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J.J. McCullough


Media Bites: Elizabeth May Is the Stonehenge of Canadian Politics

Posted: 04/01/2013 12:40 pm

It seems to me the world could use a single, unified theory of Elizabeth May. She's been part of this country's political scene for nearly a decade, after all, and yet her longevity continues to baffle. She's very much the Stonehenge of Canadian politics: pointless, yet cryptic.

Certainly there's no compelling ideological explanation for her existence. Canada's present three-party system, while imperfect, certainly offers a broad enough buffet to satisfy most tastes. If anything, it may even be too broad, considering the persistence of party merger movements over the years -- first on the right and now on the left. Canadians, like voters in most Anglosphere nations, seem to prefer the polarized politics of either-or. Take the most contentious issue of our current political climate, for instance -- Stephen Harper. You either love him or despise him. There are no moderates on this issue.

Elizabeth May is no moderate on this issue. She wants the Prime Minister out of office, and has even claimed to find him personally frightening. She made a ham-fisted metaphor the other day comparing his government to North Korea's -- at least in terms of environmental record (or something). That's basically all it takes to be on "the left" in modern Canada, but just for humour's sake, it's worth noting that her views on stimulus spending, universal childcare, carbon taxes, yadda yadda all pass the progressive litmus test, too.

But again: why vote May when you can vote Mulcair or Trudeau and get pretty much the same thing?

The only real explanation is that there's certain rejectionist segment of the Canadian populace, a none-of-the-above voting bloc who possess a sometimes paranoid, often conspiratorial distrust of anything that reeks of established power -- including political parties that actually have seats in the legislature.

You know who I mean. People whose political views present philosophical incoherence as moral superiority ("you can't put a label on what I believe!") coupled with a lazy disinterest in even the most basic lessons of sixth grade civics. Folks convinced the world is run by the Bilderberg Corporation, yet also think Ottawa's responsible for garbage pickup. The sorts who think WiFi signals are giving them brain cancer and homeopathy can cure it. Near as I can tell, this is the Elizabeth May base. (Homeopathy coverage and Wifi paranoia are official Green Party positions, incidentally).

Because Elizabeth May is affable and nonthreatening, the press doesn't portray Green voters with the sort of casual stereotyping they use for most other parties. It's not part of the accepted media storyline, in other words, to note that Elizabeth May's political career has probably entailed a lot of polite nodding at wild-haired women with healing-crystal necklaces barking lunatic theories about smart meters in the way it is acceptable to worry about evangelical Christians in the Tory party or militant unionists in the NDP. Which is too bad, because if there's one obvious explanation for why May's poll numbers seem to have a relatively low ceiling, it's this.


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  • I was raised by parents who believed that each citizen had a duty to speak up for justice and a better world. My grandmother had a saying ‘Thought without constructive action is demoralizing.’ And my mother raised us on the same principle. This slide shows two eras of protest. The first is the British Aldermaston march in 1960 opposing nuclear weaponry in the Cold War era. People came from over one hundred nations. My mother walked the whole six days from Aldermaston, UK (where the nuclear weapons research took place), to Trafalgar Square. The rest of us, my dad, my younger brother and I, stayed with my paternal grandparents in my father’s hometown of Barnet. On the last day I was allowed to walk with my mother to Trafalgar Square, where she – representing the North American movement – spoke to a crowd of 100,000. The tradition of family involvement continues as this photo of Thanksgiving weekend in 2010 shows. We held a 10-10-10 event (see 350.org for details) to take climate action by planting trees on my step-daughter Jo’s front lawn in Haliburton, Ontario, where my extended family had gathered for Thanksgiving. Pictured with me and local Green candidate Susanne Lauten are my daughter, Victoria Cate and her two older sisters, Nadya and Jo, plus several grandchildren and local supporters.”

  • My mother was a co-plaintiff with 17 Nobel Prize winners in a law suit against the governments of the UK, the US and the USSR for carrying out nuclear weapons testing, distributing cancer-causing radionuclides (Strontium 90) globally in the atmosphere. The press conference was in Washington, DC. I am seated next to my mom, far left. In the centre of the table, speaking, is Dr. Linus Pauling. Chatting with my mother, another co-plaintiff, Bertrand Russell (photo taken at his home in Wales). Atmospheric nuclear weapons testing ended with the signing of the Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

  • We moved into this house in Bloomfield, Connecticut when I was one year old. My father had started work with Aetna Life and Casualty in Hartford. We had seven acres and, as I got older, had an increasingly large menagerie.

  • Menagerie!

  • Menagerie!

