03/16/2019 09:58 EDT | Updated 04/22/2019 16:01 EDT

Why Elizabeth May Thinks P.E.I. Greens And Maxime Bernier Will Boost Her Party's Fortunes

“People don’t often notice the tortoise until the tortoise is suddenly in the lead.”

Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May waves to the crowd as she rides in a sports car during the annual Victoria Day Parade in Victoria, B.C., on May 21, 2018.

TORONTO Elizabeth May is on a bus that's 45 minutes from Regina, thinking about fellow travellers.

"I've got my earphones on so that I don't disturb other passengers," she says quietly. "I'll try to talk softly."

It's been a heady time for the 64-year-old leader of the Green Party of Canada, a role she has held since 2006.

In recent weeks, May scored a rare standing ovation from opposition MPs in the House of Commons by calling for Canada's top public servant to be fired for his role in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

She grilled the prime minister's former principal secretary at committee for proof that 9,000 jobs at the Quebec engineering giant were truly at stake in the messy saga that has dominated political headlines.

Now on a March break from Parliament, she's touring Western Canada by bus and rail to encourage anyone who will listen that her party is worth a closer look.

'We are the tortoise, not the hare'

May has good reason to feel "buoyed up" lately, with record fundraising and a string of pretty good polls she says reflect a steady build that has been largely ignored.

"We are the tortoise, not the hare," May says. "But people don't often notice the tortoise until the tortoise is suddenly in the lead."

Plucky provincial cousins are getting noticed more and more these days.

Three Green MLAs in British Columbia basically hold the balance of power in that legislature. Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner punched his ticket to Queen's Park in June, while three Greens were elected in New Brunswick last fall.

The sole Green MP in the House, May has represented B.C.'s Saanich-Gulf Islands since 2011. She is confident that "multiple seats" are in her party's future after Canadians head to the polls in October.

The road to that milestone might well cut through Canada's smallest province.

John Morris/CP
Prince Edward Island Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker speaks during a televised debate in Summerside, P.E.I., on April 27, 2015.

In Prince Edward Island, where an election must also be held by early October but is expected this spring, Greens are leading the polls and knocking on the door of history.

P.E.I. was the first province to have a premier of non-European descent. The first to be led by a woman who won a provincial election. The first with an openly gay male premier.

A Green win in P.E.I. would show Canadians the party can be trusted to govern, May says, which is precisely the message she's been delivering all these years.

Just don't tell her the Greens are having a "moment" right now. Moments are fleeting. "We've been feeling the winds in our sails for some time."

All that momentum has put some extra pressure on Peter Bevan-Baker.

The Scottish-born former dentist was acclaimed as P.E.I. Green leader in 2012 and, three years later, won his party's first seat. He had lost nine other times before then, in elections in both Ontario and P.E.I.

Bevan-Baker's caucus doubled in November 2017 when Greens won a byelection on the Island.

His party has money in the bank — "nothing at all to compare with the war chests of the big parties," he says — but enough to compete in a campaign that for all intents and purposes has begun.

"We're all aware that people are watching what's going on here because we're breaking new ground," he says.

He sees the growing support for Greens on the Island as a local expression of a global phenomenon that has voters disillusioned with "conventional politics and unimaginative politicians."

While that itch is sometimes scratched by choosing "the Donald Trumps or the (Doug) Fords of the world," he says, that's just not in the character of P.E.I. The Greens represent a comfortable, credible choice for those fleeing politics as usual.

But if P.E.I. is a testing ground for a larger movement, Bevan-Baker has lessons about the hurdles May will face, too. Chief among them: beating back that lingering idea that Greens are a single-issue advocacy group, a one-chord band singing only about the environment.

Watch: Elizabeth May delivers impassioned speech during climate debate

Bevan-Baker says his team has overcome all that by dint of hard work, articulating clear policies on issues such as education, health, and economic development. It all amounts to a delicate balancing act.

"We can't expect to have a prosperous economy or strong communities or healthy people if we don't have good soil and water and healthy air. The fundamental things that underpin societies," he says.

"So, it's not that we've abandoned our green roots or the belief that the environment is absolutely foundational to everything else."

May believes Canadians are more ready for those conversations on the national scale than ever before, that the stars are aligning for a federal breakthrough thanks in part to her seatmate in the House.

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Tucked in the corner of the Commons, May can sometimes be found facepalming or shaking her head when People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier rails against supply management or a non-binding UN migration pact.

"We're the ultimate odd couple, there's no question about that," she says of Bernier, who bailed on the Tories last August to start the populist party.

"We do not agree on a single matter of public policy but we do agree that it's better to be collegial. And I think we both celebrate, in our own way, that he will split the conservative vote."

A big part of her election strategy will mean telling people: look over there to your right. With Bernier pledging to run candidates in every riding, May thinks enough votes will be siphoned away from Conservatives to keep Andrew Scheer from becoming prime minister.

Graham Hughes/CP
People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier speaks during a candidate nomination event for the upcoming federal byelection in the riding of Outremont in Montreal on Jan. 27, 2019.

Would-be supporters can vote Green without worrying they are helping Conservatives, she says. May blames strategic voting from progressives focused on booting out Stephen Harper's government for her party's disappointing results in the 2015 election.

