Elizabeth May — We hardly knew ye

Earlier this month Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada, resigned. Under her thirteen years of leadership, her party went from zero to three seats in Canada’s House of Commons. I question how worthwhile that achievement is.

Don’t misunderstand me – I believe all of us have a responsibility to live in a matter that intrudes on our ecology as little as possible. I believe that, as a species, we have moved way too slowly to lower our dependence on fossil fuels. I believe that the environment is the most important issue facing humans today, with income inequality a close second.

Because I believe the environment to be such a dire issue, however, I take issue with a single party claiming a monopoly on it. Every political party should have a strong environmental platform. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be considered for election. Are you for survival? No? Well, thanks for coming out. The environment should be a non-partisan issue.

I’m fully aware that it’s not. During this year’s English-language election debate, Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, had the nerve to say that he didn’t believe in climate change. I view this as willful ignorance, and based on the grand total of zero seats Bernier’s party won in the election, it seems a significant amount of Canadians share my view. The Conservative Party’s war against any type of taxation on carbon emissions also shows how much lower a priority a sustainable environment is to their supporters than financial profit.

Acknowledging that, I still don’t think it’s useful to have a single party hold court over an issue as pressing as the environment. It makes more sense to me for a political party to have a more well-rounded platform, for both their benefit and the population’s. The Green Party claims to be well-rounded, but May’s refusal to hold her members to vote along party lines makes the platform seem non-existent when the issue is anything other than the environment.

The Greens attract the votes of well-intentioned people who genuinely care about the environment, but those voters are making a large assumption that May’s party has the toughest platform when it comes to that issue. That isn’t always the case. During the 2008 federal election, it was easy to make the case that Stéphane Dion’s Liberals had a more stringent ecological stance than the Green Party, and by siphoning votes away from the Liberals, helped Stephen Harper’s Conservatives claim victory.

But as questionable I find the Green Party’s raison d’etre to be, I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on May herself. She’s taking her leave, and over the past thirteen years she has proven herself to be an astute debater, an unquenchable intellectual, and a fierce defender of the planet. She has also been, at turns, annoying, goofy and displayed an alarming lack of self-awareness. Allow me to explain.

May came to most Canadians’ attention in the aforementioned 2008 election. At the time no member of the Green Party had ever won a seat in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, May, who had assumed the leadership of the party two years earlier, showed enormous ambition, and ran a Green candidate in every single riding in the country for the first time ever. Going into this debate, the main criterion for taking part in the televised debates was that a party had to have representation in the House, and indeed the Greens did. Earlier that year, Blair Wilson, who won election in North Vancouver as a Liberal in 2006, changed his allegiance to Green. However, the broadcast consortium was still withholding May’s invite to the leaders’ debate. When she asked why, she was told that the party’s representatives in the House had to be elected under that party’s banner. Wilson was not. May was furious, and I can understand why. Perhaps she had worked very hard vetting candidates in every riding and luring someone, anyone in the House of Commons to cross the floor over to her party just to meet the criteria for getting into this debate, only to find the door still slammed shut in her face. A lot of people can relate to that feeling of being denied. And perhaps the consortium was being inflexible. How important was it, really, that the Member of Parliament be elected under the party’s banner? Personally, I do think it matters, but I understand that others may not. Perhaps May honestly didn’t think it mattered. Unfortunately, when May stated her complaints about the consortium to the media, that’s not they ran with. She accused the TV networks of “old boy tactics.” That sounded like an accusation of sexism to me, and that rang unfair.

After Ed Broadbent resigned as leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party in 1989, he was succeeded by Yukon Member of Parliament Audrey McLaughlin. She led the party into the 1993 election and took part in the televised debates (the first woman in Canadian history to do so), but the party ended up losing 35 seats and official party status. She resigned as party leader in 1995 and was succeeded by Nova Scotia’s Alexa MacDonough. Under her leadership, the party increased its seat count and regained its official party status in the 1997 election, but lost seats again in the 2000 election. She was succeeded by Jack Layton in 2003. Be that as it may, both McLaughlin and MacDonough were both uncontroversial participants in federal election debates throughout the 90s and early 2000s before May sprang on the scene.

