The Green Party
A talk with the new Green Party Leader, Elizabeth May
Last Updated September 1, 2006
The new leader of the Green Party of Canada, Elizabeth May, 52, says she has been an environmental activist since she was 13. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
On Aug. 26, 2006, the Green Party of Canada selected a new leader — Elizabeth May, 52, the longtime executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. The Greens have garnered the support of over half a million Canadian voters in each of the past two general elections but have never elected a member of Parliament. May ran for office only once before, in 1980 for a start-up party called the Small Party, a precursor of the Greens, but she has never been elected.
A well-known environmental activist, May is also someone with friends in high places: former U.S. president Bill Clinton is a family friend and former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney is also someone with whom May has worked closely over the years.
Well-spoken and media savvy, she comes by her activism naturally. Her mother was a prominent anti-nuclear opponent in Connecticut and a founder of the peace group SANE, before the family moved to Cape Breton, N.S., when May was a teenager. There she came to prominence as a young activist and lawyer in the early 1980s trying to stop the spraying of the controversial defoliant Agent Orange by timber concerns. The resulting court case, however, cost her family dearly as they were forced to sell a large portion of their property to pay for the legal bills.
In 1986, May was appointed senior policy adviser to federal environment minister Tom McMillan, a Conservative. She quit three years later, in 1989, when the Mulroney government exempted the Rafferty-Alameda dams in Saskatchewan from full environmental assessment.
That was when May became the founding executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, an offshoot of the venerable U.S. environmental group. Her most controversial action was a 17-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill in 2001 to protest government inactivity in relocating families affected by their proximity to the Sydney tar ponds.
She spoke with CBC.ca editor Robert Sheppard
Q: You are well known as an environmentalist. Where do you fit on the political spectrum?
May: We find in the Green Party that the political spectrum is irrelevant to our policies and our transformative brand of politics. We aren't left. We aren't right. We're about a real shift in Canadian politics that moves behind labels.
We intend to take policy instruments and solutions from tool kits that might be described as left, or that might be described as right and if it works we will use it.
Q: Can you give me an example?
May: Sure. We'll use market instruments, we will use tax shifting. That might be seen to be of the right. And we will work to eliminate poverty and that might be seen to be of the left. Left and right, in terms of Green Party principles, are anachronisms as labels.
Q: Do you see the party shifting from where it was under former leader Jim Harris, who many saw as a fiscal conservative?
May: Not a bit. The orientation around fiscal responsibility. The use of a triple bottom line, the commitment to tax shifting, not more taxes, that's pretty well embedded in our platform.
Q: When it came to environmental regulations, Harris talked about voluntary compliance for corporations. Where do you stand on that?
May: I think that was in the nature of him thinking aloud. The platform does include the use of regulations and we cannot ignore the fact that voluntary compliance alone has not worked in the environmental field.
Basic regulations work to get a bottom-line minimum. But if you want to get the very best effort, the best available technology, companies using their own innovation, you want to take that regulatory minimum and top it up with market-driven incentives to encourage higher performance.
Q: With you as leader, will the Greens become more exclusively focused as an environmental party?
May: The Green Party will always be a party that sees the environment as the context in which everything else happens. To quote the former senior economist at the World Bank, Herman Daly, "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment."
So in that context we are a party that recognises that without a viable life support system there is not much point in talking about anything else. But we do have a full range of policies and proposals that speaks to health care, education and eliminating poverty, and that deals with human rights as well as with indigenous issues.
Like any other political party we have a program that is complete. And I'm committed that, by the next election, to having that program costed and to have it very specific in terms of the nuts and bolts.
Q: Who are you aiming at? What parties will you be taking votes away from?
May: We're appealing to all Canadians and I'd be uncomfortable with a strategy that says we're going to target that one or that one. We're a grassroots party and our membership is literally full of people who have abandoned the Conservative party, abandoned the Liberal party, abandoned the NDP and a lot of young people who have never had a party affiliation.
Q: The Sierra Club, which you headed, was very high on the environmental platforms of the NDP and the Bloc Québécois in the last campaign. Do you envision forming some informal alliances come election day? Rather than run candidates in all 308 ridings?
May: Looking traditionally at the European Greens, or for that matter Australia or New Zealand Greens, which have had a significant impact on public policy, it's been through working in coalition with other parties. So that's not out of keeping with the Green Party approach.
But what we are very committed to is giving every Canadian the opportunity to vote for the Green Party of Canada. I'm not the dictator here. But my own personal view is that we want to maintain the right of every Canadian to vote for a Green candidate in their own riding.
I also would not rule out maintaining good relations, working in coalition and trying to find ways where, on certain issues, we make common cause with other parties.
Q: You are particularly well-known for your hunger strike in 2001 Now that you are seeking elected office, do you see yourself doing anything like that again?
May: No. It wasn't a tactic, it was a personal statement of conscience from which I actually took a leave of absence from Sierra Club of Canada. For me, it was a moment of a profound sense of desperation for families some of whom are still living in areas of toxic waste that represent potential threats to their health.
When I made the decision to sit on Parliament Hill and go on a hunger strike, I did it knowing that it didn't seem that anyone was taking the concerns of the mothers and children I knew in Sydney very seriously. I felt that if I made this strong statement of conscience the issues would be taken more seriously.
And that did in fact help quite a bit on a number of aspects of the issue but not on the core one I was concerned about, which was removing families from exposure to high levels of heavy metals and carcinogens. That is still not fully done.
The other part of your question: Would I do that now? No. I'm the leader of a federal political party, and though Gandhi went on a hunger strike when he was leader of a large movement, I can't imagine the circumstances in which the issues the Green Party represents and which we advocate would be assisted by something like a hunger strike. I'm the leader of a federal political party. I don't think it would be appropriate.
Q: What would you say have been the defining movements of your career?
May: I think the most difficult thing personally for myself was in the early 1980s and going to court to stop the spraying of Agent Orange in Nova Scotia. That was a very punishing experience.
The hunger strike was profoundly inspiring. I got to meet members of Parliament from all across the political spectrum and they were all caring, concerned and supportive. It was a very positive experience.
Fighting to keep Nova Scotia's forests from being sprayed with Agent Orange was punishing because it represented a personal loss. My family lost 80 acres of land overlooking the Bras d'Or lakes to pay for the court costs to Scott Paper. That was a very difficult thing.
In the end, though we lost the court case, by the time the judge ruled these chemicals were safe they were no longer available for sale because the U.S. had reached a deal with the manufacturer not to allow their export. So in effect we did stop the spraying of Agent Orange on seven counties in Nova Scotia for which I remain proud to this day.
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