Reflections of Canada and democracy

By Amy Reiswig, November 2014

Elizabeth May’s new book is a call to take back Canada.

Our November 15 municipal elections can be seen as a test of the candidates: their platforms, priorities, even personalities. But equally important, elections also test the electorate. How informed are we? How determined to help shape our collective future? Elections are not just an opportunity to participate in democracy but are a way for us to reveal our values as individuals and determine the direction of our communities. They allow us to both express and define who we are. 

This issue is at the core, in fact in the very title, of Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May’s new book, Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada (Greystone, September 2014). A combination of the personal and the political, the book is more than anything a plea for people to remember and reclaim the power we hold as voters and citizens. It is a book of optimism and passion from a woman who has seen some of the best and, more often in recent years, worst that Canada’s government has to offer and for whom it seems the word “impossible” does not exist unless it follows the words “nothing is.”

On May 2, 2011, history was made when Elizabeth May was elected the first ever Green Party Member of Parliament in Canada.  It was a huge first for the nation and a surprise even for May, whose book describes the many unexpected turns her journey has taken to get there. “As my mother’s aunt Mary used to say,” she writes: “’Life has much more imagination than you or I.’”

One might say, though, that May was born to be an activist. In the hospital just before her birth on June 9, 1954, her mother was listening to the Army-McCarthy hearings, feeding nickels into the radio attached to her bed at the Hartford hospital. “Whether she intended it or not,” May writes, “this guaranteed that among the first sounds processed in my infant brain were political newscasts. The words that rang out like a death knell to Joseph R. McCarthy’s reign of fear-mongering came across that radio that day: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir?’”

Decency was a foundational principle in the May household, and her activist mother’s campaigns for civil rights and against nuclear testing and the Vietnam war were particularly formative in shaping the young Elizabeth’s sense of justice and personal engagement. 

She also learned that standing up for science and the environment sometimes carried a personal price. With humour she recalled warning the other children in kindergarten not to eat the snow because it contained strontium-90. “This did not make me popular,” she writes. 

The first chapter of the book is the most personal, giving us a window into May’s childhood in the US, which brought her into contact with people like Eugene McCarthy, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. But equally important in terms of budding ideas about the world and one’s role in it were painful private lessons, like the violent, devastating deaths of pet sheep on the family’s seven acres. After writing to the Town of Bloomfield asking about pesticide spraying, she was told that, yes, the roadsides had been sprayed with malathion and methoxychlor. “I wrote back saying that the town spraying program had killed our sheep,” she recounts in the book. “No reply came to that.” 

Thus we see the development of May’s own activism. “I had been planning from age 13 to be an environmental lawyer,” she explains, describing how she kept files, joined organizations, subscribed to magazines. When the family moved to Nova Scotia in 1973, she worked as a waitress and cook in the family’s seafood restaurant “on the edge of the spectacular Cabot Trail…and on the edge of bankruptcy,” without enough money to go to university. However, she still led the fight against spraying the forests with insecticide, a fight she won. And later, after getting into law school at Dalhousie University with a reference letter from Bill Clinton (“I have no way of knowing what the admissions committee thought of receiving a letter from the governor of Arkansas about a waitress/cook/activist in Cape Breton”), she led the fight to prevent the spraying of Agent Orange, a fight she lost.

In between, in a forerunner of things to come, May put herself into the fray politically as well as environmentally. In 1979, when Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative minority government fell, May wanted to inject environmental issues into the debate. She managed to convince 11 others in 6 provinces to run in high-profile ridings. She ran against Trudeau’s Deputy Prime Minister Allan J. MacEachen. “I phoned everyone to suggest that we be called ‘the small party’ and that our foundational principles be based on E.F. Schumacher’s wonderful book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. When the 1980 campaign was over, I sold my car to pay my phone bill.” Led by others, the “small party” eventually became the Green Party.

Losing the fight over Agent Orange, during which “bureaucrats from Health Canada testified that Agent Orange was safe and that the US ban was politically motivated and based on ‘bad science,’” showed May how important it was to stand up for science and for the planet, something she’s never stopped doing. May eventually moved to Ottawa. Her list of accomplishments and involvements there are too long to list but include being the associate general counsel to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, serving as PC Environment Minister Tom McMillan’s senior policy advisor, protesting a dam in the Amazon, establishing a Canadian branch of Cultural Survival, and becoming executive director of Sierra Club of Canada, running the organization from 1989 to 2006.

What stands out, though, is everything May saw accomplished and helped accomplish in what used to be a collaborative government that listened to science, to advisors. She writes: “On issue after issue, we brought forward policy designed to enhance our collective future” and achieved concrete action, things like what she calls “the miraculous negotiations” for what is now Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, as well as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, an ozone layer treaty, bans on lead in gas, more funding for environmental science, a national water policy, a cleanup plan for the St Lawrence River, and another for the Sydney tar ponds, and more—a string of successes she calls “gobsmacking.” 

But while May was working for the Sierra Club for 17 years, raising a daughter, she noticed something happening to Canada’s government, priorities and values—a change that affects that core issue of who we are. 

“The title is not the royal We,” the fiery, funny and energy-exuding May tells me over lunch at Haro’s in Sidney. “It’s Canada and what’s happening to us.” And what is happening to us? is a question she hears over and over again from constituents and from the international community. “In 2006 and 2007 when Canada’s about-face on trying to implement Kyoto was replaced with Harper’s new policy to derail it,” she writes, “I would be asked by people from around the world, ‘What’s happened to Canada?’…It was the same look of anguish and worry as if, running into an old friend at a high school reunion, we had just heard that an honours student from our year had been arrested for drug possession and child pornography. ‘What happened?’”

