On the night of the Maclean's magazine leaders debate in early August, the pressure was on Elizabeth May. She was sparring with three other federal leaders, all potential prime ministers, in a nationally televised event. And while a whole team of Green Party staffers watched and analyzed Ms. May's performance from the sidelines, only one person was allowed to speak with her during the commercial breaks: her daughter, Cate May Burton.
"Mom wanted me to be the one liaising with her on debate night because there's a lot more value in having the right frame of mind for these kind of things than hitting the checklist for the things you need to be saying and looking out for," Ms. May's 24-year-old only child explains.
While party staffers thought that she could be more aggressive, Ms. May Burton knew what her mom needed to hear. "I decided that, knowing her, she was doing the best she could not to retaliate in terms of interrupting and talking over people, so I took some liberty with the advice that people were trying to give her," she says.
Ms. May Burton has been a calm, reassuring presence on her mother's campaign, as Canada's federal leaders hit the trails for the longest election campaign in decades. Politics is a family affair, and Ms. May is following a long tradition of travelling with family who offer emotional support, personal guidance and a bit of levity to the candidate at such a stressful, high-stakes time.
Like a lot of kids raised in the political spotlight, I travelled with my dad, Joe Clark, for every campaign from the time of my birth. In this campaign, Ben and Rachel Harper have accompanied their father and mother, Stephen and Laureen Harper, at numerous stops; Justin Trudeau's young family has appeared at several major events with the Liberal Leader, and Thomas Mulcair is rarely seen without his wife, Catherine, by his side.
Ms. May Burton may not have grown up a political kid, but that doesn't mean she is in uncharted territory. From the time of her birth, Ms. May – who served 17 years as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada – took her daughter everywhere. Ms. May Burton spent her formative years playing on the floors of the halls of power, introduced to influential people such as Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Paul McCartney, Jane Goodall and David Suzuki and getting a crash-course in activism from a mom determined to make a difference in the world around her.
"It was a crazy way to grow up," admits Ms. May Burton, who is now pursuing a master's degree in women and gender studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. "I never knew what adventure or mishap might be around the corner."
But Ms. May Burton, who is described by her mother as "unbelievably mature," has always been a level-headed pragmatist. "When I was 8, Mom tried to get me to go to a meeting with her in Paris, and I said no because I didn't want to miss Brownies and my dance class," she recalls with amusement.
Despite her unusual upbringing – or more likely because of it – Ms. May Burton and her mother are extremely close, even if their personalities are significantly different. Ms. May is ebullient, passionate, determined and focused; Ms. May Burton is much more low-key. "I like to see how things unfold, to pay attention to a conversation around me and only interject when I feel there's something that needs to be said," she says.
Ironically, it's Ms. May Burton who may have spurred her mother's leap onto the political stage, researching the Green Party online after she and her mom watched a leaders debate during the 2006 election campaign.
"I immediately liked the idea of mom running for Green Party leader," she says. "Things looked so bleak in politics that we decided we needed to do something."
Fast-forward to today, and Ms. May Burton continues to play a pivotal role in her mother's political life. She could be at home pursuing her studies, planning her career – which, take note, does not involve following in her mom's footsteps – and continuing her life with long-time boyfriend Reed Clements. However, her mom is the priority.
"If I were at home right now trying to write my thesis, I would be going crazy," Ms. May Burton laughs. "I would be watching the news, going on social media, looking at all of the things happening," she says. "I wouldn't be able to live my daily life in a focused or balanced way if I weren't a part of it."
Being on the campaign also allows her to keep an eye on her mother. "I worry about my mom," confirms Ms. May Burton, who is concerned that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on her to be everywhere and do everything at once. "Her work relies mostly on her ability to keep going – there's not a lot of fall-back area there."
For the next month and a half, Ms. May Burton's presence is providing Mr. May with all the motivation the Green Party Leader needs. "I'm on cloud nine because I've got my daughter with me for all these weeks," Ms. May says. "There no way to adequately describe the difference it makes to be with someone you love totally, more than anything – she is an indispensable part of this campaign."