‘I’m mildly curious about my future’

Elizabeth May takes aim at Saanich-Gulf Islands in what could be her last attempt to win a seat in the House

mayThe phone rings 10 minutes past the allotted time and Elizabeth May apologizes. Seems she lost track of time after getting in late the night before after a weekend in Whitehorse. There she delivered a speech—to an overflow crowd, she says—and signed copies of her new book, Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy. She met with Yukon native leaders and took part in a fundraising dinner of Jamaican cuisine. And she held a press conference and conducted a workshop with young people on “water issues” and visited a community BBQ and invited locals to meet her for coffee at a bakery. “And I got to church,” she says.

And, in case you were wondering, carbon offsets were purchased—twice the necessary amount in fact—to counter any damage to the environment resulting from her travel.

She was calling from Vancouver, where there was more to do. After that she was to visit the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, where, perhaps ultimately, the tirelessly effusive leader of the Green party may yet meet her Waterloo. “I’m mildly curious about my future,” she says later, pressed to speculate about what may come whenever the next election is called. “My grandmother’s sister had this great expression, ‘Life has far more imagination than you or I.’ And I’m very confident that I have an interesting life. I have loads of interests. In or out of politics I have a lot of ways in which I think I can help my community and make a difference and I’ve done that since I was in my teens, I’ve been involved in trying to contribute something.”

For now though, she is in politics. And the goal remains the same as it has been for three years: winning a seat in Parliament.

In 2006, she ran in a by-election in London, Ontario, winning 9,845 votes, but finishing more than 3,000 behind Liberal Glen Pearson. Then she overreached—taking aim at Nova Scotia’s Central Nova riding, a Conservative stronghold mostly occupied by one member or another of the MacKay family since 1971. Stephane Dion, the sympathetic, if ill-fated, Liberal leader, agreed not to run a candidate against May. Exiled Liberal MP Blair Wilson momentarily made himself a Green, giving the party its first MP. And with Dion supporting her inclusion, May talked herself into the televised leaders debates and held her own. She talked of an upset in Central Nova and on election night, she won 12,620 votes. Unfortunately for her, Peter MacKay claimed more than 18,000.

Doubt and recrimination followed—up to and including discussion of her teenage daughter’s involvement in the campaign—but May stayed on and new emphasis was put on finding her a riding she could win. If the Green party was to move forward, it needed an MP. And if the Greens were to ever have an MP, the obvious candidate was May. All of which brings May now to Saanich-Gulf Islands, just north of Victoria. As was officially announced today, that’s where May will make her third, and possibly final, attempt to win a seat on the floor of the House of Commons—a cherished spot 20 feet down from the seat in the first row of the visitors’ gallery she occupies most afternoons in the spring and fall.

“This seems,” May said some weeks ago, “the logical decision.”

There are those who would quibble with May’s choice of adjective. Saanich-Gulf Islands has been held by the Reform, Canadian Alliance or Conservative parties since 1993. Gary Lunn, the minister of state for sport, has occupied the seat since 1997. Last fall, with the Liberals running well-known environmentalist Briony Penn and the NDP’s candidate having to withdraw after disclosure of a past incident of public nudity, Lunn was thought to be vulnerable, but still managed to win with nearly 28,000 votes. Penn finished second, just 2,500 votes behind. Another 6,700 votes went to Green candidate Andrew Lewis while the departed NDP candidate, whose name remained on the ballot, managed to win 3,700.

Penn is now supporting Renee Hetherington, another noted environmentalist, for the Liberal nomination. The NDP believes they have a couple of strong possibilities themselves. And with May inevitably boosting the Green vote, Lunn would seem once again set to benefit from division. “I think all of us would love to see Elizabeth in Parliament, just to shake the bloody place up because she’s excellent at what she does. But the numbers don’t add up. I know this riding,” says Penn, who knows and generally seems supportive of May. “If there’s two strong women candidates running on basically the same platform, Gary Lunn’s going to laugh all the way to Ottawa again. And it’s a tragedy.”

In the meantime, May will be challenged first for the Green nomination. In an online submission posted last weekend, Stuart Herzog, an environmental activist and former Green candidate on the provincial level, stepped forward to take issue with May’s mission. “Federal council has defined its goal for the coming election as to get just one Green MP elected, namely Elizabeth May, the current leader,” he wrote. “They believe that the Green Party won’t be effective until it can belly up to the negotiating table and become part of the anti-democratic, secret deal-making process. I believe that they are wrong.”

