Elizabeth May
Credit: Courtesy of the Green Party of Canada

May (left) has the support of SaanichGulf Island constituents. Now she must convince the rest of the country

May's plan is called Mission: Possible, but she doesn't claim it will be easy

As Elizabeth May enters Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre for a town hall meeting with her constituents on Vancouver Island, she waves to one audience member, hugs another, sits and chats to a third. Apparently May knows most of those in the room, as she notices a few newcomers and asks them to raise their hands. In a follow-up interview, she notes that 300 or 400 people usually attend the meetings in Sidney, and cumulatively 1,000 to 1,200 throughout the riding.

“Saanich–Gulf Islands is amazingly civically engaged,” the Green Party of Canada leader says. “You can also see that in voter turnout. We had just under 75-percent voter turnout in 2011, and in 2015 we had just under 80-percent voter turnout.”

They’ll have another opportunity to cast their ballots in the federal election on October 21. In the meantime, May will be promoting her 20-step climate action plan, Mission: Possible, released in the spring. Although it’s unclear how feasible the plan is, she claims it would deliver an economic boost while helping fight the climate crisis. She also recognizes that implementing it would be tough, requiring the all-hands-on-deck approach taken by Second World War governments.

When May reaches the podium, she mentions she’s just back from speaking at a high school graduation in Victoria—it’s the end of June, a week after Parliament closed for summer recess. She outlines the purpose of the meeting, saying, “I report to my constituents because you are collectively, some 100,000 of you, my boss, and it’s very hard to get instructions from the boss when you don’t sit down to have a conversation.” She then provides lively and lengthy details of what happened in Parliament, which bills did and didn’t pass, and what she thinks of them.

Before opening the floor to questions, May sums up her past four years as MP (she was elected in 2011 and 2015): “I’ve worked on 32 bills that went to the House of Commons, I’ve tabled 507 amendments, and 14 of them made it into law. That’s not bad. Most MPs never get any bills accepted as amendments.”

Questions range from the meaning of climate emergency, use of fossil fuels, nuclear power, pipelines and electric vehicle rebates to a request for help finding out what’s happened to a petition and criticism of May travelling in airplanes and cars. She listens carefully and responds to all of them respectfully and thoroughly—as National Post columnist John Ivison has written, “She never uses a sentence when a paragraph would do.” In the same column he also writes, “She is a decent, smart hard-working politician who actually reads legislation and makes sensible interventions.”

In his 2016 book Not My Party: The Rise and Fall of Canadian Tories, From Robert Stanfield to Stephen Harper, Tom McMillan, environment minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government during the 1980s, complains that, among other issues, when May worked for him as an adviser and link to environmental groups, she overshared confidential information. He also acknowledges that “she combines high intelligence, a powerful work ethic, a strong commitment to populist causes, expertise and credibility on a broad range of issues, a mellifluous tongue, and a non-threatening and approachable persona....Her popular appeal...extends well beyond the minority of electors who are passionate about environmental issues.”

Her diligence comes up often. May has been voted Canada’s hardest-working MP by both the Hill Times and Maclean’s/L’actualité. When asked for a comment, former federal attorney general and minister of justice Jody Wilson-Raybould says that their involvement was limited to some legislation she herself was responsible for, but May was always very thoughtful about her input and incredibly hard-working. “I think the constituents of Saanich–Gulf Islands are well served by her,” adds Wilson-Raybould, now an Independent candidate for Vancouver Granville with a new book on Indigenous reconciliation. “Where she and I seem to connect in a real way is around our approach to politics, and around our approach to working collaboratively across party lines.”

On a mission

Elizabeth May has strong activist and political roots. Three of her ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence. Before her family moved from Connecticut to Cape Breton when May was in her teens, her mother campaigned against nuclear weapons testing and for civil rights. Her first of eight books was Budworm Battles: The Fight to Stop the Aerial Insecticide Spraying of the Forests of Eastern Canada. She has a law degree from Dalhousie University and was executive director of the Ottawa-based Sierra Club Canada Foundation from 1989 to 2006. Now 65, she’s the longest-serving current federal party leader in Canada.

