Elizabeth May’s First Term as a Green MP in Canada’s Parliament


“We can be totally honest and speak from our hearts. When we feel even one thing is good we can point it out.”

Elizabeth May became Canada’s first Green member of Parliament, for Saanich-Gulf Islands in British Columbia, in the federal elections of May 2011. Even though she had been elected leader of the Green Party of Canada (GPC) in 2006, the party did not make her candidacy a priority in two previous campaigns in 2006 and 2008.

“All around the world,” she is quoted as saying philosophically, “the Green Party has a grassroots culture of resisting the idea of leader as boss. It almost translates as an anti-leader culture. The leader is there as chief spokesperson but, without making it sound too harsh, the party has no tradition of putting the leader in a position superior to even the lowest person on staff.”

She plunged into her work, leading the opposition parties in the campaign against Bill C-38, the ruling Conservative Party’s omnibus bill, in June of 2012. May sponsored 400 out of 1000 amendments put forward. She has been widely praised as an example of the difference one MP can make, in these days of hyper-partisanship and centralized parliamentary parties. Even Tory backbenchers admit rather grudgingly that May’s knowledge of budget rules and of the process of advancing amendments is impressive.

May was chosen Parliament’s best parliamentarian overall in 2012 and the hardest working parliamentarian in 2013, in a vote taken not by a partisan group but by all members of Parliament. Her inspiring example prompted Chris Turner – a journalist and environmentalist – to run for Parliament in Calgary Centre, and Bruce Hyer, Independent MP from Thunder Bay/Superior North to become a Green and double the size of the Green caucus.

One significant contribution made by May as a sitting member has been to define the Green position on policies that are not normally considered to be part of the Green Party’s focus. Although the media haven’t picked up on it, she has laid out the relevance of Green philosophy to such issues as immigration, jobs and the economy, social justice, income inequality, trade deals, urban development, and agriculture.

It’s an uphill fight, because Greens are stereotyped as interested “only” in environmental issues, which are carefully separated from other issues by the media and politicians of other parties.

May had an impressive record of accomplishments before she got elected. She worked her way through law school and then used her degree to advocate for indigenous peoples, both in Canada and internationally. The author of seven books, mostly on environmental issues and political activism, she is presently – somehow – working on her eighth.

She has received numerous awards for her activism, serving as an especially effective Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada from 1989 until 2006, when she became the GPC’s leader. She was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005.

She was also Senior Policy Advisor to Tom McMillan when he was federal Environment Minister, from 1986-8; she resigned on principle when a series of dams in Saskatchewan were approved without an environmental assessment.

Her principles have been front and centre as an MP. She already has a reputation for holding the government to account on issues even the other opposition parties would prefer to ignore.

May told GHM that she started running for Parliament in 2006 because Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, even when they formed a minority government, “didn’t care what people thought,” and the Sierra Club and other NGOs had lost the ear of the government. Being nonpartisan didn’t give them influence on debates over important policy issues.

As a sitting MP, she says, she gets more media coverage, noting that after the February 2014 Budget Speech, she was interviewed by the major television networks, including the CBC, and by important newspapers such as the Toronto Globe and Mail. Moreover, now she has been joined by Bruce Hyer she thinks it will be even harder to shut her out of the television debates during the next election. (After some considerable controversy, she took part in the 2008 debate, and many polls showed that she had been the most impressive of the speakers. She was shut out of the 2011 debates.)She also has gained influence by tabling and presenting arguments for amendments to bills, which, as difficult as it is, brings issues more into the open, even if those amendments are routinely defeated.

May’s role in Parliament contrasts with that of other MPs because she can say what she thinks and doesn’t have to toe the party line. She and Hyer “can both be totally honest and speak from our hearts. When we feel even one thing is good we can point it out,” she says.

She gave the example of the conservative budget’s DNA data bank, which she strongly supports, even though she thinks most of the rest of the budget has got it wrong. She publicly thanked Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty for, at long last, moving to establish a database to cross-reference crime scene data with an index for missing persons. (This measure is especially significant for many constituencies in B.C., where investigations of missing – and often murdered – aboriginal women have been shamefully half-hearted.)

When asked how much Canadian Greens should concentrate their energy on local elections and local issues, May remarked that such a strategy might work better in the United States than Canada. Both countries are saddled with single member electoral districts with plurality elections – in other words the candidate with the most votes wins, no matter how few votes he or she gets.

This system encourages the formation of large, heterogeneous parties that seek to maximize their votes with vague platforms, at the expense of crisp, well-defined policy positions. It also usually underrepresents small parties; in Canada, large parties routinely win a majority of seats with less than forty percent of the popular vote. The real solution is proportional representation. Elizabeth May has been very active in the campaign for PR in Canada.

In the present context, however, U.S. major parties have an even stronger hammerlock on candidacies in most elections, except perhaps the most local ones. In Canada, it’s not quite so easy to exclude minor parties at the federal level. The U.S. has quite a number of elected Greens at the local level, in part because there are so many more elected positions than in Canada; but even many Green mayors have been elected in the U.S.. Canada has none. The other two elected Greens in Canada are Andrew Weaver, a member of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly, and Vancouver City Councillor Adriane Carr. (What is it about B.C.?)

On Parliament Hill, the toxic partisanship of the Harper Conservatives had convinced May to leave off her distinguished role with the Sierra Club. In such an extreme atmosphere, she said, “the only way to be effective was to be in power.” She has proved her point.

Based in part on an interview with Elizabeth May, February 13, 2014.

EDMUND P. FOWLER is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Glendon College, York University, where he taught local politics, history of science, Green philosophy, and public policy. He is the author of Building Cities That Work (1992), Cities, Culture, and Granite (2004), and From Galileo to the Greens: Our Escape from Mechanical Thinking (forthcoming).