Elizabeth May is sitting in her Prius in a lineup for the ferry from Pender Island to Swartz Bay. The Green Party leader is on her way to Victoria to deliver a luncheon speech to a button-down business crowd at a downtown club.
A busy woman, she uses this time to conduct an interview on her BlackBerry. Slightly concerned about the effects of WiFi on her brain, however, she is taking precautionary measures and is on a speaker phone because she won’t put the device to her head.
As a political leader and now MP for the British Columbia riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, Ms. May has had to make concessions: the (potentially harmful?) cellphone and the car. (The environmentalist was without a car for 27 years, but finally broke down in 2007 and bought her hybrid Prius when she decided to run against Defence Minister Peter MacKay in his sprawling Nova Scotia riding.)
On this summer day, meanwhile, Ms. May has a few things on her mind – the text-book project she is writing and the treatment of the other female leader in the House of Commons.
First, she wants everyone to stop beating up on Nycole Turmel.
The interim NDP leader was eviscerated by the media and other political leaders this week after revelations that she used to be a card-carrying member of the separatist Bloc Québécois.
“I know Nycole Turmel and I have always been impressed by her,” Ms. May said. “I think people are overreacting, and I think that they should drop the issue now. I support her as a choice. It doesn’t speak well of people in other parties to have jumped on this and find ways to beat up on her and the NDP at this point.”
Jack Layton, the NDP leader, pushed for Ms. Turmel to be interim leader while he is battling a new cancer. He expects to be back to work when the House resumes in September.
Ms. May suggests if politicians are sincere in their wishes for Mr. Layton to get well, they must get over this fixation with Ms. Turmel’s political past.
“The Bloc Québécois has been a valid, legal parliamentary party. The exaggeration of what it means to be a member of the Bloc will insult Quebeckers,” she said.
Like other leaders (Stephen Harper has been a young Liberal in high school, a Reformer, a Canadian Alliance member and a Progressive Conservative; Bob Rae was an NDPer), Ms. May has had past allegiances with other parties.
She once took out a membership in the NDP and admits to joining the Liberal Party briefly to support a friend in a nomination meeting.
For 17 years, however, she remained politically neutral in her position as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. And despite her political attachment now, she’s again having to play non-partisan politics with a new project she has taken on this summer.
Ms. May is writing handbooks to encourage young Canadians and Americans to get involved in politics. She is somehow fitting this in between moving into her MP apartment in Ottawa, her constituency work in her B.C. riding and a little holiday later in August.
Approached by Annick Press (most famously publishers of Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess) about a month after the May 2 election, Ms. May, who was born in the United States but moved to Canada as a teenager, agreed to write the two textbooks, which she expects will be between 20,000 and 25,000 words.
“Youth voter turnout is critical to our survival as a society,” Ms. May said. “We’ve got to get them engaged.”
Elections Canada statistics show the extent to which Canadian youth are disengaged in politics – 37 per cent of young people between 18 and 24 voted in the 2004 election. This went up in the 2006 election with an estimated 43.8 per cent voting. In 2008, the turnout for that age group was back down to 37. 4 per cent. There is no youth breakdown yet for 2011, but 61 per cent of Canadians voted in May.
For her efforts, Ms. May will be paid $7,000 for the two books, and they will be suitable for schools to use.
“I never talk down to kids,” she said, noting that she is attempting to persuade young people to think and look critically at the issues and “to be able to empower a young person to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
They will be “heavily illustrated” and interactive with links to relevant Internet sites and videos, such as the famous debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon and the debate between Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas and Robert Stanfield from the 1968 election.
Facing a tight deadline of the end of September, Ms. May is writing the book on her laptop as she ferries among islands in her riding.
And despite creating a frenzy recently on Twitter when she tweeted about her concerns over “electromagnet frequencies,” she says she loves finding herself in a WiFi zone.
“I am not crazy,” she said about the recent controversy over her WiFi tweet and made it clear that there is no Green Party policy advocating a ban.
Rather, she said, the scientific literature so far suggests a cautionary approach. That’s why she insists on paying for her daughter to have a land line at university, and why on this day she is sitting in her car, waiting in a ferry line, talking into a speaker.