Will Elizabeth May walk?

After a divisive convention, the Green Party leader may be headed in the direction of another political party

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May talks with media in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. (Matthew Usherwood/CP)

(Matthew Usherwood/CP)

Elizabeth May is currently on a walk in the snow. That’s a metaphor—though given August flurries seen in Calgary last year, a mark of the very climate change that propelled May into the political arena in the first place, it could well be literal. The leader of the Green Party of Canada made it clear in a series of interviews last week that if her party doesn’t recant its vote supporting the controversial Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel at its recent convention, she’d be gone as leader. BDS is “polarizing and divisive,” May said, adding the Greens “should not have attached ourselves to a movement that’s outside of us as a party, over which we don’t have control.” She’s using her first holiday since Christmas to decide. “I don’t know which way it will go,” she told CBC.

This is no cliffhanger. May has nimbly paved a path to the decision Pierre Trudeau came to during his famous 1984 walk in the snow: to leave. May won’t be leaving politics, as Trudeau did; she has said she will remain MP for Saanich–Gulf Islands and run in the next election. Her party voluntarily wading into the quagmire of Israeli-Palestinian politics while oceans rise and polar caps melt gives May a conscience-based exit strategy from a job she’s had for 10 years, longer than any current federal party leader. She told the CBC the prospect of leaving is “heartbreaking”; “devastating” is the word she used with Rabble. Yet days before the national conference—which in classic don’t-look-at-us Green fashion was held the same weekend as the Olympics began—May expressed frustration to the Globe and Mail: “I don’t love being leader of the Green party,” she said, calling it “a thankless task devoid of any fun.”

That’s an understatement. Since it was founded in 1983, the Green Party of Canada has been riven by debate over whether it’s a social movement or a political party. May herself is emblematic of the divide: a former activist who staged a 17-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill in 2001 to draw attention to high cancer rates near Cape Breton’s Sydney Tar Ponds, she is also a canny backroom operative, evident in her years as senior policy adviser to environment minister Tom McMillan in the Mulroney government, a job she left for reasons of “conscience,” though the truth, as always, is more complex. May has always been driven by moral certitude, one that sees partisan goals as secondary to what she perceives as the greater good. It is a quality that has driven party strategists up the wall, seen in 2008 when May went up against Conservative Peter MacKay in the riding of Central Nova to garner media attention rather than secure a winnable seat. She was finally elected in 2011.

RELATED: What happened at the Green convention

The fact that May—whip-smart, a charismatic orator and media magnet—is an asset on the political stage is a given. She’s a stellar parliamentarian, has been a critic of both Conservative and Liberal environmental policies, led the charge against Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, and marshalled Bill C-442, the National Lyme Disease Strategy Act.

That she’s an asset to the Greens is assumed, although the party’s popular vote in the last election (3.54 per cent) was lower than it was in 2006 (4.5 per cent); it hit an all-time high of 6.8 per cent in 2008. The Greens remain a one-woman show, with May the only elected MP. Expected youth support has never materialized; despite higher voter turnout among youth in the last election, Green support dropped substantially. Within the party there has long been grumbling about May’s autocratic style; her critics call her “E Me.” Still, they gave her a 94 per cent approval rating in a leadership review earlier this year. Not that another potential leader is waiting in the wings. “I am mentoring actively wonderful, wonderful people, many of whom will be good leaders,” May told the Globe. She’s hardly a recruitment poster: “It is not really something I’d recommend to a good friend,” she said.

May’s threatened departure, one some Greens have called “blackmail,” comes just as the country is finally, if reluctantly, discussing the electoral reform required for smaller parties like the Greens to gain political traction. Confoundingly, the party that should be leading discussion of the merits of proportional representation used a majority-rules system—the “first past the post” it so reviles—to vote for BDS. The process switched from consensus to Robert’s Rules of order for the convention, May said, adding that she wasn’t allowed speak prior to the vote, and was jeered when she tried. She maintains the vote doesn’t reflect the “genuine will” of its members. There will be an emergency meeting of the party council to discuss next steps, likely Aug. 21 or 22. Meanwhile, May appears to be distancing herself: “Being a good constituency MP has always been more important to me than scoring points in the partisan way for the Green party,” she told the CBC.

