy leader of the Greens, recalls May taking her on a tour of government offices during the 1990s. “She knew everybody — from ministers to their assistants — by their first names.” Behind the scenes, May wrote speeches on confidential contract for people in high places, says a friend. In How to Save the World in Your Spare Time, one of her five books, May lists “Ten Lessons Learned at My Mother’s Knee.” Number two: “You can accomplish anything you want if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

During the ’90s, May’s Sierra Club worked closely with the Liberals to get the Kyoto Protocol ratified. Her colleague Louise Comeau, now president of the board of the Sierra Club, provided the research for Dion’s controversial 2005 Kyoto plan. May applauded it, though other environmental groups, along with the Bloc and the NDP, condemned it as too weak. In Dead Centre, published in early 2007, former NDP strategist Jamey Heath calls May “the most reliable validator of Liberal policy for years.”

Heath upbraids May for not being more critical of the Liberals, particularly given their minority government status at the time. “People see her as non-partisan, let’s all get along, etc. And to an extent that is correct,” he says. “But the dividing line isn’t partisan but establishment. She will work with anyone in power. What she’s done less well is working with people not in power . . . the NDP and, ironically, the Greens. She is the poster child for playing Ottawa’s inside game.”

The threat of a Stephen Harper Conservative government galvanized May politically. Harper was, after all, the man who once referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a “job-killing, economy-destroying, socialist scheme.” John Godfrey recalls May trying to broker an arrangement during the 2006 election between the Liberals and Greens that would see Greens throw support to the Liberals in return for them endorsing electoral reform. It didn’t happen. The Harper victory pushed May over the partisan edge. “I saw 20 years of work falling away,” she says. “She felt the opposition to Harper was not loud enough,” says one friend, who notes May was frustrated no one was speaking out clearly on climate change. Godfrey said there was talk of May joining the Liberals, then mired in a leadership race Dion showed little sign of winning. The Greens, she concluded, offered more traction and exposure.

May won the leadership on the first ballot with 65 per cent of the vote. Hope ran high she’d become Canada’s answer to Petra Kelly, the German Green leader who turned a marginal group of bickering tree-huggers into the world’s most successful environmental party. The party May inherited is a fractious bunch, differing in opinion on whether they belong to a political party or social movement: on one side, the moderates, many decamped from other parties, intent on building the Greens into a parliamentary presence; on the other, the “deep greens,” who hold power suspect and measure success in terms of shaking up the status quo from the outside. A right-left divide also exists. Jim Harris, the party’s former leader, was derided by some members as being a suit-wearer who was too “pro-business.”

May attempts to straddle this uneasy gulf. She shuns pollsters, spin doctors and focus groups. “I refused to be packaged like toothpaste,” she likes to say. She models herself as a new-style politician, a “truth-teller” who can be counted on for candour. The urgency of global warming calls for new collaborative measures, she says. “Short-term partisan advantage is not my goal, which is why sometimes I’ll say things that may be perceived as against self-interest — which of course makes even Greens mad at me.” She faults Layton for not bringing up Kyoto at the last leaders’ debate. “The calculation then was not ‘What’s good for the environment,’ but ‘What’s good for winning seats,’ ” she says. May maintains that progress requires putting aside the “primitive tribalism” that precludes politicians from working together. “If you want to step out of line and say something respectful about someone in another party it’s like the world falls on your head, and that surprised me since I’ve been leader,” she says.

This kind of talk can drive those working with her batty. Dan Baril, a strategist brought in to advise during May’s run in London North Centre, recalls one conversation: “She tapped me on the shoulder one day and said, ‘I want you to know if it ever came down to a choice of winning seats or doing the right thing, I’m always going to do the right thing.’ And I looked at her and said, ‘That’s great, as long as you understand that in order to do the right thing you also have to win some seats.’ ”

The inevitable collision between those two desires came with May’s announcement she’d be running against MacKay in Central Nova. Party numbers suggested she look elsewhere — London North Central, Halifax, even elsewhere in Cape Breton — for the best odds of winning a seat in the House. May says she chose the riding because of her roots in the region. More, it commanded media spotlight, which in turn could aid her quest to be included in the televised leaders’ debates. Then there was the added bonus of potentially taking out MacKay, a Harper cabinet minister whom she blames for “cannibalizing” the Tories by brokering their merger with the Canadian Alliance.

