Elizabeth May is in the middle of her fourth federal election campaign as Leader of the Green party, and this one, she says, feels different. For once, she is happy to be here.
“I’ve always contemplated quitting – it’s one of my happy places,” says Ms. May, who turned 65 in June. “I don’t like politics, and I have always believed no one should stay in a position too long.”
Ms. May, who has led the Greens since 2006, was keen to walk away from it all four years ago. The results of the 2015 election left her crushed: Green support had collapsed in the final days of the campaign as centre-left voters united behind Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Ms. May won her own seat in Saanich-Gulf Islands handily, but the Greens’ share of the popular vote continued to slide, from 6.8 per cent of the popular vote in 2008, down to 3.9 per cent in 2011, and 3.5 per cent in 2015. She returned to Parliament once more as the lone Green MP, weighed down by her failure to meet expectations of a breakthrough of a dozen seats and a clear mandate from Canadians.
After the grind of that election tour, her daughter, Victoria Cate May Burton, a fixture at Ms. May’s side through three federal campaigns, declared she would not do another; she wanted to focus on her studies. For Ms. May, it was her cue to look for the exit ramp. But she did not want to quit on her constituents, so Ms. May took the successor search into her own hands. “It would be embarrassing, hard, to have a leader of the party that wants to do things I couldn’t possibly support, when I’m the only MP for that party,” she explained. “I asked multiple people, and I failed to find one candidate who was a person I really respected, who was willing to take it on,” she says.
She set her retirement plans aside, and is now relieved with her decision.
This fall, the party started out the election campaign with its best electoral opportunity to date. Greens have made inroads across the country, holding seats in four provincial parliaments, while the federal Greens picked up a second seat in a by-election this spring, when Paul Manly captured Nanaimo-Ladysmith. Plus, huge numbers of Canadians have mobilized around teenage activist Greta Thunberg, whose climate strikes have put the spotlight on the urgent need for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In theory, there has never been a better time to offer voters an election platform centred on climate action. “Boy, am I glad I’m here right now as leader,” Ms. May says. “This is the campaign of our lives, we are going to win a lot of seats.”
To transform those advantages into enough seats in Parliament to have influence in Canada’s next government, the Greens need to demonstrate that they are ready, at least, for opposition party status – that Ms. May isn’t a one-woman show, and the Greens are not a single-issue party. But with the polls indicating the New Democrats and Jagmeet Singh picking up steam, the Greens are in danger of being left behind, again. The party is consolidating its resources, in the final days of the campaign, on Vancouver Island and in the Maritimes. The Nanos national tracking poll, as of Oct. 15, showed the Greens with 9-per-cent support. But that support has to hold up all the way to the polling stations for Ms. May to return to Parliament with a caucus of her own – and that has been where the party has failed in the past.
If the party once again fails to make substantial gains, it will be difficult for Ms. May to remain in charge. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine the Greens without her.
“The party itself is her elongated shadow,” says Richard Johnston, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. If the Greens can win a clutch of seats, they can argue they are more than a boutique operation, he says, but as it stands, “the institution is owned by Elizabeth. How do you groom successors?”
Ms. May lives in a small apartment in the seaside town of Sidney, B.C. It is a plain building catering to retirees, with a sluggish elevator that imposes its own sleepy pace on Ms. May’s hectic campaign schedule.
On this September morning, Ms. May’s assistant, Alexa Lewis, is trying to keep the candidate on track for a commercial flight bound for a campaign event in another province. But Ms. May skipped out on her usual Sunday morning after-mass coffee at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and she won’t rush through her ritual of making coffee in a French press before settling into a comfortable chair to talk about the climate crisis.
The 2019 election, Ms. May says, is pivotal for the country – the planet, even. Canada, and the rest of the world, must begin now to launch dramatic countermeasures for climate change to ensure global average temperature does not rise more than 1.5 C above preindustrial levels, the target the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says must be met to avert catastrophic climate change.
The Greens are ready with a plan that would have Canada set an example for the world, she says. The NDP, Liberals and Conservatives all offer their own climate-action strategies, but only the Green plan aims to meet the targets set out in the IPCC report by the year 2030.
The Green climate plan, dubbed “Mission Possible,” offers a path to meet international targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by doubling Canada’s current commitment to reductions.