So what is happening? Part of what makes the book so compelling is the behind-the-scenes look we get at events occurring within and because of the Canadian government under Stephen Harper. (I almost wrote “the Harper government,” but one of the things the book taught me is how even that branding shift reveals what our nation’s government is becoming.) In 2011, the book explains, “Canada’s New Government” was replaced with “the Harper Government”—a term “that in Westminster parliamentary tradition is absurd. It remains Canada’s government, composed of an executive organized by the prime minister and a loyal opposition. All these parts operate as Parliament, and it is Parliament to whom the prime minister is accountable. No more.” 

From new powers and lack of transparency at the Prime Minister’s Office to behaviour on the world stage, May chronicles changes in government policy and practice that have sent our international reputation into the tank and left many here at home feeling like we’ve been had, since less than 40 percent of the population voted for this government.

Much of what May discusses are things we’ve read about in the papers, like the gutting of climate and pollution research programs. But other actions may have received less coverage. Like the 2012 budget’s stipulation that government science grants be used for research that is business-led and industry-relevant or that Canada was the only nation to drop out of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. May talks about Canada’s stance on climate issues affecting the whole planet but also small things reflective of values many Canadians don’t think represent who we are. For instance, that a government ad in the New Yorker for the Keystone pipeline cost $200,000, or that the words “duty to act honestly” were quietly removed from the new Accountability Act. 

Often while reading May’s book I’d stop and say: “Was that in the news?” And May asks the related questions of “How is this possible?” and “Where was the outrage?” With some levity, she summarizes: “As in the Monty Python sketch, Canadian democracy was nailed to its little perch in hopes the public would not notice the resemblance to a dead parrot.”

That hope-no-one-notices approach is part of her point. “The public hears less about what is going on,” she tells me, “and the irony is that we call it the information age.” Mainstream media conglomerates, in fact, take a good hit in the book in terms of their role in what May calls “induced complacency” in the citizenry. 

“I read the actual court decisions,” she says, clearly excited by what most would find boring to slog through. But she insists that they “are much more radical and exciting than anything you get in the papers! I like going to the source.” And because of her commitment to informing herself, May is, for many people, becoming a source. Through her themed newsletters (all on her website), articles in the Hill Times and the more local Island Tides, “I feel like I’ve become indie media. I need to share this with people—what I’m experiencing and learning.”

Thus, one reason for writing this book comes from that responsibility to educate one another. And she does, on topics ranging from economic theories to legislative history, the problems inherent in first-past-the-post voting, climate science, and even information on home-invading chemicals like methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting, carcinogenic pesticide used in California’s tomato and strawberry fields. “Note for your fridge: do not buy California tomatoes or strawberries unless they are certified organic,” the book advises.

But the biggest eye-opening lessons, at least for me, come from May’s revelations about the current workings of government itself, particularly the party system that no longer allows members to vote according to their conscience or the will of constituents who elected them. “I am often asked what has shocked me the most since I became a member of parliament,” she writes. “The biggest shock to me is that MPs do not read the legislation we are debating. When you are instructed how to vote, what possible benefit could there be in reading the legislation and actually deciding for yourself? One day, as a Liberal colleague was reviewing his instructions, he looked up at me and joked, ‘Gee, Elizabeth, how do you know how to vote?’”

While seemingly depressing, these moments of individual contact can also be cause for hope, and May wants us, the jaded electorate, to know that politicians are not all bad. “If they were given the freedom to speak from their own perspectives, on behalf of their constituents, the House of Commons would not be the toxic soup of vituperative commentary that it is today,” the book asserts. “Conservative MPs have come over to me, after reading from a script that attacked me, to say they are sorry. Once one Conservative MP came to apologize because his wife happened to see his low-blow attack on [the Cable Public Affairs Channel that broadcasts Parliament] and insisted that he do so.” And “Conservative MPs also expressed their disgust when forced to vote that asbestos is safe. One said in a confessional whisper, ‘I am going to go home now and have a shower because I have never felt so dirty in all my life.’”

Is this all because of Stephen Harper? May says: not necessarily. While she admits to me she feels Harper is “destroying the country I know and love,” she also says:  “I’m hoping the book is not about Harper but about humanity on the planet. If we remember who we are —good people; Canadians are community-minded, cooperative-focused people—we’ll help the whole planet. Or we can sit back passively and let Stephen Harper convince us there’s nothing we can do.” 

That belief in the power to effect change has been borne out not just by May’s own life but by her constituents. With voter turnout of almost 75 percent, close to the highest in the country (bested only by two PEI ridings), the people of Saanich–Gulf Islands proved that involvement matters. “I often hear ‘I stopped voting to stop encouraging them,’” May tells me. “But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say ‘Oh, I can’t change anything,’ you won’t. But if you say ‘I can change things,’ then you will.”

Voted Parliamentarian of the Year in 2012 by her fellow MPs and named the hardest-working MP by the Hill Times in 2013 (“I try for one day off a month,” she laughs), May aims in this book, her ninth, to help people be more empowered as citizens and more aware of the threats to democracy. “I wanted to inform and motivate.” 

And it seems voters need motivation at every level. Victoria’s local 2011 elections, for example, saw fairly dismal turnout, from as low as 10.87 percent in Burnside Gorge to a “high” of 36.56 percent in Cook Street Village. Turnout in other municipalities within the CRD ranged from Langford’s 13.98 percent to Metchosin’s 48.82. But if any of these were evaluated by school test standards, they would be a failing grade. 

So as in our November 15 elections and looking forward to the federal election of 2015, we should reflect on May’s question of who we are and vote according to what we want our communities and our nation to become. What May says of the federal level applies anywhere we want to affect leadership: “As David Orr, environmental studies professor at Oberlin College, put it, ‘Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.’ This is where I ask you to have hope. And work to make it viable.”

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is going to read up on her local candidates and now feels excited to vote on November 15.