Victory appeared a long shot when May made her announcement in March. In 2006, MacKay won with 41 per cent support, followed closely by NDP candidate Alexis MacDonald. The Liberals placed third, with the Green candidate finishing in the far distance with a mere 1.6 per cent of the vote. What wasn’t known was that May had been talking to the Liberals about them not running a candidate since early February. Ridings other than the Conservative stronghold were discussed. Meanwhile, May contacted Stephen Lewis, an old friend, in early March, just before announcing she’d run in Central Nova, to act as emissary with Layton to “discuss some kind of deal around seats,” says Layton’s chief of staff Bob Gallagher. Lewis and Layton dismissed the idea. On April 12, May held a press conference with Dion to announce they wouldn’t run candidates in each other’s ridings, which freed up an estimated 10,000 votes in Central Nova, far from enough to assure victory. May praised Dion, saying her work with him convinced her he is the best choice to lead Canada.

Layton and Harper blasted the arrangement, which also ticked off many Liberals and pushed Greens to the blogosphere to vent their fury. Though technically the agreement sacrificed only a few hundred Green votes in Dion’s Saint-Laurent-Cartierville riding, the optics were confusing — vote Green but support Dion as prime minister. For Dion to achieve a minority, according to this reasoning, May was saying 124 Greens should not hold seats. There was also concern the deal would undermine Green momentum, cost votes in other ridings, and inhibit the attacks Green candidates could mount against Liberals. And that could result in lost revenue to Green coffers. (Under new rules introduced in 2003, parties achieving two per cent of the popular vote receive $1.75 per vote from the federal treasury.) “There is a take that she made that deal and sold 307 candidates out for her benefit, and that’s where we get into the ‘It’s all about Elizabeth thing,’ ” says one party member. Yet if one looks back to the position May voiced in the 2005 election, before being elected Green leader, it’s consistent. “I wouldn’t take the risk of voting Green if I thought I might elect someone who would help destroy Kyoto,” she said.

A more overriding concern among Greens was that it set them up as a branch plant of the Liberals, whose record on emissions was worse than that of George W. Bush. May’s Sierra Club ranked the Liberal party fourth on environmental issues in 2004 and 2006; the NDP was ranked A+ in 2004, and A in 2006, taking a back seat to the Greens’ A+. On the Green party website, Andrew Lewis, May’s “shadow cabinet” critic for natural resources, blasted the agreement: “What Elizabeth May is implying is that yes, we should vote strategically, for the Liberals if necessary, and that Dion is green enough.”

May claims the agreement was a one-off with Dion, not the Liberals. “Stéphane Dion has done better on a range of things than his predecessors, that’s what I said when I was at the Sierra Club. I can’t pretend I didn’t say it,” she says. Before the arrangement was announced, it was suggested to May that if she wanted to support Dion, she should jump to the Liberals. She shot the idea down, noting her differences with Liberal policies — most vigorously on NAFTA, which she opposes. Her antipathy was clear in an email sent to party members on April 1 in which Dion is described as “a fine person”: “I have worked with him. He is honest and has a lot of integrity. He was not the choice of the corrupt Liberal Establishment and I suspect they will not be unhappy if he crashes and burns and they can go back to someone whom they can better control.”

Green senior deputy leader David Chernushenko, who ran against May for the leadership, disagreed with the deal, noting it reflects May’s conciliatory activist MO. “But unfortunately, party politics is a zero-sum game — it’s all or nothing, either you get a vote or I do,” he says. For May, however, the game has higher stakes. She’s unwilling to pretend that Greens have any shot at toppling the government in the next election. She’s also sensitive to accusations she could become Canada’s Ralph Nader — fragmenting votes on the left to pave way for a Harper majority. Nader’s mistake, she says, was in suggesting there was no difference between Bush and Gore. “It’s a statement of the obvious to advance an agenda I’d rather be working with prime minister Dion when I’m in the House of Commons than with Prime Minister Harper,” she says. Should Dion form a government and she’s elected an MP, she says, there’s nothing ruling out her assuming a cabinet post.

May’s praise of Dion rankles many Greens. As does her constant vilification of Harper. Her comment last March that Harper’s stance on the environment is “a grievance worse than Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis” created a furor. May said she was just paraphrasing a British journalist. A party insider sees the incident as telling of May’s intransigence. “She threw gas on it. She could have smoothed it over as any professional politician would have, but she prefers to fight. She turned a three- or four-day story into a three-week story by not finding her graceful exit and moving on.”