It’s an ambitious target. “There is no denying the level of ambition the Green Party has in tackling climate change. They are playing a lead role in this race to the top,” according to Sarah Petrevan, senior policy adviser for Clean Energy Canada, an energy think tank. “But I am not sure how they are going to get there.”
The Greens’ plan would require co-operation at the provincial level. Governments from Alberta to Ontario are pushing back against the national climate-action plan advanced by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – and that is with Mr. Trudeau’s investment in the Trans Mountain oil-pipeline expansion.
The Greens would cancel the pipeline, hike the carbon tax, effectively shutter the oil sands and squelch B.C.’s efforts to build a liquefied natural gas sector.
With its commitment to rapidly shift the economy to clean energy, the Green platform is a tough sell especially in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the party has expended few resources trying to woo Prairie voters.
Ms. May did spend a day campaigning in Calgary, however, arriving at a suburban train station in a spotless, top-of-the-line Tesla. A host of Alberta candidates – who stand very little chance of getting elected on Oct. 21 – dutifully assembled around their leader as the backdrop for a campaign announcement promising to expand Canada’s rail services.
The message – one that she has focused on throughout her campaign, during visits to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia – is this is a party with a broad platform and a range of candidates.
More broadly, the platform reflects the values Ms. May has long campaigned for: It is a progressive manifesto featuring reconciliation with Indigenous people, democratic reform, free postsecondary tuition, an expanded public-health-care system and the promise of a guaranteed income to raise Canadians above the poverty line. Saving the environment, in this plan, goes hand in hand with social justice.
In the first year, the party proposes a 21.5-per-cent increase in federal spending – a hike worth $74-billion. To pay for the new programs, the Greens would boost tax revenue by about $70-billion in Year 3 of the platform. To get there, the party proposes raising the corporate tax rate from 15 per cent to 21 per cent; applying tax to 100 per cent of capital gains, up from 50 per cent. It would impose a 1-per-cent tax on net wealth more than $20-million, and a 0.5-per-cent tax on financial transactions such as the sale of stocks and bonds.
The Parliamentary Budget Office has cautioned the expected revenue from some of the tax increases is highly uncertain in part because the ideas fall out of the mainstream of public economics. For instance, the PBO said the plan to raise more than $15-billion a year from a financial transactions tax “has not been tried in an open economy before.”
The Ottawa-based Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy initially awarded the Greens a failing grade for realistic assumptions and transparency, and only upgraded its ratings to a “pass” after a reassessment. It maintains the party earned a “fail” in the category of responsible fiscal management.
Ahead of the election, the Greens looked to be in a close race for third party status with the NDP. With those stakes, the party expected to attract more scrutiny and fire in this race. For a brief period, it hired backroom operative Warren Kinsella – the self-described Prince of Darkness of Canadian politics – to help build the party’s “quick-response capacity.” In other words, to prepare the party to fire back when their leader was under attack.
But the appointment proved controversial, and Ms. May announced that his contract was over months before the campaign began.
Once the campaign was on, that quick response plan didn’t help avert a string of controversies. Ms. May was on the defensive about weak candidate vetting that has forced them to drop 23 candidates to date (news shared gleefully by NDP activists).
In addition to anti-abortion statements from some candidates, Ms. May has contended with candidate Pierre Nantel’s outspoken Quebec nationalist sentiments. One candidate proposed sending a pig carcass to Muslims, and another had a history of anti-Israel remarks. The party is trying to keep a lid on further eruptions by encouraging candidates to sidestep the debate over Quebec’s new law that bans provincial employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. The Greens officially oppose the law, but Ms. May will accept dissension on this point within the ranks.
Ms. May is solidly committed to the notion that a caucus of elected Greens would not be whipped on votes in Parliament. She maintains that Greens in other countries have demonstrated that this is perfectly workable.
“This is how Greens operate in countries around the world. … We make decisions by consensus, we believe in grassroots democracy, so the leader isn’t a dictator," she says.
That style of politics has its frustrations, she admits. “The leader of the Green party is the chief spokesperson. My friends, my real peer group, are leaders of Green parties in other countries around the world, who have the same frustration as I have: We get blamed for everything but we have no power.”
