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Elizabeth May feels people are looking at the Green Party with new eyes

Green Party leader is hoping for a breakthrough for her party in the October federal election
Elizabeth May with fiancé John Kidder in the Parliamentary Library in Ottawa. Photo: Julia Kidder.

In conversation with The Journal after her Community Matters town hall meeting in Ashcroft on March 5, Green Party of Canada leader and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May was asked whether the Green Party had more work to do to get away from the idea that they are mainly concerned with a single issue.

“Absolutely. Right now Canadians are looking around and thinking ‘I don’t feel like I want to vote “fill in the blank”.’ A lot of people are no longer as rooted in one party only. Growing up in Cape Breton, you used to feel that if someone’s parents were Liberals, they were always going to vote Liberal. It was almost genetic.

“That’s changing. People are looking around and thinking ‘Where do I want to put my vote? Who’s earned my vote?’ And almost by process of elimination people find themselves looking at the Green Party with new eyes. So we really have to explain ourselves. We’ve always had credible platforms, budgeted programs that are more detailed and fiscally sound than other parties. But a lot of people don’t know that, because the media coverage hasn’t shown us as the viable option. Now they are.

“Going into the 2019 election we do have work to do. We have an obligation to offer Canadians a viable alternative that answers the questions that they have.”

One of the main questions, May said, was to do with the idea that the Greens are against the economy; that if you care about the environment you are somehow against the economy. “That isn’t valid, but it’s been pitted like that for so long that people have a tendency to assume that’s going to be a problem in voting Green.”

May said that the 10 elected Green Party members—federal and provincial—in Canada have set a standard for being hard-working and ethical. “We’re open to ideas, and wanting to cooperate with others. That’s one of the key things that makes us different from other parties. We want to get the best of the ideas from everybody and work on them together.”

Asked if she wanted to predict how many Green Party candidates might be elected in October, May said it was hard to say. “When I look at the variables I see that a lot is in flux. I’m not trying to be deliberately cagey, but look at what happened to the NDP in Quebec in 2011. That could happen for us this time.

“In the Outremont by election [on Feb. 25] we placed ahead of the Conservatives and ahead of the Bloc Québécois. That’s the best showing the Greens have ever had in Outremont. It’s not the same as saying we’re poised to win Outremont, but for the first time the Quebec media began to say ‘Wait a minute, the Greens could win seats in Quebec.’ Once people begin to say we could win, that’s when voters begin to think ‘Oh, it’s not a wasted vote,’ and they begin to look at our candidates differently.”

May said that she had expected the subject of trains to come up at the town hall in Ashcroft, but not to the extent that it did, and that she had learned a lot. She added that conversation in rural New Brunswick regarding trains was a lot like the one in Ashcroft, although with more emphasis on the inadequacies of passenger travel.

“Where you find a lot of conversation around rail safety is in Montreal, where people are still reeling from Lac-Mégantic.”

Regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair, May said that she did not expect to see any further cabinet resignations, and wondered how much pressure had to be put on every remaining member of cabinet to get their signature on a letter of support for the Prime Minister. “There may be some unhappy [people] who signed that.”

May planned to fly to Ottawa overnight on March 5 to attend the Justice Committee meeting on March 6 to ask questions. “I have a lot of questions, and I hope we make some headway in answering the key bits where there’s missing information.”

May had nothing but praise for the ethics and intelligence of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, both of whom have resigned from Cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin affair. “They’re both really impressive, and they’ve both done the thing that people with integrity will do. The extent to which that wasn’t anticipated by the old boys’ club that really runs things is fascinating.

“The gender analysis of this episode, when it’s all over, will be really, really interesting. The pressure … in Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, there were a lot of men pressuring her. And Bill Morneau’s response to Jane Philpott leaving was ‘I know they were close friends.’ They’re both women. Women apparently, according to Bill Morneau, form little pinky-pacts where if one goes the other has to go too.

“No, that’s not the case. These are people of integrity, and in our political system it’s so rare for a cabinet minister to step out of that post.”

May said she was doing a lot of digging into the SNC-Lavalin affair, and had a lot of questions. “Where’s the evidence and analysis that would suggest that SNC-Lavalin could fold and all these people could lose their jobs? I don’t see it. There’s a lot to dig into here before I’ll feel as if I know what happened.”

Former Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick recently had a dire warning about the upcoming election, saying that he worried about the “rising tide of incitements to violence” and that he feared “somebody is going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign”. May called the words a “diversionary tactic”, and said “I don’t think that’s Canada, and I think Michael Wernick’s testimony was unhelpful. Anything that gives oxygen to the idea that we’d take violent actions against people in private life I don’t appreciate, as a person in public life.

“I hope the election won’t be ugly. Of all the leaders of parties and of all the party strategies so far, it’s Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives who’ve been willing to play footsie with white supremacists, willing to run fear-based campaigns. We’ll see if the election unfolds in ways that elevate discourse, or move us closer to the kinds of things that go on in the U.S.”

May said that she is concerned about the potential for social media sites like Facebook to have paid-for advertising and the spreading of fake news designed to advantage one party over another. “Canadians, as intelligent and critical thinkers … I think the best defence against that kind of thing happening is to actually be prepared to be a watchdog. If they see something where they go back to the original media site over some claim that strikes them as unlikely, and it turns out it’s a manipulated propaganda site, they’re going to get on board a campaign that does #don’tbelievethisnewssite. Whatever it takes to say ‘We need to make decisions based on information from reliable news sources, not propaganda websites.’”

Current infrastructure funding, where the costs are split between the federal and provincial governments and municipalities, sees the federal government paying 50 per cent, the provincial government paying 33 per cent, and the municipality paying 17 per cent. The federal government considers a “rural community” to be anything under a population of 100,000, putting Ashcroft in the same boat as Kamloops. The difficulty that very small communities have in raising their 17 per cent share of infrastructure funding was pointed out to May.

“This is a big issue in my riding too,” said May. “A municipal government is still treated as if it’s a child of a province. Most of the critical infrastructure needs are found at [the municipal] level of government. One of the things we’d like to do is create a council of Canadian governments, where there’s a seat at the table for policy-making for municipal governments and First Nations.

“The access to a tax base is so small for municipalities compared to the provinces and feds. The split clearly isn’t sensible. You’re not going to find the tax base here to raise the kind of money that’s needed to gain access to infrastructure funding. But every community in Canada has a huge infrastructure deficit. There’s a better way to deal with it, and cost-sharing isn’t it.

“Infrastructure projects for small and rural municipalities should be 100 per cent federal. Just get it done, because it’s such a barrier when rural municipalities first have to beg the province and then find their 17 per cent. It’s not workable.”

May said that she had had a wonderful visit to the area. “The school, the theatre production of Shrek: I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of really great experiences of connecting with community. I visited the screwdriver factory and got my own personalized screwdriver with my name on it.

“Visiting Ashcroft, it’s clear that the number one asset of this community is the community spirit of talented people who love living where they live.

“Small communities are capable of doing amazing things, and Ashcroft is a great example of that. Really impressive.”

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