May is typically undaunted. Herzog’s challenge, she says, proves only the contrary—that the Greens are committed to fundamental democracy. And whatever the results of the last election, she argues, there is the reality now. “It’s unfortunate that it comes out with a focus on what the Greens see in the riding,” she says. “I think it’s the other way around. I think it’s what people in Saanich-Gulf Islands seek from their elected representative. And right now I see a big disconnect, and I hear a big disconnect from people in the riding, about their representative.”

Indeed, though pressed several times, May categorically rejects any attempt to apply back-of-the-napkin calculations to her candidacy. “It’s not an analytical crunching of numbers,” she says. “We’re looking at where is there a real appetite for change and a willingness to be a historical first, sending a Green to the House of Commons.”

Camille Labchuk, May’s former press secretary and now a member of the party’s federal council, is slightly less esoteric. Presented with the conventional wisdom that a riding such as Guelph, Ont., where Green support has improved over the last three votes, might make more sense, she undoes the notion with logic of her own. “In the last election, the Liberals ran the worst campaign ever in the history of the Liberal party, but Guelph still sent a rookie Liberal MP to parliament by a decent margin,” she notes. “Saanich, on the other hand, the Conservatives ran arguably their best campaign ever, and probably the best campaign they ever will run under Stephen Harper … yet Gary Lunn barely managed to hold on to his seat. There was a very strong anti-Lunn campaign, it just didn’t quite manage to crystallize enough around one candidate.” Both May and Labchuk arrive at approximately the same conclusion. “When you introduce someone like Elizabeth May into the equation, now you’ve got a rallying point,” says Labchuk.

All of which may actually come to pass. Or it may not. And therein lies what may be the final wager of May’s political career.

The party’s deputy leader, Adriane Carr, was recently quoted as saying that “for the first time ever, the Green party of Canada has written a campaign plan that is fully detailed.” May assures this was not an exaggeration—that the party was preoccupied with a set of by-elections last fall and wrong-footed when the Prime Minister launched a full election. And though she can no longer claim a sitting MP and nor count on the support of another party leader, she still believes she will be there when the leaders gather around a table and debate for the cameras.

On this, she takes comfort in recent polls. The Green party continues to win the theoretical allegiance of about 10 per cent of Canadians and, according to one recent survey, 41 per cent say they would like to see her win a seat in Parliament. That, she argues, demonstrates public interest, which justifies her presence.

Of course, when Canadians were last asked to confirm their support on paper, just seven per cent were so supportive of May’s side. And it is that conflict between perception and reality, hope and practicality, that continues to make May’s story so harrowing. All the more so now. The primary question—can she win?—remains. But it’s matched now with a more daunting follow-up—if not, what then? “Honestly, the thing that I fear most, and this is what I’ve said to Elizabeth, if she is declaring that this is the greenest riding in Canada … and she doesn’t win, what are we left with?” Penn says. “Her career is over. And I don’t want to see Elizabeth lost off the scene.”

May shoos away any talk of pressure. “I don’t even think about things like that,” she says. “The pressure I feel is around the Copenhagen summit coming up in December. The fact that we are running out of time to respond to the climate crisis. I don’t find politics particularly compelling as opposed to real life … My political fortunes are, honestly, in terms of my concerns, completely irrelevant.”

Discussion turns to other matters—how, for instance, the Greens would cut income taxes and employer contributions to employment insurance—then May is asked again to account for herself. For all the work she’s done, the effort put forth, and the possibility that it will all be for naught. May restates her thesis. “I think about the future quite a lot,” she says. “I think I think long term about the future more than other politicians, but unlike other politicians I don’t think the future is all about me.” Of course, she’s right. Except that it’s still her name on the ballot.

‘I’m mildly curious about my future’

  1. My great sadness about this is that during the last election the Green party let slip through our fingers an opportunity to become a legitimate party on the national scene. Instead the Party leadership focused their effort on bashing Harper and 'raising profile and awareness'. We didn't need to raise awareness, we needed to grow credibility and elect an MP. There was a winnable riding in Nova Scotia. Halifax. Alexa McDonough had just retired, the polling gave a 3 way split with the Liberals and NDP on top. The riding was in Nova Scotia where she has historical roots and as an urban riding with 30,000+ students and no incumbent. She had a great opportunity to turn 30% of the vote into a seat. Too bad bashing Peter McKay and Stephen Harper was more important.