Alex Tyrrell, Leader of the Green Party of Quebec, says Ms. May has created problems for the party with her leadership style. “Elizabeth May has brought a centrist style of leadership, trying to strike a balance where there is no balance to be struck,” he says. Mr. Tyrrell says he is constantly having to explain Ms. May’s position on abortion (she’s pro-choice) and has made it clear that the Quebec wing of the party will not support Bill 21 and discrimination against minorities. Ms. May, he says, has been ambiguous when she should be an activist.
Indeed, if Canadian voters return a minority government to Parliament on Oct. 21, she says she is prepared to collaborate with any party willing to work toward decarbonizing the economy, a position that has left her open to criticism from all sides.
Ms. May seems unconcerned, stating simply that when it comes to seizing the chance to put the brakes on drastic climate change, “there can be no compromise.”
Ms. May’s brand is a mix of virtuous eco-hero, and personable un-politician.
Sitting in a Calgary café over (fair trade and organic) coffee and a vegetarian buffet lunch, Ms. May is marvelling at the power of a 16-year-old activist to mobilize action who is not held back by the niceties that Ms. May has tried to nurture.
“I think Greta Thunberg is extraordinary. … She is the most important leader in the world right now on climate,” Ms. May says. “Greta is unforgiving, uncompromising and unsentimental in a way I have never heard in any speaker,” she says. “There is a forgiveness in my rhetoric.”
Ms. May does share one thing in common with Ms. Thunberg: Both were captured by environmental concerns at a young age. Ms. May was 13 when she decided that she wanted to be an environmental lawyer.
She was born to a comfortable life in Hartford, Conn., in 1954. Her parents, Stephanie and John, raised their two children on a three-hectare farm with ponies and pet sheep. Elizabeth and her brother, Geoff, attended private school but were largely shunned, as they recall, because of their mother’s anti-war and civil-rights activism. John Middleton May – he took his wife’s family name as his middle name as an anniversary gift – was a corporate accountant who logged long hours at work.
Stephanie Middleton May’s portrait as a young woman hangs over the dining-room table in Ms. May’s apartment. Ms. May proudly recalls that her activist mother was on U.S. president Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Stephanie died in 2003, with donations in lieu of flowers directed to the organization that her daughter was running at the time, the Sierra Club of Canada. Stephanie’s obituary describes her as an activist and raconteur. She introduced her daughter to politics in the company of Democrat Senator Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war activist who was Elizabeth May’s first hero. (Ms. May would later get into Dalhousie University’s law school with a letter of recommendation from a family friend, the then-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.)
She ran her first campaign in high school – promoting a bill to encourage recycling – and organized her community’s first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970, when she was 15.
“My mom is the reason my brother and I regard answering a question as dinner theatre,” Ms. May explains. (Ms. May has a reputation for long and unscripted answers to questions. Interviewing her brother, Geoff, for this story, it is clear this is a family trait.)
Alongside her environment fervour, Ms. May also sought out religion at a young age. While her family did not attend church, Ms. May was intrigued by her friend Abigail Kessler’s bat mitzvah. At the age of 13, she went to see her friend’s father, Rabbi Stanley Kessler, asking to be converted to Judaism.
“He took it very seriously, he was a lovely man who gave great advice, but he questioned me closely. He said, ‘I think you have a closer attachment to Jesus Christ than you think you do.’ ” He encouraged her to look up the church of her grandparents. She followed through, and signed up for confirmation classes in an Episcopal church in rural Connecticut. She became a Sunday school teacher, continuing to teach until her political career consumed her schedule.
The Mays’ lives changed dramatically when, in 1973, her parents decided to move to Canada. “With more determination than experience,” as Ms. May recalled in her 2014 book, Who We Are, the family bought a restaurant and gift shop in the village of Margaree Harbour on Cape Breton Island, and moved into a one-room log cabin.
“I had not felt good about wealth but I cannot say I enjoyed poverty,” Ms. May wrote in her 2014 memoirs. Instead of heading to university, Ms. May served and cooked at the family restaurant in the summer. But winters, once the tourists were gone, offered time to campaign, starting with an effort to stop aerial insecticide spraying over Cape Breton’s forests.
Her path to politics wasn’t direct. After graduating from law school at Dalhousie in 1983, Ms. May landed a job as a senior policy adviser to Tom McMillan, then-environment minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, in 1986. This was her first opportunity to learn how government worked from the inside.