This isn’t ancient history. Elizabeth May seems like someone who soaks up facts, both historical and scientific, like a sponge. She had to be aware of McLaughlin and MacDonough’s participation in the debates. Not only that, she had to be aware of the broadcast consortium’s criteria. When the Green Party failed to elect any members in 2008, she again lobbied to be included in the leader debates in the next election, but this time the consortium held firm on their stance to refuse her participation. Funnily enough, in that very 2011 election, she became the first elected Green Party Member of Parliament in Canadian history.

Nevertheless, her lobbying and the consortium’s decision to include her in 2008 set an unhealthy precedent, which likely allowed for the inclusion of Bernier in this year’s leaders’ debates after he heavily lobbied to take part even though he didn’t have a Member in the House elected under the People’s Party of Canada’s banner. Whether or not you think the People’s Party is a dangerously xenophobic party or not, the presence of six party leaders scrounging for attention on the stage was not pleasant television or conducive to healthy and productive debate.

But May ended up making it inside the House, and for reasons unknown to me I ended up on her email list. I didn’t think it was a bad thing to keep apprised of the actions of a party leader, so I allowed her emails to keep flowing to my inbox. To her credit, she appeared to be a fierce defender of democracy, at a time when the very concept appeared threatened.

The 2011 election that saw Elizabeth may win her seat also saw Stephen Harper’s Conservatives win a majority government, but it also gave rise to the robocall scandal. There were reports of robocalls in close ridings informing voters who were supporting candidates other than the Conservatives that there was a change in their polling station, which was untrue. This just reaffirmed an impression held by many Canadians that Harper was chiefly interested in holding and increasing his power, and if the sanctity of democracy had to be sacrificed to meet that aim, so be it. The Conservatives’ habit of including hidden provisions in gigantic omnibus bills, along with Harper’s 2008 prorogation of Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote that would have defeated his then minority government, fed into this undemocratic view.

Now that May was in the House, she seemed determined to save democracy, and I thought that was admirable. What I found incredibly amusing, however, was the manner in which she chose to do it. On August 30, 2012, I received an email which included the text of a letter May had sat down and wrote to Queen Elizabeth II.

“Your Majesty,” she typed (or scrawled, who knows?). “I wish to write to you regarding a matter of grave importance to Canadians, and I request your assistance with this matter. The mechanisms Canada had in place to ensure free and fair democratic elections appear to be failing.”

She went on to outline the robocall scandal, and the prorogation, along with the defunding of the investigative bodies that were supposed to look into the scandals. I think she made good points; I honestly do. She also asked the Queen to commission a Royal Inquiry to investigate “what may potentially be criminal activities which influenced Canada’s last election, and that the aim of the Royal Inquiry be to restore Canada to a free and fair democracy.” Truly an admirably-intentioned letter.

The problem with this letter is that she wrote to a monarch and asked that monarch “to restore Canada to a free and fair democracy.” Yes, we all learned in school that Canada’s true Head of State is the English monarch. We’re a constitutional monarchy, just like Australia and other Commonwealth countries. But we also all learned that the monarch just acts as a figurehead, and is represented in Canada by the Governor-General, who carries out largely ceremonial functions. Sadly, these very elementary lessons were spelled out to May, a sitting Member of Parliament, in the response she eventually got back from Buckingham Palace. It was not from the Queen herself, but a Miss Jennie Vine, Deputy to the Senior Correspondence Officer. She stated that Her Majesty took careful note of all of May’s concerns.

“Perhaps I might explain, however, that this is not a matter in which The Queen would intervene,” Vine typed. “As a constitutional Sovereign, Her Majesty acts through her personal representative, the Governor-General, on the advice of her Canadian Ministers and it is to them that your appeal should be directed.”

Strangely, a PDF of the response she received from Buckingham palace is available for view through May’s website, along with the complete text of the letter she wrote to the Queen. May doesn’t seem to harbour any embarrassment over this correspondence, and she’s perfectly free to not feel any. I, however, find it hilarious that an elected official in the Canadian government, when looking for a way to restore the democracy of her beloved country, chose the opposite of democracy as a solution.