  • My god-father is actor Cliff Robertson, here pictured with his former wife, Dina Merrill, and my younger brother Geoff. The other picture is of my mum and Paul Newman at a fundraising event for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Paul Newman was enormously generous with his time and my mum worked closely with him. They were both delegates for McCarthy to the 1968 Democratic convention, which I attended with her at age 14.

  • A trip around the Cabot Trail in 1972 changed our lives and by 1973 we had moved, lock stock and barrel (with two ponies, an elderly wether, three dogs and two cats) to Cape Breton Island. My parents sunk their life savings (and then some) into a derelict tourism business at Margaree Harbour. We put in a sewage treatment plant, re-furbished a restaurant on board an old Bluenose fishing schooner (build in 1918 by the same Lunenburg firm that built the Bluenose), and renovated a log cabin gift shop to look like Dickens London. We hired a staff of 50. As you can see, my dad and brother grew beards and wore kilts, as well as learning Gaelic. We were a hit with customers, but lost our shirts — and our socks. I could not afford to go to university, so cooked and waitressed until 1982. The Schooner Village operated seasonally until 2002 when the NS government expropriated us to build a new bridge. The 1918 schooner, plus Farley Mowat’s “Boat who Wouldn’t Float” which he had given us to have on display, were demolished and hauled them to the dump. Heartbreaking.

  • In 1980 I discovered that Dalhousie Law School had a programme for mature students, opening the possibility to go to law school without an undergrad degree. From 1975-1979, I had been a key organizer with many others of a grassroots effort to prevent the aerial spraying of Cape Breton Island with toxic (now banned) chemical pesticides. The fight to stop spraying was seasonal, and fortunately was the opposite season from my work in the restaurant. In the fall of 1985, as soon as we closed for the winter, the pulp company demanded the government approve the spraying. The infestation of spruce budworm could only be sprayed in the early larval stages, so the government decision was demanded by spring. By spring 1986, the government agreed with the citizens and turned down the application. Every year, until the budworm epidemic collapsed of natural causes in 1979, the pattern was repeated. Every year, we succeeded in persuading the NS government not to spray. I worked in the background for the first few years, but by 1978 the media noticed I was running a major conference we organized in Halifax and from then on I was doing media interviews. Dalhousie took into account my volunteer environmental work and my desire to be an environmental lawyer. That, plus doing well in LSATs, got me back on track for what I had always wanted to do. In my second year at law school, my first book chronically our successful campaign to prevent spraying was published. (Budworm Battles, Four East books, 1982). While in law school, I still worked summers in the kitchen in the Schooner Restaurant. That made it difficult to stop an approved spray programme with Agent Orange in June 1982. Spraying was demanded not to kill insects, but for killing hardwood trees – “competing” with the coniferous trees favoured for pulp. Agent Orange was already banned in the US and in Sweden where the pulp company was based, but legal in Canada. At first, the NS government appeared to have yielded to the public outcry and cancelled the permits. It turned out to be trickery, as they silently re-approved spraying with Agent Orange from the ground. With less than ten days until the spraying was planned, we, local residents, myself included, raced to court for emergency help. Residents from areas near all the spray blocks in eastern NS and Cape Breton Island sought an interim injunction to stop the Agent Orange spray programme, with no concept that it would eat up two years of our lives, force us into brutal financial sacrifices, and pit us against forest industry giants and the pesticide industry. I worked as volunteer lawyer, hired the real lawyers, raised the money to pay them, and was a co-plaintiff. In the course of the court case, my family lost 80-acres of land overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes. We managed to gain an interim injunction, preventing spraying for the 1982 and 1983 seasons. Once the NS court ruled Agent Orange and dioxin were “safe,” it turned out that it was no longer possible to spray it. The US government had reached a “voluntary” agreement with the manufacturer Dow Chemical, preventing Dow from selling any of its old stock to places where it was still allowed — like Canada. So, even though we lost the court case, they never did spray eastern Nova Scotia with Agent Orange. I missed my graduation from law school because I was cross-examining an expert witness.” I practiced law in Halifax with the firm of Kitz, Matheson, Green and MacIsaac, first articling and then as an associate from 1983-1985. An offer to serve as Associate General Counsel to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, moved me to Ottawa.

  • In June 1986, as the World Commission on Environment and Development (The Brundtland Commission) held hearings around the world, Canadian NGOS from environment, development and peace orientations held a major conference in Ottawa — The Fate of the Earth. Over one thousand people participated, including Guujaw, Nobel Laureate George Wald, poet Dorothy Livesay, Margot Kidder, and singer Pete Seeger. I was co-chair of the FOTE conference. These photos were taken by noted photographer, Robert del Tredici.