May’s constant criticism of Harper is “a blind spot,” says Chernushenko, one that’s problematic for the party in Alberta where polls show Greens running second to the Conservatives. “When you demonize Harper you demonize everyone who voted for him. But really, in what way is Harper more evil than the Liberals, who promised they’d do something on the environment and climate change for 12 years and didn’t, than someone who says, ‘I don’t believe the science and it’s not worth doing’ and then says ‘I kind of believe the science and we’re going to do something’?” A former party organizer laughs at May’s talk of fostering dialogue rooted in respect: “For somebody who professes not to like to talk about herself she’s very good at it, and for somebody who refuses not to mudsling, she’s perfected it to a level Karl Rove would envy.”

May says the Green executive was in accord over the arrangement with Dion: “By the time we decided to go ahead I had unanimous support from my council and shadow cabinet and local greens in Quebec.” Members of the 21-person Green national council say the arrangement was never discussed at a council meeting; many were phoned a day ahead of the announcement by the party’s executive director or May. “I don’t want to appear to be a critic of Elizabeth but I think the truth is important,” says council member Christopher Bennett, who supported May for leader. “You can’t talk about transparency when you’ve made the deal and consult after the fact.” Dan Baril says he resigned due to the deal, which he opposed, along with other frustrations that he wasn’t being listened to. “I want to be careful. It’s a sensitive topic,” he says. “But as a strategist, I have a problem if there’s a disconnect between what they’re saying privately and what they’re saying publicly. And when it crosses that line, I resign.” (May says Baril resigned after she told him they could no longer afford his salary.) May’s comments about the Dion arrangement is not the only example of a mixed message, says a party insider: “The fact is that she can, with wide-eyed persuasive sincerity, look into a camera or speak into a microphone and say something that you have been discussing in the backroom the week before and know flat out it’s the antithesis of what was said.”

May’s approach has created friction within a party that publicly celebrates inclusiveness. “She exercises absolute total dominance of the party council and party meetings,” says one who has worked with her. “She can be abrasive and aggressive; she can swear like a trooper in a closed room. The switch goes on and off — out of the public eye she can be some kind of bully to some devoted activists.” During open votes, May is said to pick up the phone and “browbeat” people until they change their vote. She is known to shift style to suit her purpose: “She is unilateral when she needs it, and turns to grassroots consensus when she wants to stop something or slow something down.” One member of the executive observes that May likes to mock Harper’s unilateral governance of the Conservatives: “But compared to Elizabeth, Stephen Harper is Mother Teresa.”

Internal party conflict was made public last spring when a confidential email May wrote to the party executive was posted on the party website. May was responding to advice put forward by party strategist David Scrymgeour that spending be slashed and that May step down from the budget review committee. Scrymgeour, a former national director of the Progressive Conservatives, was concerned the party was a quarter of a million dollars in debt as the result of new staff hires and other expenditures. May maintained spending cuts would hurt the party’s ability to fight an election. “In my experience, it’s not politically intelligent for the leader to be dominating the budget committee,” says Scrymgeour. “The leader’s job is to put forward the message. Don’t let there ever be an impression that policy and financing are happening through the same person.” In her response, May described her job as “gruelling,” and herself as “bone-weary” and “broke.” If governing council dumped her from the budget group, she wrote, “I would have a hard time staying on as leader.” May remained on the committee. “Elizabeth doesn’t step down from anything,” says an insider. “On one hand she’s absolutely saving the planet, but on the other hand, when things don’t go her way, she’s pulling out the martyr shtick. She flips back and forth between a messiah-martyr thing; it’s part of her makeup.”

As happens with any management shift, there have been defections. Thomas Goodman, a Winnipeg lawyer who supported May’s leadership bid, left the party in November after he and May disagreed over direction. He recommended a moderate course that excluded extremists whom he found “dangerous”; she endorsed a big-tent approach. May consulted him over a press release advocating that every Canadian worker should be given four weeks’ paid holiday; it said that currently, Canadian workers were being treated like serfs in the Middle Ages. “I wasn’t sure it was constitutional, in that paid holidays are provincially regulated,” Goodman says. He also found the language inappropriate. “To call workers of Canada serfs suggests employers are feudal lords.” When he told May so, he says he received a flippant reply: “I think Elizabeth’s a good person, a sharp person, a wonderful orator, but she’s politically naive. To my mind there are a lot of lessons to be learned by a political neophyte, and to my mind she hasn’t learned them.”

