Power and Politics·POWER & POLITICS

'I have to save the whole world': Elizabeth May talks climate change, politics and personal heroes

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May sat down last week with Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos to talk about climate change, the abortion debate, NATO and alternative career prospects, among other things.

Green Leader Elizabeth May sat down with Vassy Kapelos last week for a leaders' edition of the Power Lunch.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May sat down with Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos for a special leaders' edition of the Power Lunch series. (Sara Brunetti / CBC NEWS)

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May doesn't much like politics. She says, in fact, that there are many other jobs she'd rather have.

So why does she stay in it?

"Because I have to save the whole world and we're running out of time," she told Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos over lunch last week. "I loved practising law when I practised law. But I think my job would be the one I was on a path to do before I got involved in politics, which is to be an Anglican priest."

May has been at the helm of the federal Greens since 2006, and was elected to the House of Commons in 2011.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May | Power Lunch: Leaders Edition

4 years ago
Duration 14:51
Featured VideoGreen Party Leader Elizabeth May discusses abortion, climate change, her personal hero, and other topics in this episode of the Power Lunch.

Federally and provincially, the Greens have seen their support grow in the last year. Paul Manly was elected as the party's second MP in May, and numerous Greens are now sitting in provincial legislatures across the country.

The party currently sits at about 11 per cent in the CBC Poll Tracker, which is an aggregate of all publicly available polling data. That compares to 13.8 per cent for the NDP and about 34 per cent each for the Liberals and Conservatives.

But with that surge in support comes heightened scrutiny — most notably from the NDP.

Along with her alternative career prospects, May discussed Canada's engagement with NATO and what she would do with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

Here is May's full exchange with Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos:


Kapelos:  The big issue that I'm sure you get tons of questions on ... (is) climate policy. If you're trying to explain to the crowd of people who don't live and breathe the science around it why it will be so devastating for the Earth to rise in temperature more than one point five degrees by 2030 ... How do you explain it to people?

May: There's a red line in the atmosphere. We don't know exactly where it is but (if) we go over it in terms of warming gases, we can unleash something unstoppable. Self-accelerating, called runaway global warming. So the messaging of the 1990s — we can avoid climate change if we take action — has changed to, 'because we haven't taken action, it's gotten much, much worse.' And that's why the urgency is greater and the consequences are much more severe than they would have been had we taken action, when we first committed to (it) in 1992.

Kapelos: You said to my colleague Don yesterday that if you, if you're in the position where you have to, quote-unquote, prop up a minority government, that you wouldn't do it, given the climate policies of each of the parties right now. Does that mean that in order for you to support whomever forms that (government) ... that their policy would have to match yours?

May: The target would have to match and there are many ways of saving ourselves. There are a million different strategies and policies one could employ. You could decide, to heck with a carbon tax, we're just going to ration carbon. Clean, simple, draconian. It would work, but I don't think people would like it. But the main thing is, our current climate target in this country is half of what we need to do. And we haven't achieved that yet.

Kapelos: It's kind of hypothetical but right now there's a lot of people talking and speculating that that could very much be the case. So as long as they were to agree to your targets, you'd entertain discussions, is that accurate?

May: It's not a question of propping up a government in the context of our Westminster parliamentary democracy. We tend to use words like 'prop up' and ... people say well, they'll just take any ... a little crumb off the table so they get power. No. Actually no. The only thing we're interested in as Greens is making sure that we are protecting Canada from an imminent threat and that imminent threat is the climate crisis. 

Kapelos: And those targets are your red line?

May: (The) targets are required not by politics, but by science. So we would never even go through a single vote of confidence, without a prime minister and a party that's forming government ... we would not lend our support in any way, shape or form unless they were prepared to say, 'Right, we get it, the climate crisis is very serious, and it's an emergency.' We've all passed the resolution in Parliament that this is a climate emergency but we are still acting as though it's a status quo world and nothing needs to change. The reality is everything needs to change.

Kapelos: Do you worry about any backlash about forcing an election?

May: Sure people would be … Nobody would want it, but that may be the best leverage we have to get one of the conventional big parties that has failed over and over again to address this issue appropriately, to actually rethink it, say 'Oh, okay, so what you're saying is, I get it - if I want to be in power I actually have to act on the climate crisis?' That can affect a lot of people's policies and you know is, that it, it concentrates the mind, shall we say.