I get the sense that May felt right at home on Parliament Hill as soon as she arrived. I can easily imagine her as a nerdy teenage girl reading the news from Ottawa every day, and watching CBC news every night with her parents. I’m going to hazard a guess that she served on her student council. (I can’t find any evidence of that, although she did show an early interest in law.) As unfair as this may be to type, I have an impression of who Elizabeth May is as a person, even though I have never met her. I see her as a bookish introvert with very sincere and strong beliefs and the best of intentions. I think her natural state is conducting research, not out at fundraisers and glad-handing with supporters. I think she has a fascination with government and a reverence for its potential for good, but taking on the leadership of a political party often thrusts her into social situations far away from her comfort zone.

The prime example of this came in the spring of 2015 at the annual parliamentary press gallery dinner. As May was well aware, this dinner is a great opportunity for politicians to let their hair down and show their irreverent side. Perhaps she feared that her bookish public persona made her seem off-putting, and she may have wanted to show a different side of herself. Certainly a funny and edgy speech would make her come off as more “real” to the Canadian public, right?

She took her place behind the lectern and immediately acknowledged that she and the rest of the attendees were standing on the traditional territory of the Algonquin, but then proceeded to say, “What the fuck was wrong with the rest of you that you didn’t notice we were standing on the traditional territory?” That first F-bomb had to raise some eyebrows in the crowd. She went on to poke fun at her own squeaky artificial hips, and leveled some barbs at then prime minister Harper for failing to attend, hypothesizing that he was afraid of the tradition of tossing bread rolls, prompting her to remark that there had to be a closet in which he could hide – a sly reference to his actions during the shootings on Parliament Hill from just eight months prior. Even though she promised “I’ll be quick,” she kept going, eventually commenting on the other party leaders oral, anal and genital tendencies.

Those of you who’ve attended open mic night at a comedy club know the feeling that must have run through that audience that night. Here is this perfectly nice and well-intentioned woman trying and failing to be funny. It was a truly cringe-worthy moment, especially when she got to the genitals. Nobody wants to think about Stephen Harper’s genitals. Probably Laureen Harper (his wife) doesn’t even want to think about his genitals.

But she kept going.

At around the eighth minute of her “quick” speech, May began talking about how an old TV show theme was stuck in her head, and she pulled out her smartphone. Sensing that the crowd had long since had enough, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt got on stage to usher the Green Party leader away from the podium. May resisted Raitt’s tugs, and her smartphone played the Welcome Back Kotter theme into the microphone. This was a reference to Omar Khadr who had just recently been released on bail after a decade incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay and three more years in a Canadian prison after the Supreme Court had ruled that his Fundamental Freedoms as guaranteed under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated. And then Raitt won the tug of war and May’s time at the podium was mercifully over.

The next day May apologized in a CBC interview for her set, saying that she was trying to be edgy. Many who watched her speech thought she was drunk. She said she had a little wine with her dinner, but not enough to get her inebriated. She chalked up the set to poor judgment on her part.

And I think that’s an unfortunate theme that ran through her entire political career. May is an intelligent and hard-working person who is, without a doubt, a valued ally in any righteous cause. Once she was able to take part in debates, she proved to be a valued presence. But there was always this lack of self-awareness. She often would not see the absurdity of her actions until she was in the middle of them.

When it comes to political issues, I agree with Elizabeth May on practically everything, but I think the political scene, Canadian or not, has to do a better job attracting people with better judgement and self-awareness. Whether it’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressing up in full Bollywood gear for his trip to India, or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer complaining about the use of the word “genocide” by the four commissioners overseeing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry, or the examples I just outlined for Elizabeth May, Canadian voters are clearly in short supply of self-reflective political representatives. I realize that nobody is perfect, but I propose that we as a species would be a whole lot better off if we had more people at the top making decisions who invested more thought before they opened their yaps.