“It’s much more personal, much more vicious. There’s a willingness to go low and be dirty.”
Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May has been asked how this election campaign—her fourth—compares to the others. It’s Oct. 14, just one week before the election, and May has taken a day off the campaign trail to relax with her husband John Kidder at his peaceful home in Ashcroft. May is relaxed and upbeat as her dog Xo (pronounced Zoh) jumps up on the sofa beside her and Kidder taps away at his laptop, but her face clouds when asked about the tenor of the 2019 campaign.
“I don’t just speak of how I’ve been treated; I speak of how other leaders have been treated as well. The major ballot box issue is supposed to be climate action, but if you look at the coverage of the election campaign you’d swear we had no real issues, and that’s why we had ‘gotcha’ politics, and chasing rumours that simply appear not to be true.
“The Green Party has certainly been the victim of smears and mud-slinging. We don’t respond in kind, but it’s been marked, in terms of the difference with 2015.”
She notes that she has also seen more sexist coverage of herself during this campaign than she has in the past. “It’s interesting, to me, that dismissive treatment of me in this campaign has been far more noticeable, and the language used suggests a sexist bias.”
This is May’s first day off since August. She has been crisscrossing the country in the most climate-friendly ways available, running as close to a zero emission campaign as possible.
“Unlike the other party leaders I haven’t had a personal jet to get around, or in the case of Trudeau two jets. We’ve had a remarkable degree of generosity from a network of electric vehicle drivers across Canada.” The EV drivers were there on the ground in the communities May visited, to drive her from place to place. She has also made use of ferries, and trains where possible, but says that several economy flights were unavoidable.
“It’s another way to meet voters. You can’t quite call it knocking on doors, but I sure do have more day-to-day contact with Canadians than the other leaders, who I think move in something of a bubble.”
Speaking of the recent climate change walks inspired in large part by teen activist Greta Thunberg, May says that youth are taking on a leadership role when it comes to the issue.
“Youth who are too young to vote are playing an enormous role in demanding that governments at all levels take the actions that are required to secure their future. [Climate change] is a real threat to their future. Yet we still see discussions around climate put in the lens of environment, and then put as one of many issues, as opposed to—as Greens see it—a security threat, an existential threat, that eclipses the other issues.”
May notes that advance polls on campuses indicates a big increase in youth voting during this election.
“That’s encouraging, because one of my biggest fears—from the number of Justin Trudeau’s broken promises—was that young people who had voted Liberal last time would feel so disenchanted that they wouldn’t show up this time.”
She describes Trudeau’s broken promise on electoral reform as not just a broken promise but a “massive betrayal”, and she fears it could have—and might still—lead to increased levels of cynicism about democracy.
“I draw a clear line between democracy and politics. I find politics a dismal and soul-destroying experience, but I love democracy, which at its best is ennobling and inspiring. I’m hoping that young people pick up the tools of their own personal power through democracy without being too disgusted in politics.”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has said that he is open to forming a coalition government with the Liberals should there be a minority government, and May is baffled by this, having been attacked by Singh for saying that she would be open to talking with other parties if there was a minority.
“The first rule is, let’s see what happens in the election. It looks likely to be a minority Parliament, and in a minority Parliament I’m wide open to all manner of cooperation. With Mr. Singh, with Mr. Trudeau: those are the most likely people for us to be able to work with, but we can’t rule out talking with everybody else.”
She notes that in a minority government there is a protocol and process. “All around the world, Greens proceed into a negotiation with an eye on values and principles, but you talk to everyone. I’m very surprised that Mr. Singh—having initially said that he would never, ever work with Andrew Scheer, and then also saying that he found Justin Trudeau a racist and that he couldn’t forgive him—is now saying he’s prepared to work with Justin Trudeau. He’s not suggesting a coalition with Greens, he wants to support the Liberals.”
In the case of an impending minority Parliament, May feels that the most important thing for voters to do is elect MPs who could make the minority work well for everyone, and that those would be Green MPs every time.
“We have always been open to cross-party cooperation in the interest of the public good. That’s why I’ve been able to do so much as an MP just as one person by myself. I’ve got two pieces of legislation passed as private member’s bills, and as far as I know that may be the first time since 1867 that one MP has had two laws passed as private member’s bills. You certainly can’t do that if you’re not prepared to cooperate across party lines.”
May finds Singh’s demands of the Liberals, as put out in a press release, “appalling”, as they are very close to existing Liberal positions. “Their list of issues includes climate with very weak demands. There’s nothing in either the NDP policy or the conditions they’ve asked Trudeau to meet that would avert climate catastrophe.