Kapelos: You've been highly critical of the Liberals' purchase of TMX. What would you do if your party — another if — but if your party forms government, what would you do with TMX?

May: Cancel it.  

Kapelos: But what do you mean by cancel it? I mean, the government owns it. 

May: Yeah, that's right. Makes it really easy to cancel it.

Kapelos:  Would you sell it?

May: No, cancel ... well, the $4.5 billion on the old pipeline is gone. There's no way to get that back or recoup it, just keep operating it as-is for its useful life which is a much longer … No expansion.

Kapelos: You would just kill the expansion?

May: Yeah. It is actually contrary to the goals of ensuring we respond appropriately to the climate emergency to increase greenhouse gases by building a pipeline that is now owned by the people of Canada. It's $10-$13 billion more and there is no obligation to spend that money because we own it. We can decide we'd rather spend that money on renewable energy, we'd rather spend that money on improving our electricity grid.

Kapelos: Would you compensate people in Alberta who say that they are out of a job because of decisions like that, or because of the focus of your climate policy?

May: Well, the focus on our climate policy is to ensure that Alberta's economy is healthy.  Where we're losing a lot of workers in Alberta right now is as the big oil operators in the oilsands are automating, they're reducing their workforce a lot and no one is trying to protect those workers other than the unions. But a lot of jobs are being shed. And I don't hear Jason Kenney complaining about that. We need to protect workers in Alberta and anywhere in Canada.


Kapelos:  There is a discussion happening in the United States about ratification of NAFTA, there are certain concerns have been raised by Democrats. If those concerns are appeased and addressed by Wilbur Ross and the trade powers-that-be in the United States, do you support the ratification of NAFTA?

May: Yeah I do. Ah, the first NAFTA was really, had a lot of disastrous elements for Canada's environment. One of the worst was Chapter 11, which is the investor-state provision. The first investor-state provision in any treaty in the world. So, Chapter 11 of NAFTA is gone if we ratify the new version. It's not so much that I like the new version of NAFTA as much as I hate the last version.

Kapelos: So you like it as it is?

May: And we want to get rid of the energy chapter. The parts I worry about in NAFTA, in the CUSMA, in the new version? I don't like chipping away at supply management. I don't like protecting pharmaceutical industries and increasing their profits and making our drugs cost more. If the U.S. Democrats could get rid of those problems I'd be much happier.

Kapelos: If there was a vote, though, in Parliament to ratify it, would you at this point support it? 

May: I would, because I need to get rid of the energy chapter and I want to get rid of Chapter 11. 

Kapelos: OK, what about China? Should Canada be pursuing increased trade with China?

May: Not without a healthy degree of reality about what it means. Chinese involvement in our economy, they are a superpower economic force around the world. They buy things up with a purpose and their purpose is strategic. So we mustn't be foolish.

Kapelos: But you're not inherently against, given that country's human rights record…. How do you navigate that? Their record on that but not just, like, their corporate, the corporate record. But, you know, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor being detained?

May: Well that's a huge concern for us that those, that they be released. We need to ... What you need to engage with countries ... virtually any country around the world, if you engage with them and put pressure on them with a human rights concern, they may respond. It's hard.

Kapelos:  You think China will? Have they given you any reason to believe that?

May: In terms of the People's Republic of China, we are working constructively with them in some areas and globally, they're doing a lot on climate change. We should be encouraging everything we can where we can have a collaborative relationship and we should also be very, very clear. We have to be firm. And we have to be realistic. China has strategic interests in buying into our oilsands. Buying into our land base. Buying up real estate, buying up hotels. We need to pay attention to their strategic interests and make sure we protect our own. But we won't get anywhere in the world by closing off any country from dialogue.


Kapelos: Your platform also talks about replacing fighter jets with water bombers. Does that mean that you don't think Canada should be a part of NATO?

May: I think in terms of our engagement with NATO, we need to re-examine it. Greens are of the view that our involvement in NATO makes sense as long as we can ensure that NATO is part of a movement toward nuclear disarmament. It's urgent that Canada change our position around the treaty to abolish nuclear arms and nuclear weapons. We haven't signed it yet. We should and we should use whatever position we have in NATO for some benefit that makes the world a more secure place.

Kapelos: How would we have that position if we had no fighter jets though?