May says she never thought when she became leader in 2006 that she’d be in the same position in 2019. “I’m going into my fourth national general election leading the Green Party, and certainly I feel as though the tenacity has paid off, because we’re in a better position than we’ve ever been,” she declares. “I’ve had many moments when I’ve thought, I’ve got to find someone younger. I am very committed to succession planning. I’m not one of those people who wants to cling to leadership till I’m not popular. I’d like to go out when things are good. Certainly things are looking very good now.”

Paul Manly, representing the Green Party of Canada in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, was elected to Parliament this spring, becoming the party’s second MP. During the summer, some polls showed the Greens vying with the NDP for third place. Still, growth for the party isn’t May’s priority. “All I want is sensible climate plans from all levels of government, and I don’t care who gets the credit,” she says. “But it must be done if we’re going to preserve a livable world for our kids.”

Hers include an adult daughter, Cate May-Burton, and several stepchildren and grandchildren. “In terms of business, we also need a livable world, for the sustaining of a prosperous society requires that we’re not in a constant state of massive crisis, which we can avoid if we act now,” May maintains. Should enough Green Party members be elected in this month’s vote to form or influence government, they’d take measures to ensure that Canada does its part under the 2016 Paris Agreement to hold the global average temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees higher than before the Industrial Revolution.

Because then human civilization and our way of life survive, May says. “It won’t be pretty. It’s not like it stops forest fires, it’s not going to stop all sea-level rise, it’s not going to stop unstable severe weather events. But we get through it. At 2 degrees we don’t.”

May doesn’t mince words, but her message is positive and her tone upbeat. She says the good news is, we have the necessary technology, and it’s economically possible to achieve that goal. The problem is an absence of political will. “If it’s an emergency, that means that we have to stop having idiot debates in Parliament and act like grownups and figure out what needs to be done and then do it,” May argues. “The evidence is terrifying, but I don’t think we’re cooked.”

Mission: Possible aims to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to 60 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and to zero by 2050. This would require rapid reductions in fossil fuel activity (no new pipelines or fossil fuel infrastructure, banning fracking, eliminating government fossil fuel subsidies and imported oil; shifting bitumen from fuel to feedstock for the petrochemical industry); decarbonizing the electricity grid and connecting it nationwide; switching to electric cars and biodiesel for agricultural, fishing and forestry equipment; retrofitting buildings to be energy-efficient; and planting lots of trees.

“We appreciate what Ms. May and the Greens are trying to do,” says Dan Baxter, director of policy development, government and stakeholder relations with the BC Chamber of Commerce, noting that her plan includes ideas his organization supports, like a revenue-neutral carbon tax and getting electricity moving better across the country. But Baxter questions whether some 475,000 jobs in Canadian oil and gas production alone can transition to other sectors. Instead of either developing our natural resources or going 100-percent green, why not do both? If we want to really tackle the 

GHG and global climate change issue, he suggests, we should engage on a bigger scale, like getting LNG Canada, the $40-billion liquefied natural gas project in Kitimat, online and exporting to Asian markets to replace other fuels.

The bottom line

Is the Green Party’s plan actually possible? Yes, says Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainable energy at SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management. “I think any modeller who has a technology-rich model like I do would confirm that.”

Jaccard sees three issues: what does it cost, what policies will government introduce, and what happens to workers in fossil fuel industries? “The cost gets higher the faster you try to decarbonize or transform your energy system,” he says. “Going that fast, 60 percent in basically a decade, will be more expensive, because the faster you go, the more you have to get rid of equipment that still had some life ahead of it.” On the other hand, he observes, replacing, say, a furnace with a heat pump could reduce operating costs.

