The Green Party Express: campaigning by train with Elizabeth May

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May's recent rail tour of campaign stops in the Maritimes and Quebec was a microcosm of the Green campaign itself - environmentally responsible and off-the-cuff.

May says she would be disappointed if Canadians don't elect a minority government

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May waves goodbye to supporters while campaigning by train on Sept. 25, 2019. (Chris Patry/ CBC)

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May arrived at the Halifax train station on Wednesday, just minutes before the scheduled departure time, with her luggage, a boarding pass and three staffers in tow.

Compared to other party leaders who criss-cross the country in chartered planes and buses, trailed by entourages of staffers and journalists, May travels light.

Passengers' heads turned as she arrived. One person groused about May cutting into the boarding line to join staffers who were saving a space for her. Another said it was nice to see a politician taking a train.

For the next 22 hours — from Halifax through Truro and Amherst in Nova Scotia, and Moncton and Miramichi in New Brunswick — May turned a Via Rail passenger train into an unofficial Green Party Express, hopping on and off along the way for political rallies.

"We have a busy schedule on board," she said as she headed for the platform.

May's choice of such a low-impact mode of travel is one part principle, one part calculation: in an election that's seen the threat of climate change vault to top-of-mind for a great many voters, travelling by rail is suddenly a good look.

Her rail tour ended in Montreal, where she attended Friday's climate change rally alongside celebrated teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and as many as 500,000 concerned Canadians.

Polls ahead of the fall federal election campaign suggested the Greens were in a position to make a breakthrough this time, possibly by supplanting the NDP and snapping up the party's seats in B.C. and Quebec. But the Greens appear to have peaked in the polls; now they're struggling with high expectations and a newly competitive NDP and Bloc Québécois.

Many say May's freewheeling and unfiltered campaigning style is both a strength and a weakness. Her 1,346 kilometre whistlestop train tour demonstrated that.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May gets off the train in Amherst, N.S. on Sept. 25, 2019. (Chris Patry/ CBC)

When CBC News was invited along for the trip, a party staffer warned it would be a chaotic day and night of "shotgun rallies" on train platforms throughout the Maritimes, with May frequently jumping off and running to greet supporters, give speeches and snap selfies before sprinting back to catch the train before it left.

The crowds were enthusiastic but small — sometimes running to just 30 or 40 people cheering and waving — and the stops were short, usually about 15 minutes. "We gotta get back on the train!" she told one crowd. "I don't want to make Via Rail mad at us."

Turns out Via Rail wasn't wild about May using their trains to campaign. Via spokesperson Marie-Anna Murat said new Privy Council guidelines for Crown corporations say Via's trains and stations must not be used for partisan activities.

"The guidelines state that Via Rail must avoid any perception that government resources are used for partisan purposes," Murat said in an email to CBC.

Asked about Via's policy, May shrugged it off, saying that the rail service's management had never complained about her use of Via transport in the past.

At least one political strategist says May's off-the-cuff campaigning style is hurting her party's chances.

"May is is quite the character," said Erica Ifill, who writes columns and runs a branding agency. "She really speaks her mind. Where Elizabeth may struggle is in the thing that makes her great. I find that she requires more structure sometimes than she allows herself to have."

Where the Greens lack of structure hurts them is in message discipline, she said. Recently, May got into trouble when she told CBC that elected members of her party would not be prevented from reopening the debate on abortion, even though she believes personally in a women's right to choose.

Elizabeth May: Trans Mountain support means no Green backing in minority government

3 years ago
Duration 1:46
As Green Leader Elizabeth May travels to Montreal to attend a climate protest, she details to us her hardline stance on climate change, and what it would mean for the other parties in the event of a minority government.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh quickly attacked May, questioning her commitment to women's reproductive rights.

"He keeps making up lies about us. And that's very frustrating for me, honestly," May told CBC News while sitting in the dining car. "I just thought more of Jagmeet. I didn't think he'd keep attacking me on things that aren't true."

May said she doesn't think that incident has derailed her campaign. As the train rolled through Nova Scotia, she said the Green Party had seen its support growing throughout the Maritimes.

"I mean, right now we're seeing a shift on the ground," she said. "So I'm hearing from my candidates that they have more orders for lawn signs and they can't keep up."

Elizabeth May and three campaign staffers work in sleeper cabin on a Via Rail train Sept. 25, 2019. (Chris Patry/ CBC)

May said her party is on track for its best showing ever in a federal general election, citing the election of more Greens in provincial legislatures in B.C., Ontario and P.E.I. She said she's hoping Canadians elect a minority government, one which would give parties like hers the balance of power.

"It would be massively bad news for this country if either the Liberals or the Conservatives had enough seats to claim a majority government with a minority of public support," May said. "A minority Parliament forces us to work together."


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

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