"Fear-based voting isn't healthy in a democracy and fear-based voting is exactly why I went back to Parliament by myself," she says.

A crowded field of six major parties competing for votes (including the regional Bloc Québécois), has May envisioning a minority Parliament where Greens can play a more meaningful role.

If the results of three federal byelections last month are any indication, the People's Party has work ahead of them. Though the party cleared 10 per cent of the vote in B.C.'s Burnaby South riding, where a controversial former Christian talk-show host carried the flag, Bernier's crew was a non-factor in Ontario's York-Simcoe and Quebec's Outremont.

If you are going to ask me to run a pipeline from British Columbia to Alberta to deliver quality red wine, we have no problem.Elizabeth May

And in Outremont, held for more than a decade by former NDP leader Tom Mulcair and reclaimed by Liberals despite the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Greens outperformed the Tories and the Bloc.

The B.C. byelection also shifted the political landscape when NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh won a federal seat.

May announced last summer that she would not put up a Green candidate against Singh because of the so-called "leader's courtesy," an informal parliamentary tradition in which a leader without a seat gets an easier path to the House. Liberals and Tories did not extend the same gesture.

Singh will be sworn in Sunday and enter the House next week to some needed fanfare. May doesn't appear to be sweating what his heightened presence might mean to Green prospects.

"I don't know the measure of the man yet," she says of Singh. "I don't know what really matters to him and I think it's important for Canadians to know that, which is why the leader's courtesy tradition exists."

Like May, Singh opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. The Green leader was arrested almost a year ago protesting the project in Burnaby.

Adrian Wyld/CP
Bloc interim leader Mario Beaulieu (left), NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Tourism Minister Melanie Joly, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Green Party leader Elizabeth May listen as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers opening remarks on francophone issues in his Ottawa office on Nov. 28, 2018.

May says Greens have nothing against pipelines. The issue is the product inside them.

"If you are going to ask me to run a pipeline from British Columbia to Alberta to deliver quality red wine, we have no problem."

But Singh has raised some eyebrows from his own candidates by supporting a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline project in northern B.C., spurring his predecessor to muse on TV that progressives "looking for a home on environmental issues" may gravitate to May.

"We are opposed to the destruction of life on Earth, therefore we oppose any new fossil fuel developments," May says when asked about her view on the LNG project.

"We advocate for a rapid reduction of Canada's fossil fuel production so we're able to ensure a livable world for our kids. And that's the bottom line."

May speaking with such urgency is resonating among Canadians who are growing more concerned about climate change, Abacus Data CEO David Coletto suggests.

"It seems to me that the opportunity for the Greens has probably never been better than it is today and headed into the 2019 election," Coletto says, pointing not only to an uptick in support but an increase in the number of Canadians who say they are open to voting Green.

His firm released numbers this week suggesting May is outperforming Singh by three points on the question of which party leader Canadians prefer to become prime minister after the next election.

Abacus Data
A graph from an Abacus Data poll released on March 10, 2019.

Coletto says that's as much a reflection on May's popularity as Singh's struggles to connect. More than one-third of NDP supporters tell his firm that the Greens are their second choice.

He is also paying close attention to what a potential Green government in P.E.I. could mean for May.

Though it wouldn't be on the same level as Greens taking B.C. or Alberta, Coletto says, a win could have other voters saying to themselves: "Well, if people in P.E.I. feel comfortable electing a Green government, then why shouldn't I?"

It also remains to be seen what kind of lasting damage the SNC-Lavalin affair will have on Trudeau and whether there's still room for things to be accomplished in the final months of Parliament before the election.

Though Trudeau has faced Conservative calls to resign, May doesn't believe the ongoing controversy will prevent legislation from moving through Parliament. The "real work" in Ottawa is largely done in empty rooms, she says, not in the glare of question period.

She stands by her support for a full public inquiry into allegations from former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould that she faced inappropriate political pressure from Trudeau and other officials to help SNC-Lavalin secure a deal to avoid a trial on corruption charges.

Watch: Trudeau shares his side of SNC-Lavalin affair

Trudeau is "battered and bloodied" right now, May says, but a full investigation can go a long way to ensure a steady ship of state.

"I don't think he understands it was wrong," May says of Trudeau, who has denied Wilson-Raybould's version of events while copping to an "erosion of trust" between her and his office.

"I don't think he understands it all, frankly, because he doesn't have a legal background. I think the people he had around him, in whom he had trust to give him good legal advice, gave him bad legal advice."

She's even recommending an out-of-the-box play for Trudeau: admit to having been "completely wrong-footed" and convince Wilson-Raybould to return to cabinet as minister of justice.

"She's a person of deep ethics, deep integrity. And if I were in her shoes and knew that I could continue to contribute to the life of my country and protect the rule of law, then I would do it."

'All bets are off'

Facing her fourth federal election as leader, May won't say if this will be her last.

"Who knows? If I become prime minister through a series of unimaginable flukes, that might be hard to turn down," she says with a laugh.

"This is the kind of election where, honestly, I think all bets are off and anything is possible."

The interview comes to a natural end just as May arrives at her destination and prepares to disembark. The timing seems just right.