Early Life and Activism
Elizabeth May spent her childhood in Connecticut. 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. They 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 ran 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. It was ultimately never used in Nova Scotia.
Lawyer and Policy Advisor
May attended Dalhousie Law School in Halifax. She won a 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 in the creation of several national parks, particularly Gwaii Haanas National Park on the Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte) Islands of British Columbia. She also helped negotiate the Montreal Protocol (1987), 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.
In 1989, May 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 University, 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.
Elizabeth May speaks at the National Day of Action for Electoral Reform rally in Ottawa, Ontario, 14 May 2011.
(photo by ahblair/Wikimedia CC)
Green Party of Canada
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. 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, though the party won 6.8 per cent of the popular 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. This made her the first Green Party member to win a seat in the House of Commons. Despite May’s own success, the Green Party captured only 4 per cent of the popular vote.
May was re-elected in the October 2015 federal election. Again, she was 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.
Since 2011, May has distinguished herself in the House of Commons. She was named “parliamentarian of the year” by other MPs in 2012, “hardest working MP” in 2013, “best orator” in 2014 and “most knowledgeable” in 2020. At the end of 2013, May was joined in the House by independent MP Bruce Hyer, who declared himself a Green Party member, doubling the party’s caucus to two.
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. In 2011, for example, she defended interim New Democrat leader and Quebec 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.”
However, May's behaviour as an MP has sometimes raised eyebrows. She has drawn criticism on social media for Tweeting about the supposed 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. She 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.
Trans Mountain Pipeline Protest (2018)
In 2018, Elizabeth May was involved in protests against the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby, British Columbia. On 23 March, she was arrested for civil contempt, as were many other demonstrators, including Kennedy Stewart, who was then an NDP MP. The protestors were charged with civil contempt for entering a court-ordered protest-free zone and blocking the road. However, on 9 April, a BC Supreme Court judge recommended that May, Stewart and other protestors be charged with criminal contempt because they had allegedly defied a court-ordered ban. Both Stewart and May pled guilty to the charge and paid fines of $500 and $1,500, respectively. May apologized for breaching a court order but continued her opposition to the pipeline expansion.
Kinder Morgan threatened to abandon the project due to strong opposition in British Columbia. In May 2018, the federal government announced that it would purchase the pipeline and expansion for $4.5 billion. In August, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the government’s approval of the expansion and ordered further consultations with Indigenous groups. (See also Pipelines in Canada.)
2019 Federal Election
For many Canadians, climate change was a top priority as the country neared the 2019 federal election. This concern was reflected in growing support for Elizabeth May and the Green Party. In May 2019, May was joined in the House of Commons by Green Party MP Paul Manly, who won a by-election in Nanaimo-Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. In September 2019, polls showed May and the Greens in fourth place, only slightly behind Jagmeet Singh and the NDP.
At the heart of the Green Party’s 2019 campaign platform were the virtual elimination of fossil fuel use and the development of a sustainable economy. This included continued opposition to pipeline expansion and the corresponding increase in tanker traffic. The Greens also proposed a comprehensive national climate and energy strategy and the end of government subsidies to fossil fuel industries. Other policies included a national pharmacare plan, a Guaranteed Livable Income and an ongoing commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
On 21 October 2019, the Greens won 6.5 per cent of the popular vote and three parliamentary seats. May and Manly were re-elected in their British Columbia ridings, while Jenica Atwin won in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was the Green Party’s first victory in the Atlantic provinces. While this was a significant achievement, it was not the breakthrough many expected. Still, May was optimistic that the party could influence policy in the new Liberal minority government.
Resignation and Return to Leadership
Elizabeth May resigned as Green Party leader on 4 November 2019. She continued to sit as a Member of Parliament and parliamentary caucus leader. Deputy leader Jo-Ann Roberts, a former journalist, filled the position until Annamie Paul was elected in October 2020. However, the race kicked off a period of serious infighting within the party.
In the 2021 federal election, the Green Party won only two seats. Its share of the popular vote fell to 2.3 per cent. Paul did not win her riding of Toronto Centre and resigned from the leadership shortly afterward. At the time of her departure, she claimed that her leadership had been impeded by racist and sexist behaviours amid top party staff. Others complained that Paul lacked tact and skill in the leadership position.
With the party’s public credibility in jeopardy, May announced in July 2022 that she would run for a return as party leader. She won the race in November of that year, beating Anna Keenan and Chad Walcott. The position of deputy leader was filled by Jonathan Pedneault, a former researcher at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. May framed their relationship as one of co-leadership.
As party leader, May has continued to criticize the federal government for expanding fossil fuel infrastructure like the Trans Mountain Pipeline and moving too slowly on renewable energy development. “Our government isn’t working to make sure that we avoid 1.5 or 2 degrees,” she has said. “They’re working to make sure the fossil fuel industry can go on as long as possible while claiming to do climate action. It’s cognitive dissonance at a level that just makes no sense.”
In July 2023, May was hospitalized after suffering a minor stroke. She took a break from her normal duties but has said the episode left no lasting damage.
Personal Life and Beliefs
Elizabeth May is the mother of Cate May Burton; she is also a stepmother and grandmother. In April 2019, May married John Kidder, one of the founders of the Green Party of British Columbia (and brother of actor Margot Kidder).
According to May, a practising Anglican, her religious faith has inspired her commitment to the environment and approach to politics. “We have no right as human beings to destroy that with which we have been entrusted,” she says. May’s approach has been influenced by eco-theologian Thomas Berry, theologian Matthew Fox, evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme and former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
Honours and Awards
- Global 500 Award, United Nations Environment Program (1990)
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Mount Saint Vincent University (2000)
- Harkin Conservation Award, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (2002)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of New Brunswick (2003)
- Officer, Order of Canada (2005)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, Mount Allison University (2007)
- Parliamentarian of the Year, Maclean’s (2012)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Hardest-Working Parliamentarian of the Year, Maclean’s (2013)
- Honorary Doctor of Divinity, Atlantic School of Theology (2015)
- Elizabeth May, Budworm Battles (1982)
- Elizabeth May, Paradise Won: The Struggle to Save South Moresby (1990)
- Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May, Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal (2000)
- Elizabeth May, At the Cutting Edge: The Crisis in Canada’s Forests (1998, 2004)
- Elizabeth May, How to Save the World in Your Spare Time (2006)
- Elizabeth May, Zoë Caron, Global Warming for Dummies (2008)
- Elizabeth May, Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy (2009)
- Elizabeth May, Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada (2014)