Elizabeth May

Elizabeth May, OC, politician, environmental activist, lawyer, author, leader of the Green Party of Canada (born 9 June 1954 in Hartford, Connecticut).

May, Elizabeth
Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, 2006 to present (courtesy Green Party of Canada).

Elizabeth May, OC, politician, environmental activist, lawyer, author, leader of the Green Party of Canada (born 9 June 1954 in Hartford, Connecticut). May served as a policy advisor (1986–88) to the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and in 1989 became the founding executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. In 2011, she became the first Green Party member elected to the House of Commons.

Early Life and Activism

May spent her childhood in Connecticut, where she was deeply influenced by her mother, an activist in the American peace and civil rights movements. In 1973, May moved to Nova Scotia with her parents, who had fallen in love with Cape Breton and opened a restaurant and gift shop on the Cabot Trail.

In Cape Breton May became active in the successful campaign to prevent aerial insecticide spraying against the spruce budworm that was attacking Nova Scotia's commercial softwood forests. In 1980, she stood as a candidate for the "small party," a precursor to the Green Party of Canada. She was also a member of the anti-nuclear movement, and campaigned against uranium mining in Nova Scotia.

In the early 1980s, May was engaged in a costly court case against plans to spray Nova Scotia forests with the herbicide defoliant "Agent Orange." Although the litigation failed, by the time of the judgment, Agent Orange had been banned for export from the United States and was ultimately never used in Nova Scotia.

Lawyer, Policy Advisor, Advocate

May attended Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, after winning special admission because she lacked an undergraduate degree. She obtained her degree in 1983 and became a lawyer with the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit organization that does legal work on consumer issues.

In 1986, May was appointed senior policy advisor to Tom McMillan, the Minister of Environment in the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. She played an important role there in the creation of several national parks, particularly Gwaii Haanas National Park on the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte) Islands of British Columbia. She also helped negotiate the Montréal Protocol, an international treaty to stop the depletion of Earth's ozone layer. In 1988 May resigned her post, to protest the government's granting of permits for the building of the Rafferty and Alameda Dams in Saskatchewan without adequate environmental assessment.

The following year she became founding executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. She also taught courses in public policy and environmental issues at Queen's University and Dalhousie, where she was the inaugural occupant of the Elizabeth May Chair in Sustainability and Environmental Health. In 2001, May went on a 17-day hunger strike to protest the federal government's inaction in cleaning up the Sydney tar ponds in Nova Scotia.

Green Party

In August 2006, May left her post at the Sierra Club and won the leadership of the Green Party of Canada, becoming its ninth leader. Months later, she ran in a federal by-election in London, Ontario, but failed to win a seat in Parliament. In the 2008 federal election she took on Conservative Defense Minister Peter MacKay in his Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova. In an effort to help May, the Liberals chose not to run a candidate in Central Nova, but MacKay won the riding anyway with 47 per cent of the vote, to May's 32 per cent. No Green candidates were elected to Parliament in 2008, and nationally the party won 6.8 per cent of the total vote.

In the 2011 general election May contested the British Columbia seat of Saanich-Gulf Islands. She defeated Conservative incumbent Gary Lunn and won the riding with 46 per cent of the vote – making her the first Green Party member elected to a seat in the House of Commons. Despite May's own success, the Green Party did not do well nationally, capturing only four per cent of the popular vote.

May was re-elected in the October 2015 federal election, the only Green Party candidate to win a seat. Meanwhile her party continued its slide in the national results, winning 3.4 per cent of the popular vote.

Parliamentary Record

Since 2011, May has distinguished herself in the House of Commons. She was selected by other MPs as "parliamentarian of the year" in 2012, "hardest working MP" in 2013 and "best orator" in 2014. At the end of 2013, May was joined in the House by independent MP Bruce Hyer, who declared himself a Green member, doubling the party's caucus to two.

May has worked in Parliament to improve health services for Lyme disease, to oppose the Conservative government's anti-terror legislation, and to advocate for government action on climate change.

May is admired for her hard work, her adherence for parliamentary tradition, and her eagerness to co-operate with and support fellow MPs across partisan lines displaying a humanity rarely evident in federal politics, at least in public. In 2011, for example, she defended interim New Democrat leader and Québec MP Nycole Turmel amid heavy criticism that Turmel had once been a member of the separatist Bloc Québécois. "I think people are overreacting," May said. "It doesn't speak well of people in other parties to have jumped on this, and find ways to beat up on her and the NDP at this point."

Meanwhile, May's own personal behaviour as an MP has sometimes raised eyebrows. She has drawn criticism on social media for Tweeting about the dangers of wifi to human brains, and for supporting disgraced CBC host Jian Ghomeshi amid allegations of sexual violence support for which she later apologized. In 2015, she also apologized for a profanity-laced rant at the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner in Ottawa, where she was escorted off the stage.

In the 2008 federal election campaign, May was at first excluded from the two televised party leaders' debates, but was eventually included after a public outcry. In the 2011 campaign, she was excluded from the debates on the grounds that the Green Party had no MPs in the House of Commons. During the 2015 campaign, despite having her own seat in the Commons, May was invited to only two of the five debates, an exclusion she described as "anti-democratic."

May has said that she is willing to work in Parliament with any of the parties that support issues of importance to the Green Party, including climate change and electoral reform.

Books, Awards and Family

May is the author of eight books including, Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy (2009), and most recently, Who We Are: Reflections of My Life and Canada (2014).

She is an Officer of the Order of Canada. Her environmental work has been recognized by the United Nations, and in 2010 Newsweek magazine named her "one of the world's most influential women."

A practising Anglican, May studied theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, but her political career prevented her from finishing her degree.

She is the mother of Cate May-Burton, and is also a step-mother and grandmother.

Interested in politics?

Further Reading

  • Elizabeth May with Maude Barlow, Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada's Love Canal (2000); Elizabeth May, How to Save the World in Your Spare Time (2006).