    • Well said. Unfortunately for the Green Party, Ms. May decided that jumping on the "ABC" bandwagon was more important than helping the Greens secure a winnable seat in the last election.

  2. For all her Harper bashing, the Green vote helps to divide the left and thus enables the his continuing reign.
    I wish a new grassroots Conservative party would form and begin to siphon off the hard right vote that defaults to the Conservatives – this would somewhat level the playing field and open up some voting options. As it stands now, my reality involves supporting the Liberals just to unseat Mr Harper

  3. For all her Harper bashing, the Green vote helps to divide the left and thus enables his contined reign.
    I wish a new grassroots Conservative party would form and begin to siphon off the hard right vote that defaults to the Conservatives – this would somewhat level the playing field and open up some voting options. As it stands now, my reality involves supporting the Liberals just to unseat Mr Harper

    • I wish a new grassroots Conservative party would form and begin to siphon off the hard right vote

      It did. It was called the Reform Party. Have you forgotten the "What's the difference between the Tory caucus and a pickup truck" jokes from 1993?

      (Which is to say, be careful what you wish for. I'll bet you'd have rather had the mushy Red Tory PCs survive than what actually happened, and that wouldn't have been possible without the initial schism.)

    • I wish a new grassroots Conservative party would form and begin to siphon off the hard right vote

      It did. It was called the Reform Party. Have you forgotten the "What's the difference between the Tory caucus and a pickup truck" jokes from 1993?

      (Which is to say, be careful what you wish for. I'll bet you'd have rather had the mushy Red Tory PCs survive than what actually happened, and that would have been less likely without the initial schism that proved the "hard right" is surprisingly electable in much of the country.)

      • You mean the hard right party that has not ended gay marriage, responded to a recession with a substantial stimulus, which cut the regressive GST, which banned income trusts (which are basically a corporate tax holiday), that increased arts funding every year (despite the bluster about cuts) and yes the same hard right party that is about to be defeated shortly after enriching EI?

        Or do you mean the hard right party that gouged provincial transfers and government spending in the 90's, slashed corporate and income taxes in the 00's, and put committed substantial numbers of Canadian ground troops to the heaviest fighting since the Korean war?

  4. Aaron,
    I don't often share your perspective on political issues but this time I completely agree with your analysis. I grew up in Victoria and graduated from university in Victoria and have worked on many election campaigns there, including Saanich. The Liberals cannot afford to support May (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) in any way after what Dion did last time. Moreover, the NDP vote will rebound after the pull-out or their candidate last time. The end result will be a Lunn victory.

  5. The Liberals cannot afford to support May (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) in any way

    On that note, I'll be curious to hear what Ignatieff has to say about the inclusion of fringe parties in the leaders' debates.

  6. There's a fine balance to be maintained between the utility of protest parties or parties of conscience and mainstream parties in Canada. The outliers influence political outcomes, sometimes in their favour, sometimes to their own detriment. Without the NDP or Greens siphoning off voters, the Liberals might well be tempted to stay the course, not rock the boat, do nothing progressive or imaginative. With them, though, it is also clear that the largest portion of those voters would either support the Liberals or not vote at all.

    On the other hand, the Reform Party had its role in re-orienting the conservative forces of Canada. But it did so at the cost of that wing's competitiveness for years.

    And what is the cost nationally, if small parties either dominate a region (Reform, BQ) or generally bleed national support away from a legitimate contender for power? Does it serve our national identity to be so divided?

    So my question to small party voters of the past or present, past or future, is: what is your tipping point? What causes you to "go mainstream" or, conversely, "go small"?

  7. There's a fine balance to be maintained between the utility of protest parties or parties of conscience and mainstream parties in Canada. The outliers influence political outcomes, sometimes in their favour, sometimes to their own detriment. Without the NDP or Greens siphoning off voters, the Liberals might well be tempted to stay the course, not rock the boat, do nothing progressive or imaginative. In their absence, though, it is also clear that the largest portion of those voters would either support the Liberals or not vote at all, thereby altering electoral outcomes.

    On the other hand, the Reform Party had its role in re-orienting the conservative forces of Canada. But it did so at the cost of that wing's competitiveness for years.

    And what is the cost nationally, if small parties either dominate a region (Reform, BQ) or generally bleed national support away from a legitimate contender for power? Does it serve our national identity to be so divided?

    So my question to small party voters of the past or present, past or future, is: what is your tipping point? What causes you to "go mainstream" or, conversely, "go small"?