How this will play out isn’t complicated: if the Greens don’t dial back on BDS, May is gone. Given her history, there’s no way her conscience would permit her to remain with a party whose platform she can’t endorse. And that could lead to another walk, possibly in the direction of another political party. The parliamentary climate has changed. The threat posed by a Harper government that galvanized her to enter politics is gone. Her alliance with the Liberals, particularly Stéphane Dion, with whom she established electoral co-operation in 2008, much to her party’s chagrin, is long-standing; there was even chatter Justin Trudeau would name May environment minister. That didn’t happen, but May was part of the Canadian delegation at the Paris climate talks last fall. May’s walk might well end with her entering the very power nexus she excels in disrupting. If she does, at least she can tell herself her conscience is clear.


Will Elizabeth May walk?

  1. The leader of a party….or one of a herd?

  2. She could choose to sit as an independent which would allow her the freedom to vote her conscience on any issue. I suspect that, no matter what party she might join, the Party Whip would have a difficult time persuading her to toe the party line.

  3. May will use this as an excuse to join the Liberal party. She has been cozying up to the LPC for some time now, and I am sure they will offer her a lofty position. Her political ambitions are too large to be contained by the Green Party so this makes sense. The real question is, would Anne Kingston have written this article if Elizabeth May were a man?

    • This idea remains quite ridiculous. May has clear divisions from the Liberal Party, and if she had ever wanted to hitch her wagon to them, she could have done so almost any time over the past decade and been guaranteed a nomination, an MP seat, and when they got into government, a Cabinet or Senate posting. There is no reason she would have put so much blood, sweat, and tears into her Green Party role if Liberal power had been her intent – such an effort has never been necessary, and instead represents the path of most resistance. She is far too canny to waste her time with Greens if she wanted to be a Liberal – she would just have been a Liberal right from the start. They would have been thrilled to have a star candidate who was an internationally-respected environmentalist, an Officer of the Order of Canada with a Chair in her name at Dartmouth, and in so many other ways highly recognized before she entered electoral politics in 2006. Anyone who thinks the Green Party is May’s short-cut to political power is pathetically short on facts.

      • I think her political ambitions were to grow the Green party into a legitimate party. She has failed at that and now I believe that she is trying to position herself to make a move to the Liberals. Look, she’s a snaggle-toothed lunatic, so I agree, this isn’t part of some 15 year long plot to ascend to power, but to consider her as some deeply principled politician that is governed by high ethical standards is naive and exactly what she wants. She is an opportunist and she sees that opportunity now.

        • “she’s a snaggle-toothed lunatic”? Really?

          Is there a reason you get up in the morning, other than to have Mom make you little pancakes with happy faces in maple syrup?

          Trolls are the ultimate opportunists of the 21st Century …

  4. The author has not even bothered to read the policy, which I will post below. Like most shallow pundits, Anne Kingston describes green policy as a BDS of Israel, when it in fact targets specific corporations profiting from the illegal and brutal occupation of Palestine.Of course the author of the BDS policy Dimitri Lascaris was not contacted by the author for any sense of balance. After all, that would impede the authors agenda. The author mindlessly accuses the green party of hypocrisy for using the will of the majority to decide the BDS policy. She suggests *consensus* would be better for the green party. As if it would even be possible to get hundreds of people all to agree on anything, never mind something as emotional for certain people like BDS. Thanks for the advice Anne. Maybe you could become a green party member and suggest the party change the “majority decides” system to something you prefer – consensus or the party bosses decide, as in all the other major parties.
    May *was* allow to speak before the vote contrary to what she said. I was at the meeting I heard May speak on the motion and recall no *jeering*. Check the tapes. Suggesting May would be a Liberal Minister of anything is simply a partisan shout out by the author to get the liberals to solicit May. Sorry Anne, your friends at the PMO will have no luck poaching the green party’s leader. Only in Canadian politics can you get a problem suggesting non violent resistance to cluster bombing of babies and decades of land grabs. Here is the policy and arguments in favour: TITLE

    Palestinian Self-Determination and the Movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions


    WHEREAS Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to territory it occupies;

    WHEREAS the International Court of Justice has ruled that Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (“OPT”) violate international law;

    WHEREAS GP14-P22 declares that the GPC “fully condemn [sic] all illegal Israeli settlement expansions in the [OPT] as undeniable obstacles to the Israel – Palestine peace-process”;

    WHEREAS Israel has continued, since the adoption of GP14-P22, to expand its settlements and to demolish Palestinian homes and other infrastructure in the OPT;

    AND WHEREAS Israel’s Prime Minister has declared his opposition to a Palestinian state;


    BE IT RESOLVED that the GPC supports the use of divestment, boycott and sanctions (“BDS”) that are targeted to those sectors of Israel’s economy and society which profit from the ongoing occupation of the OPT;

    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the GPC will support BDS until such time as Israel implements a permanent ban on further settlement construction in the OPT, and enters into good faith negotiations with representatives of the Palestinian people for the purpose of establishing a viable, contiguous and truly sovereign Palestinian state.