Her next move was to take up the post as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, a position she would hold from 1989 to 2006.
In that time, she forged lasting bonds with a network of environmentalists, including Vicky Husband, who was heading up the Sierra Club in B.C. at the same time. Ms. Husband says her friend is underrated on the national stage: “She has integrity, and intelligence and a genuine soul. What she does is what she really believes in. There is such an honesty in her.” But Ms. May can be too trusting and open, sometimes: “I have warned her to be a little more careful with people,” Ms. Husband said. “You want to protect her because of the trolls and the nastiness.”
Ms. May dove headlong into the bruising political arena in in 2006, convinced it was the only way to stop then-prime minister Stephen Harper from threatening Canada’s environment. Her first campaign ended in failure, but she was determined to make her own miracle. The Greens searched for the Canadian riding that offered the best chance for a victory. They landed on Saanich-Gulf Islands. Ms. May moved to the other side of the country in 2010 and, in the 2011 federal election, made history as Canada’s first Green MP.
Since then, she has built a reputation on Parliament Hill as a workaholic. Her thorough research and understanding of issues – rather than memorizing canned messages – is a key to her solid performance in the leadership debates in this campaign.
But her personal life was lonely. A year ago, at a Green Party convention, one of Ms. May’s friends decided to play matchmaker. Sylvia Olsen (who is the mother of B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen) found herself sitting next to John Kidder, a retired entrepreneur who had founded the B.C. Green Party in the 1980s. Ms. Olsen urged him to ask the federal leader out on a date. He proposed six weeks later and they wed on Earth Day of this year, in an environmentally friendly event for 600 guests.
“I’ve never been as happy. I adore my daughter, and I never thought anything would make me as happy as being a good mom, but this is my first good relationship and it’s fantastic. We’re crazy about each other,” Ms. May says of her new husband. (She separated from her former partner, Ian Burton, when their daughter was two years old.)
Mr. Kidder, 71, is now running as the Green candidate in the riding where he lives, Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon. On Sept. 11, the couple sat on a bench in a hotel foyer, sharing a set of earbuds, to hear Mr. Trudeau launch the election campaign. They dissected Mr. Trudeau’s speech before Ms. May addressed a party rally. “We don’t talk strategy, but we do talk about what the nature of revolutionary change looks like,” he says. “We actually have to change the world. It’s not a joke, it’s the real thing.”
Geoff May shares the same urgency and belief his sister can deliver. “She is not interested in politics,” he says. “She is interested in one thing. Her goal since joining the Green Party is the same goal she had when she was a kid – to keep us from destroying the natural world.”
This election, he says, is Ms. May’s chance to do that. “Short of Jesus coming from the clouds – yes, that would change the world – but short of that, Elizabeth getting elected prime minister of Canada … could be the change that could make the survival of planet Earth, that miracle, happen.”
There is a hint that Ms. May still harbours an ambition to step back from the Green Party in one of its latest television ads. Ms. May, smiling, stands in the middle of a crowd and speaks to the camera: “People think we are a one-person party,” she says. The chorus of candidates around her respond, “Not in this election.”
There are those who say she has already stayed too long.
Palestinian human-rights lawyer Dimitri Lascaris ran for the Greens in the previous election. He was at the centre of a divisive internal battle in 2016 that led to his expulsion from Ms. May’s shadow cabinet. He had successfully brought forward a party resolution supporting sanctions against Israel, over the Leader’s objections. Ms. May in that moment demonstrated the limits of her consensus-based leadership style.
“She has been in the leadership position long enough – the party needs renewal,” Mr. Lascaris says. “But I would say at a bare minimum, the party should have a result that actually makes it a player in Parliament, something that accords it official party status. If she can’t accomplish that much, I think the case for her replacement is absolutely compelling.”
No matter the outcome delivered by voters, Ms. May says she sees her happy place – retirement from leadership – on the horizon.
“I am still very happy as the member of Parliament for Saanich and the Gulf Islands,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s healthy for the party for me to be the leader for another [term] – I think it’s important for succession planning.
“Win, lose or draw, short of being prime minister, I would hope that before the next election, we can start succession planning.”
Build your personal news feed
- Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
- Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.