In July, Chernushenko announced he was leaving, frustrated his talents weren’t being used fully. A three-time Green candidate, Chernushenko was seen as one of the few Greens who might win a seat in the next election. Chernushenko says he tried to work with May but found it difficult. “Elizabeth’s style is very focused on her. It’s a very singular leadership style and that’s what she’s always done and that’s who she is.” Before he left the party, he says, he advised that “one thing that needs to happen and that would be for her own good too — both her own pace and health — would be to have a broad and deep team. I want to see more of that depth consulted and their views being given serious consideration. And I want to see more of the great people in the party visible so people know we’re there, but most importantly because that’s a motivator for people.” Still, Chernushenko says he hasn’t ruled out running again for the Greens. John Bennett, who worked with May at Sierra Club and now runs climateforchange.ca, says May does nurture staff. “She’s a huge powerhouse, she can easily run over you but it’s never with the intention of running over you; she’s seen the objective and is heading toward it,” he says. “Everyone has opportunity when you work for Elizabeth. All you have to do is take it.” Carr, a May ally, says May has brought new blood to the party — not household names, but people respected in academe and the environmental community. Soon after she was elected, May said her old pal Suzuki might run for the party. Suzuki refuses comment.

Building the Greens is a long-term game. And that has redirected some high-profile potential candidates to establishment parties. May courted former Conservative MP Garth Turner after he was kicked out of caucus last fall, but he went to the Liberals. “Elizabeth May will never be prime minister but Stéphane Dion has a possibility,” he says. “He can implement climate change strategy and Elizabeth can’t; she can only influence it.” Vancouver Island environmentalist Briony Penn, a long-time Green, came to a similar conclusion, announcing last March she’d run for the Liberals against Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn in Saanich-Gulf Islands. Penn says that she respects May, and was influenced by her support for Dion. “The counsel people gave me is that there was no way I could get elected as a Green. Maybe that’s wrong.” May expresses annoyance that Penn is suggesting she condoned the defection. “It’s very unhelpful and not based in reality,” she says.

Turner is sympathetic: “Elizabeth is in a more difficult position than other party leaders. She’s earning in salary what Preston Manning spent on suits. She’s got a party that can afford a train ticket not an airplane ticket, and she’s going around the country on a shoestring.” May’s schedule is gruelling. Not only are there party machinations to deal with, but she must build a base in Central Nova, where she bought a house this summer — taking out a line of credit on her Ottawa house when the local credit union refused her a mortgage. When she had hip replacement surgery in mid-October she refused general anaesthetic, opting instead for an epidural. Toxicity was a factor, she says, but she wanted to limit recovery time. Four days later she was being interviewed on CBC.

There’s much work to be done. Though the party has jumped to 14 per cent in the polls, from eight per cent before May’s leadership, Green support has historically not translated into votes — in part due to the party’s lack of an organized ground game. That has not been abetted by staff turnover. There has been loss of institutional memory, says one former organizer who mentions that an email recently went out for signage suppliers. “Are they going to reinvent the wheel?” he asks. “We have that list.” The party also has to transcend its one-issue identity. Most Canadians don’t have a clue what the Greens stand for. A policy bible platform on everything from Afghanistan to work-life balance has been produced but has yet to be distributed.

Whether May’s agreement with Dion was an act of political brilliance or suicide remains to be seen. Her endorsement — “I see in Mr. Dion a true leader for this country” — was used on a Liberal brochure during the September by-election in Quebec in which the party was trounced in three ridings. Green support fell to half of 2006 election levels. The Greens are at a make-or-break juncture, says a former organizer concerned a poor showing in the next election could undermine the party: “We’re no longer the cute upstart given a free pass by the media. We’ve got cachet and a media-savvy leader; if it doesn’t happen this time out, the air will go out of the tires.” Turner believes May is a “strategic thinker.” “I think she knows exactly what she’s doing,” he says. That’s precisely what concerns some Greens who grumble May is using the party. “The question is whether Elizabeth hasn’t completely sold out the Green party for her next big step, whatever that’s going to be,” says one former organizer who notes people are taking bets as to where she’ll land in “Liberal patronage heaven.” Meanwhile, the ozone layer thins, the Great Lakes shrink, and ice shelves snap free from the North Pole. And Elizabeth May, ever the pragmatic idealist, cleaves to lesson number 10 of “Lessons learned at my mother’s knee”: “My mommy changed the world. So can I.”


 
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