  8. There's a fine balance to be maintained between the utility of protest parties or parties of conscience and mainstream parties in Canada. The outliers influence political outcomes, sometimes in their favour, sometimes to their own detriment. Without the NDP or Greens siphoning off voters, the Liberals might well be tempted to stay the course, not rock the boat, do nothing progressive or imaginative. In their absence, though, it is also clear that the largest portion of those voters would either support the Liberals or not vote at all, thereby altering electoral outcomes.

    On the other hand, the Reform Party had its role in re-orienting the conservative forces of Canada. But it did so at the cost of that wing's competitiveness for years.

    And what is the cost nationally, if small parties either dominate a region (Reform, BQ) or generally bleed national support away from a legitimate contender for power? Does it serve our national identity to be so divided?

    So my question to small party voters of the past or present, left or right, is: what is your tipping point? What causes you to "go mainstream" or, conversely, "go small"?

  9. It baffles me why the Greens and NDP, neither of which is likely to form government in the foreseeable future, insist on making it possible for Harper to remain in power.

    • Well in the case of Lizzie May, it's all about Lizzie, always has been, always will be. It's no accident she chose a riding about as far away from her adopted home of Cape Breton Island as you can get. The people there know her all to well and wouldn't elect her to be a dog catcher. She has made a lifelong career of throwing friends and associates overboard for her own self agrandisment. Just like she did in the last election when she told green supporters to vote Liberal, thus stabbing her own candidates in the back while she had an agreement with Dion to be put in a Liberal cabinet and be given lifelong access to the trough(oops, I mean Senate). Why else would she have been running in a riding she couldn't win(Central Nova) against a candidate no one could beat(Peter MacKay). Cheers.

    • In practice Liberals have actually governed further to the right of conservatives (I make that case on my blog: http://hosertohoosier.blogspot.com). Labour laws, minimum wages, employment insurance, the wheat board, the CBC, and the precursor to medicare were all Conservative initiatives. Canada has among the world's most liberal abortion laws thanks in part to the Tories (Mulroney did not push for moderate restrictions on abortion that would have been popular).

      The point of the NDP is to impose a cost on the Liberals for moving too far to the right. The strategy has been reasonably effective. In the 90's, when the NDP was not an electoral threat to the Liberals, for instance, we had the most fiscally conservative government in our history.

      The Greens, however, are indeed a pointless party. The Liberals only need one party to prevent them from sliding to the left. Moreover, the Greens do not offer voters an alternative – they are just NDP'ers that don't like poor people (exception: in its earlier incarnation and in Ontario, the Greens are/were an interesting eco-capitalist party). They split the vote with the Liberals, and do not offer new ideas. Elizabeth May's participation in the debates, for instance, was an utter crock. She spent the whole time attacking Harper, instead of demonstrating how she would differ from the other parties.

  10. I feel compelled to call out Briony Penn on her assessment that with “two strong women candidates running on basically the same platform, Gary Lunn's going to laugh all the way to Ottawa again.” First off, the only thing laughable here is Penn's assertion that the Liberal platform is in any way similar to the Greens. Is she even talking about the same Liberals here? The Liberals whose leader Michael Ignatieff trips all over himself to declare his undying love and support for the tar sands? The Liberals who cannibalized their last leader (Dion) who actually did have some green cred? Get real.

    These comments are merely the usual garbage talking points old-line parties use to confront the Greens — that Greens will somehow split the vote and elect Conservatives. If we're going to tread down this tired old path, I would simply point out that Elizabeth May's two previous second place finishes would actually indicate, under that logic, that it's other parties who “split the vote”.

    • In the last electon there was only Lizzie and Peter Mackay running since she had a backroom deal with the nutty professor(Dion) and did not have to face a Liberal candidate. So she basically came in last in a two horse race. Big whoop! I just love how the press gives her a free ride and wildly celebrates defeat after defeat as a great victory for the Green Party and Lizzie. Why doesn't she run in Cape Breton? After all, with all her wonderful "achievments" there you would think she would be a shoe in. Here's a hint, if she were running in a 100 horse race there, she would come in about 99th. Get ready for another 6 or 7% in the coming election. Perhaps she can run up North, as she indicated in her ramblings, everyone is crazy about her up there. Ya, right.

  11. I don't know why she decided to come to the west coast. We don't want her any more than the east coast did. She does not represent the views of working people.

    • Spoken like a true NDP hack!

  12. Ms. May needn't be curious about her future, it goes something like this "do you want fries with that."

    • Are they organic fries?

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