May: Well, I wouldn't say no fighter jets. The F-35s are a completely inappropriate plane for our needs. We need to look at what kind of fighter jets … Where is there an imminent threat that requires us to have a fighter bomber that can evade an enemy country's radar to get to them before they see us and bomb them first? This doesn't sound like any scenario that's plausible for our real interests of defence and security.

Kapelos: Does that mean you would re-evaluate Operation Reassurance participation in Operation Impact?

May: I think the over-militarized approach that this is all defence is about, is participating in NATO missions? We should not participate in any missions around the world that are not sanctioned by the United Nations. NATO missions can still be illegal, unless it's a ...

Kapelos: So you would re-examine Operation Impact, Operation Reassurance? (Yes) And it wouldn't mean all fighter jets are being replaced?  I just want to be clear on what …

May: You can be absolutely clear on that. Yes.


Kapelos: A topic that has been discussed between, especially, the Liberals and the Conservatives, and that's somebody's personal views on issues like same sex marriage and abortion. What is your personal view on abortion?

May: A woman has a right to a safe, legal abortion. I've never wavered in that position since I was, like, eight years old and realized what was going on when I heard my mother arguing with people about the issue. A woman has a right to a safe, legal abortion.

Kapelos: What would you do as leader of your party if a backbench Green MP came forward and wanted to introduce a private member's bill that reopened the debate?

May:  It's a difficult question because in Green Party policy, as leader my job description is chief spokesperson. So, I could talk to them, I could try to dissuade them, I could say it would be unfortunate. We work to consensus as Greens, so a measure of a private member's bill, we would all discuss it as a caucus. We'd try to talk people out of something but I don't have the power of leader the Green Party to whip votes, nor do I have the power to silence an MP. And frankly, I think that's a good thing because democracy will be healthier when constituents know that their MP works for them and not for the party leader.

Kapelos: So you would not — you know the debate right now, what Andrew Scheer would do, right.  So you would not ban the introduction of any type of bill, even if it does reopen debate on a socially controversial issue?

May: Under our values as Greens and under the powers I have as leader, I don't have the power to do that.

Kapelos: Do you think it's appropriate to ask of the five people running to lead this country what their personal views on those subjects are?

May: Absolutely.

Kapelos: Do you think it's appropriate for Canadians to expect them to answer clearly?

May: Absolutely.


Kapelos: What has been your biggest political gaffe?

May: Oh my God. Going to the press gallery dinner when I hadn't slept for three days. Big mistake.

Kapelos: I recall that. Who's your political hero?

May: Oh, I think it's Flora MacDonald. Isn't that crazy? She comes to mind all the time. I loved Flora. And I loved in how she stood in our Parliament with such dignity. Plus, she was a Cape Bretoner so, yeah.

Kapelos: Who is your personal hero?

May: Jesus Christ. Sorry. That's my answer. 

Kapelos: Why?

May: Because he led a revolution that was non-violent. He inspired people for a mil ... it's been 2,000 years. I rely on ... I rely on his advice. A lot.

Kapelos: Why did you say 'sorry' when you answered? 

May: Because politicians in Canada should not put their religion on their sleeve. And I gave you my quick, honest answer. I didn't self-edit.

Kapelos:  Why shouldn't they?

May: Because we are an inclusive and all-embracing society. Within the Green Party, we have candidates from every faith and religion and a lot who don't believe there is a God and wonder why anyone would be so foolish as to think so. And everyone is respected and welcome.

Kapelos: Best House of Commons seatmate and worst?

May: They've all been pretty good. I sat with Erin Weir for a while and he's a great guy. Sat with Max Bernier for a while and, as you know, we got along really well. I don't agree with a single thing he says, and lately he's getting quite out there. But anyway, best, best, best, best for sure — Paul Manley.

Kapelos: I handed that one to you. 

May: Best, Nanaimo-Ladysmith voters thank you so much.

Kapelos: And you don't want to pick a worst?

May: People who bellow in my ear.

Kapelos: If you could pick one job outside of politics, what would it be?

May: Oh I don't like politics at all. I'd love to pick other jobs. My favourite?

Kapelos: So why are you still in it?

May: Because I have to save the whole world and we're running out of time. I loved practising law when I practiced law. But I think my job would be the one I was on a path to do before I got involved in politics, which is to be an Anglican priest.

Kapelos: Right. But you quit that for politics. Any regrets?

May: No, oh no no no. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

Kapelos: Excellent. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it. Thank you for doing this. 

May: Bon appetit.

Kapelos: Bon appetit.

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