Policies could involve carbon pricing, regulations and/or subsidies. Jaccard expects a government that wanted to move this fast would probably use a combination of all three. As for what happens to workers, it’s critical that those in fossil fuel industries and fossil fuel–dependent communities not fear for their future, May emphasizes. “We are not at war with fossil fuel workers,” she says. “We are not at all willing to leave any part of Canada or any community behind.”

To avoid the sort of fallout from Atlantic Canada’s 1992 cod fishing moratorium and the closure of Quebec’s asbestos mines in 2012, May emphasizes that there would be a “just transition” of workers to new jobs that will support their current lifestyle. They may need to go back to school, she says, but for the most part, people have transferrable skills. As examples, she mentions that construction workers can retrofit buildings and expand the electrical grid, or that those who lay pipeline can also put up windmills. One of her favourite possibilities is conversion of abandoned oil wells into geothermal plants by the workers who drilled them.

Jaccard envisions more-intensive work in agriculture, and in building and operating biofuel plants. And although running a wind turbine park doesn’t produce a lot of jobs, the construction and development of that industry would. “Some of this whole process has to be government money for help with retraining,” he notes.

May says her concern isn’t lack of jobs but of workers: “We’ll need to fill every college that trains up carpenters, plumbers, electricians, experts in installation of heat pumps and geothermal and so on.” She envisions tapping organizations like Rotary Clubs and Habitat for Humanity to help retrofit buildings and calling for volunteers to plant trees.

“The Green Party is a strong supporter of small business,” according  to John Kidder, a founder of the Green Party of B.C. and a federal Green Party candidate for Mission-Matsqui–Fraser Canyon. In 2015, May tabled a private member’s bill, the Creation of Small Business Impact Assessment Act, to require a mandatory review of the potential effect that any proposed government bill or regulation would have on small businesses.

Kidder, a former tech entrepreneur–turned–Ashcroft farmer who married Elizabeth May on Earth Day this year, claims the party is the only one that understands the nature of disruptive businesses, whereas what he calls traditional old-line industrial parties not only fail to grasp disruption but fear it. “And we don’t,” he says. “Bring it on. Let’s get these  changes happening as fast as we can: great opportunities for entrepreneurs, great new kinds of jobs, and make the new businesses of the 21st century.”

Green MP Paul Manly points to B.C. companies like Corvus Energy, which is already electrifying ferries in Norway, and Harbour Air Seaplanes, doing the same with its fleet. “There’s technology that’s being developed in this country, and we need to ramp up our manufacturing and industries toward a clean energy economy,” he says.

Where will the money come from? May expects to save a couple of billion dollars by ending subsidies to fossil fuels. She says her entire Canadian grid strategy is roughly equivalent to the $10-$13 billion required to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would not proceed.

For revenue, she’s looking at opportunities like higher taxation of larger multinational corporations (the small business tax would remain at 9 percent), e-commerce and social media platforms. She also expects the renewable energy sector to take off and stimulate the economy. “What I’ve found over decades of working with business big and small is that once there is political and regulatory certainty, business can adapt and adjust.”

May contends that there’s an almost paralytic fear of doing the right thing because it will be hard. “We call this Mission: Possible. We didn’t call it Mission: Easy. But it needs to be done.”

Rules of engagement

You can call an election, but can you get people to vote?

A Victoria company has an app for that. Led by Lawrence Lewis of the We Wai Kai Nation from central Vancouver Island, OneFeather started out four years ago as an electoral services consultancy. First Nations have to ratify treaties and land use agreements, a process that usually takes place by mail because many members live off reserve, says Nevin Thompson, marketing lead at OneFeather.

Voting by mail is inefficient and the response rate low, so Lewis and co-founder Matthew Lehner created an app. Accessible over the Internet, it’s easy to use and explain, Thompson says. “You can also track and see who’s voted, so you can target people you need to target as well. It allows for more understanding of engagement and also making sure that more people vote.”

OneFeather recently launched SmartBallot, an online voting platform for membership organizations like unions or clubs, and it plans to launch a product for status card renewals.