Elizabeth May: For Green and country

Elizabeth May emerged as a recognizable federal party leader when she fought successfully for a spot in the televised leadership debates leading up to the 2008 election.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks to the media in Ottawa on Jan. 31, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Leader of the Green Party since 2006, Elizabeth May has brought increasing profile to the party and made herself a regular presence on Parliament Hill. She emerged as a recognizable federal party leader after fighting successfully to get into the televised leadership debates before the October 2008 election.  

Despite a battle with the TV networks and the other party leaders, and even though her party had no elected seats in the House of Commons, May managed to grab a seat at the debate table. It was a glimpse of her tenacity, something she'll need as she takes on another cabinet minister to try to earn her first seat in the House of Commons.

After a defeat by now-Defence Minister Peter MacKay in the riding his father held before him, May will take on Minister of State for Amateur Sport Gary Lunn in Saanich-Gulf Islands just outside Victoria, B.C.

Vital Signs

Born: June 9, 1954, in Connecticut.

Profession: Lawyer, environmental activist, university professor. Graduated from Dalhousie Law School in 1983; assistant professor at Dalhousie University, women's studies; executive director of Sierra Club of Canada, 1989-2006.

Personal stuff: May has a daughter, Victoria Cate, who attends university in Nova Scotia. May moved to Vancouver Island in 2009, where she's running against Minister of State for Amateur Sport Gary Lunn.

It was a mild groundswell and the fight to get May into the debates put her party on the front pages at a crucial time in the campaign.

When the debates finally rolled around, May's French performance was generally panned but she made a mark in the English debate in Ottawa when she took on Conservative Leader Stephen Harper regarding his request for more debate time on the economy.

"Both nights, I waited to hear what you thought you should do about the situation and wondered why you wanted the time because you offered nothing up, and tonight, you spent your time attacking the policies of others," she said.

But despite finishing third in a poll taken after the English debate and despite all of the press leading up to the debates, the Greens did not elect a member of Parliament and received only a slightly higher share of the votes gathered in the 2006 election.

People knew who May was, though, after the debate tussles and her high-profile election campaign train ride from British Columbia to Toronto.

A new direction

May was selected leader of the Green Party of Canada on Aug. 26, 2006, after serving as the longtime executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.

The Greens have garnered the support of more than half a million Canadian voters in each of the past three general elections but have not elected a member of Parliament.

They did, however, have an MP for just a few months after Blair Wilson, a Vancouver-area Independent who quit the Liberal party, joined the Greens in late August 2008.

With climate change becoming a more prominent issue, and with one MP, the Greens were hoping for a breakthrough in the 2008 election, but the party managed just 6.8 per cent of the vote, slightly up from the 6.6 per cent support they garnered in 2006.

Wilson finished third in his riding in the 2008 election and May lost as well. She didn't pick an easy battle in 2008, running in the Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova against Peter MacKay, a high-profile cabinet minister in Harper's government and the minister responsible for East Coast matters. Her strong Nova Scotia roots, where she'd lived as a teen, weren't enough to help her beat a former foreign affairs minister.

It was a hard-fought campaign, but MacKay prevailed by just over 14 percentage points on election night.

The campaign's climax came during a riding debate attended by 600 people, as MacKay and May went at it soon after the introductions, with the Green leader being the aggressor much of the time.

She was forced onto the defensive, however, when pressed about a deal the Greens made with then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion to ensure no Liberal candidate ran against her in the riding.

Ready to take on battles

May has never been elected.

She came close, however, in a byelection in London, Ont., in November 2006, coming second to the incumbent Liberals with nearly 26 per cent of the votes cast.

A well-known environmental activist, May has 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 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. In Nova Scotia, May came to prominence in the early 1980s as a young activist and lawyer trying to stop the spraying of the controversial defoliant Agent Orange by timber concerns. The resulting court case, however, cost her family dearly and they had to sell a large portion of their property to pay 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 assessments.

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 inaction on relocating families affected by their proximity to the Sydney, N.S., tar ponds.

Since the October 2008 election, May and her party have kept a fairly low profile after being shut out of the House of Commons.

In March 2009, May received the support of her party at the Greens' policy convention in Pictou, N.S., although reports cited some as expressing disappointment the party did not win a seat the previous October.

"I can honestly tell you I didn't expect that strong and unanimous sense of support and appreciation, and even forgiveness, for mistakes," May told the delegates.

May released a book in the spring of 2009 titled Losing Confidence: Power, Politics, and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy.

May was forced to fight to keep her leadership in August, 2010, when challenger Sylvie Lemieux took her on. But May supporters passed a resolution lengthening her term and gave her an 85 per cent approval in a leadership review vote.