Envy with Green

Electoral wins bolster Elizabeth May’s confidence in the future of the Green Party

MP Elizabeth May gestures during a speech at a Sidney event earlier this year.

She has been called the hardest-working Member of Parliament in Canada, receiving praise for both her tenacity and ability to raise issues on both the national and local stage.

Despite all the accolades, Elizabeth May knows the road ahead is still a tough one for the lone Green Party MP in Ottawa.

May recently visited the office of the Peninsula News Review for a sit down interview and update on her activities as MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and leader of the federal Green Party. She had just finished moving into a new home in Sidney and was happy to drop in on her new neighbours. She’s also in the midst of writing a new book, slated to come out in the fall of 2014. The working title is Who We Are and May said its about Canadians, national issues and how we see ourselves. It’s also going to be a little more autobiographical than she expected.

On this particular day, May said she had been on the phone in conference calls and meetings since 7:30 a.m. The job of an MP requires a person to be on-call, so to speak, at almost any hour.

“In my local office, I call the staff there constituent advocates,” May said. “They and I hear people’s issues and put ourselves in their shoes, even if it’s not necessarily in our jurisdiction.”

Such is the role of an elected official — provincial, local or federal, you need to know where to direct people so they can get answers or assistance.

“Our goal is to help people get to the right person.”

Much of what May is talking about is commonplace for MPs and provincial MLAs — and to some extent, local municipal politicians. Where the process differs for May is that she’s alone, a party of one right now, and needs to be able to cross partisan lines to get results both on Parliament Hill and on the Saanich Peninsula.

She has found success here, too, winning the most recent Parliamentarian of the Year award, voted on by her non-Green Party peers in Ottawa. This accolade, she admitted, means the most to her.

“It backs up my philosophy of treating everyone I meet in politics as I would anyone else. As a result, the award shows I have respect and appreciation from my colleagues in Parliament and this falls outside of party politics.”

Locally, May consults with provincial and local politicians on a variety of issues. Most recently, May said she met with NDP MLA Gary Holman in Sidney — a practice she started with former B.C. Liberal MLA Murray Coell.

The local front

Last year, May found success in lobbying Ottawa to keep the Centre for Plant Health in North Saanich open. Amongst the constituency office’s day-to-day work on such issues as immigration cases, VISAs and short-term visits, May has added her voice to a few other causes.

The effort to save an old Royal Canadian Air Force administration building at the Victoria airport has found May to be on their side.

Plans are to have the structure torn down once the new Department of National Defence helicopter hangar is built.

“It is clear, and we will meet again on this, that the airport authority wants it torn down,” May said. “It is not, in their view, a heritage building.”

May said she’s working with proponents of its preservation to change that view and seek out alternatives such as saving remnants of the building.

“It certainly means a lot to local veterans here and we do need a solution that satisfies all sides.”

Yet not all issues she faces locally are wins. The Centre of the Universe facility at the Dominion Observatory in Saanich closed at the end of summer. May said she had worked with NDP MLA Lana Popham on trying to find ways of keeping the public interpretive centre open.

In Sidney, the issue earlier this year over sea walls being built in Roberts Bay ended with another one put up, to the dismay of some local environmentalists. But May said she can’t criticize the Town or anyone else on that.

“I had spoken with all of the relevant players and they are all solid, good people,” she said, adding they should be able to meet in future to create a coastline regime that combines municipal and landowner needs with protection for places like Shoal Harbour and the bay.

“I can’t claim credit for everything,” May added. “But I am certain this riding isn’t being treated any worse than any other riding, even tough it’s not a Conservative-held constituency.”

It’s getting easier, being Green

May’s victory in Saanich-Gulf Islands in 2011 was a precursor of sorts for additional Green Party support at the provincial level. This year, Andrew Weaver won the B.C. Green Party’s first seat in the legislature. In Saanich North and the Islands, candidate Adam Olsen placed a strong third in one of the province’s tightest electoral races. Olsen has since been named the provincial party’s interim leader.

“It shows that it’s not just me that can get elected for the Green Party,” May said.

These successes create new opportunities for the Greens at even level, from a new pool of funding to help in future campaigns, to the interest from additional volunteers and supporters.

Yet there are still a few obstacles to the ultimate breakout for the party — winning more seats in Victoria and Ottawa and ultimately full party status. One is the idea that a vote for the Green Party at any level is a vote wasted. May said her and Weaver’s recent victoria show that people still vote for what they want — and that in itself is not a waste.

“If people don’t feel their vote is reflective of what they want, and then they vote out of fear, that leads to lower voter turnout next time.”

One of the goals of May’s regular series of town hall meetings in her constituency (which wrapped up last month) is making people aware of what’s she’s doing in-between elections. That, she said, helps raise issues in the community — and raise her party’s profile.

Yet, she admitted she is still only one MP in what could be called a small party in Canada. That means she is still left out of national leadership debates during federal elections.

“That’s one of my biggest hurdles. Getting into that debate would be a big step.”

There is hope for May and the Greens. The number of independent candidates winning seats in various levels of government is on the rise as voters seek out people they think will do a better job outside of partisan politics. While it’s still a drop in the bucket, it’s a change in voter attitudes that cannot be ignored.