    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the GPC opposes all efforts to prohibit, punish or otherwise deter expressions of support for BDS.

    BACKGROUNDER: When Palestine was partitioned in 1947, the U.N. allocated approximately 1/3 of Palestinian territory to the Palestinian people, although they constituted approximately 2/3 of the population. Since 1947, the Palestinian people have never exercised true sovereignty over the territory the U.N. had allocated to them. Moreover, due primarily to Israeli settlement construction in the OPT, the land Palestinians occupy has shrunk dramatically since 1947. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits occupying powers from transferring parts of their own civilian population to territory they occupy. Accordingly, the U.N. Security Council has declared that Israeli settlements in the OPT constitute “a flagrant violation” of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Moreover, in a 2004 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel’s settlements have been established in breach of international law. Despite the clear illegality of Israeli settlements in the OPT, Israel has continued to construct and expand such settlements up to the current time and has given no indication that it will cease doing so in the foreseeable future. Moreover, the current Israeli Prime Minister has declared his opposition to a sovereign Palestinian state. Thus, Palestinians’ prospects for achieving a sovereign Palestinian state through bilateral negotiations with Israel are remote. This leaves only one, non-violent option to the Palestinian people for realizing their dream of self-determination within their lifetimes. That option is BDS. Further, because BDS seeks to achieve Palestinian self-determination through economic and political sanctions rather than the use of force, BDS is entirely consistent with the GPC’s commitment to peace and mutual respect. Understanding these realities, the Green Party of the United States has endorsed BDS: http://www.gp.org/green_party_endorses_israel_boycott. However, should Israel implement a permanent ban on settlement construction and expansion and enter into good faith negotiations with the Palestinian authorities with a view to the creation of a viable, contiguous and truly sovereign Palestinian state, then the GPC should re-evaluate whether its support for BDS is necessary to achieve Palestinian self-determination. For nearly 70 years, the Palestinian people have been without a sovereign state. It is time for international community to give to the Palestinian people a realistic and non-violent path to self-determination. In the current circumstances, BDS is the only such path.

    • The “occupied territories” are occupied for a very important reason. Perhaps you should look up the repeated, ruthless attacks on Israel, by its neighbours, since the day Israel officially and formally became a state.

      Perhaps the incessant, naive lobbyists should turn their attention to the ongoing, illegal occupation of Canada. Surely, indigenous peoples here deserve as much attention as those who lay claim to Palestine?

      • The occupation is not to defend Israel. It is all about greed for land that can be stolen because Palestinians can not protect against the Israeli military enforcing the illegal settlers.
        RE “lobbyists should turn their attention to the ongoing, illegal occupation of Canada.”

        You have no right to tell ANYONE what cause they should pay attention to. You look after your causes DON’T WORRY ABOUT MINE. The nerve of some people telling others what they have to do.

        • Yes, and you have no right to tell ISRAELIS what to do. Don’t worry about THEIR cause, pay attention to your own. The nerve of some anti-Semitic blowhards.

          Indigenous people in Canada are being deprived of the land their ancestors occupied by your greed.

          Your blindness is astonishing. Not surprising for an anti-Semite, I guess.

          • Don’t misuse the language

            It is anti-Israeli, not anti-Semitic

      • I never agree with you but I do on this one. Trudeau is not looking after the indigenous people the way he promised to. Brad Wall has shown much more leadership in Saskatchewan in the troubled riding where there was a shooting and he confronting his constituents who are making racists remarks related to a recent shooting where a white farmer allegedly murdered a FN young man and is charged with second degree murder. The Green Party could take a leadership role on indigenous issues. It falls right in with environmental issues. Getting mired in Middle East politics is a big mistake.

    • Okay, and this has what to do with Liz May’s decision not to support your agenda? Let’s get back to the possibility she will take a walk. I say she goes to the NDP. She could be the leader. With the adoption of the Leap Manifesto, the party is prime for her to take over. She would be a star there and she would have the Lewis family at her beck and call. Stephen Lewis has plenty of foreign policy experience. She could re-work the party in a new and exciting way with MP’s that actually answer to her.

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