“Why would the NDP not take a position grounded in science on climate change? We know the Liberals have become completely a pretzel in human form when Justin Trudeau tries to describe how you’re going to meet climate targets while you increase greenhouse gas emissions, but Mr. Singh has also said that the LNG Canada facility that will increase greenhouse gases by over 100 million tonnes a year is fine because it’s being done by New Democrats in B.C.”
May says that electoral reform—getting rid of the first past the post system—would be a key priority for Greens, and that cancelling the Kinder Morgan pipeline would be a minimal first step. “We need to have a plan and a timeline and a program that gets us to 60 per cent cuts [in greenhouse gases] by 2030, as opposed to the Liberals, the NDP, and the Conservatives making the constant mistake of referring to Canada’s current 30 per cent reductions by 2030 as the Paris target, not what it is: the leftover Harper target. It’s not at all aligned to what we committed to do in Paris.”
She says that this election is interesting in that the numbers for the different parties haven’t budged much, except for the Bloc Québécois, whose numbers have shot up in Quebec. “That’s something we didn’t see coming, but we’re still running strong Green campaigns in Quebec.”
As the lone Green MP for most of her time in office, May says she’s made progress on a lot of issues, but she has not been able to make the progress that needs to be made on the climate crisis.
“You can’t make that progress without a much larger caucus of Greens. But we’re not a one-issue party. The NDP and the Liberals say they want Pharmacare. In 2015 we were the only party talking about Pharmacare. With enough Greens in Parliament in a minority, that increases the chances that we’ll get action on electoral reform, on climate change, reducing the cost for Canadians by bringing in Pharmacare and child care.
“You’ve probably heard me say before that the historical period with which I resonate the most is the minority government of Lester B. Pearson. That was a brilliant Parliament, and it brought in virtually our entire social safety net as it exists today.”
May is hoping to pick up seats in the Maritimes, as well as one or two seats in Quebec. There are two or three Ontario seats she has high hopes for, and a couple of ridings in the B.C. Interior where she feels the Greens have a good chance, but she calls Vancouver Island ground zero, and is hoping for multiple seats there, as well as one or two seats in the Lower Mainland.
Looking ahead to the possibility of a minority government, May says that if Independent candidates Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould were elected they would be as valuable as Green seats in terms of making things work. “They’d be aligned with us in many ways.
“When I think of what Parliament looks like on Oct. 22, and what we end up negotiating to put together, the more Green seats the better, and the more likely it is that we can make a minority Parliament work over the full four-year term, with Pharmacare, and electoral reform, and climate action. And I think I need to throw in here that we need a judicial review in the SNC-Lavalin affair. There are a lot of things we can do collaboratively in a minority that would never be on the table with 39 per cent of the vote giving one of the old-line parties 100 per cent of the power.”
She cites the issue of federal funding to fix the problem of an old, cracked sewer pipe under the Fraser as an example of the dysfunction in Ottawa, where money was promised, then the goalposts changed, and the government ended up asking for the promised $7 million back.
“It’s a direct threat to the Fraser River, in a very big way, and I see this as a microcosm of almost everything that’s wrong. It looks like the Government of Canada is functioning, but the wheels are coming off the bus. The decision-making makes no sense.”
May is proud of the fact that the Green Party released a fully-costed platform. “We put out more information, sooner and more completely, than anyone else. The Conservatives didn’t release their platform until after the last debate was over, so it gives very little time for people to scrutinize it. ‘Wait a minute, where are you planning to cut?’”
She is particularly shocked at the Conservative plan to cut overseas development funding by 25 per cent. “The Greens are the only party that commits to meeting the Lester B. Pearson target of 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas development in assisting developing countries in their struggle to meet the climate emergency. We’re committed to gender parity and girls’ education and eliminating poverty, and all those issues also apply within Canada. Our platform is certainly comprehensive and do-able.
“One of the funnier criticisms of Greens in this election campaign—a word that’s used to criticize us—is the word ‘ambitious’. We’re ambitious. All at once we want to make life more affordable for all Canadians while addressing the climate emergency and working towards Indigenous rights and reconciliation. It does look hard, and it will be hard, but it’s do-able and essential, so it’s ambitious.”
May asks voters to be hopeful. “We have to step up and be good ancestors. That’s the best thing to think about when you go to cast your vote. Your vote will have power if you’re brave, and decide to step up and be a good ancestor.”