  • By summer of 1986, the federal Minister of Environment, Tom McMillan had persuaded me to join his staff as Senior Policy Advisor. Photo of the Hon Tom McMillan, Dr. Gro Harlem Bruntdland, Prime Minister of Norway, and me, taken at the landmark June, 1988 climate change conference in Toronto, “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security”. Second photo of South Moresby Signing Ceremony in Victoria, July 12, 1987.

  • Photo of celebrations of the negotiation of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer in September 1987.

  • Celebration after saving South Moresby. That same week as the 1988 climate change conference in Toronto, I resigned with great sadness from the Minister’s staff, due to the approval of two dams in Saskatchewan without environmental assessment. Once I was suddenly out of work (resignation on principle is like that), I was offered contract work with Canada’s leading academic honorific academy, the Royal Society of Canada. In that period Tara Cullis phoned to say her husband David Suzuki had just phoned her in tears from the Amazon. She said we needed to raise money for a brave indigenous leader, Paiakan of the Kyapo people, who was attempting to stop a major dam on the Xingu River. He would be making a tour of Canada in October 1988 and we needed to drop everything to organize a fundraising tour. I threw myself into it, as did many others. We raised $80,000 with concerts in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. We raised the money without any organizational structure, although many groups (like WWF and Nature Canada) helped. The primary reason for our success was that the concerts featured Gordon Lightfoot. These photos were taken in February 1989 with Gordon Lightfoot in the indigenous village. We met Sting in that village, although the photo with Sting was taken later in Toronto. With Sting is my friend Peter Dalglish, founder of Street Kids International, currently working for the UN in Afghanistan.

  • Pictured, my step-step daughter, Clare (now Executive Director of Women In Need Community Outreach, Victoria), my mother and father, brother his wife Rebecca Lynn, their son Andrew, and Victoria Cate’s dad, Ian. August, 1991.

  • I was on the board of Friends of the Earth Canada and Paul McCartney was promoting FOE in his world tour. As delightful as I could have imagined, he was very taken with Victoria Cate, then three months old. The next day, strangely enough, Victoria Cate and I spent with a business leaders forum on sustainability, hosted by HRH Prince Charles, at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club with a reception after on the Royal Yacht Britannia.

  • December, 1991 in Miami. The event was a strong precursor to the June, 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which I also attended. Pictured here, the driving force of the event, former Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Vandana Shiva. We were all on the organizing committee along with, German Green Party founder Petra Kelly, Kenyan Green (later named Nobel Peace Prize Winner) Wangari Matthai, and other leading women activists.

  • My mother and my daughter on board our schooner restaurant, the Marion Elizabeth.

  • May, 1993. I first met former President William Jefferson Clinton in July, 1971. I was in high school, and he was a student at Yale Law School assisting the development of the campaign to nominate George McGovern as the Democratic nominee. We have remained friends.

The hypocrisy is that May herself has never been a terribly anti-establishment figure. Part of the reason she's even famous in the first place is because she once sat on some UN environment committee chaired by Maurice Strong, the legendary CEO of the unambiguously-named Power Corp, whose boards and bosses are unsettlingly omnipresent in the resumes of many Canadian figures of power and influence. Since then, she's won the Order of Canada, got a chair at Dalhousie University, and was elected Parliamentarian of the Year by her House of Commons peers. In 2008 she backed the frantic coalition scheme to install the ultra-orthodox Stephane Dion as prime minister, and she'll no doubt happily rush to endorse any future backdoor plot to inaugurate Justin or Tom. Her showy eagerness to promote electoral cooperation with parties she nominally opposes, as she's doing right now in Labrador, seems to be less about fighting the system than cultivating a respectable reputation within it.

It's not an unsympathetic motive. One imagines the high profile that comes with leading a political party, even an unpopular or redundant one, makes for a vastly more satisfying career than toiling as someone else's back-bencher. You get endless interview requests from literal-minded reporters assigned to survey "all parties," your own podium at leadership debates (sometimes), and your grinning mug politely included on all those little bar graphs on election night. And no whipped votes or caucus revolts to crimp your style!

Create a political system that maximizes the power of party bosses while limiting the freedom and free-thinking of individual members, and sooner or later the most vain and self-important politicians will game that same system by creating personality cult parties-of-one. You see this a lot in Europe, where populist egomaniacs like Holland's Geert Wilders and Italy's Beppe Grillo establish "movements" that basically begin and end with their own eccentricities, yet can still tap into some weird minority of voters who coincidentally share the same fringey obsessions. Such vanity vehicles may not exercise much influence over the governing process -- let alone govern -- but for anyone who gets into politics not wanting to take orders from any crank except themselves, it's a self-empowering strategy that makes a lot of sense.

So a fresh mystery presents itself.

The question isn't why Elizabeth May exists, but why there aren't more of her.


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