Elizabeth May, fighting a war on many fronts

Anne Kingston: The abortion issue is sucking oxygen from the Greens campaign at a time when millions are marching in the streets to protest government inaction on the climate crisis
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May Speaks At The Canadian Club
Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, smiles during a Canadian Club of Vancouver event at the Terminal City Club in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. The party seems to have been the biggest beneficiary of the Liberal Party’s recent woes. Polls show support for the Greens at an historical high of 10%, with real prospects to take as many as eight seats, particularly in British Columbia. Photographer: Jennifer Gauthier/Bloomberg via Getty Images

SATURNA ISLAND, B.C.— It’s Friday afternoon, the fourth all-candidates debate in the riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands, B.C. in less than 72 hours. Think electoral speed-dating: five rivals uttering similar lines to seduce different voter groups in a geographically far-flung riding. The collective civic effort is the antithesis of Election 43,  a contest that has become a daily rotation of divisive past indiscretions and current hypocrisies. All-candidates debates offer a sobering reminder that politics isn’t all about show: it’s about meeting the needs of constituents where they live, quite literally.

We’re in the homey community centre on Saturna Island, an isolated idyll of stunning beauty, pop. 300. The citizenry is engaged here: the 2015 election saw a 75 percent turnout. Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May, the incumbent since 2011, has the clear home team advantage. On Vancouver Island, there’s worry about “affordability” (the Election 43 mantra), lack of family physicians, lousy public transit, and the climate emergency. Here, the audience is older, and the questions are more nuanced and urgent—accessibility, derelict vessels offshore, endangered orcas, the need to rethink partisan politics to deal with unprecedented change, environmentally and politically. This being Election 43, questions turn to the candidates’ views on a woman’s right to access abortion. Lines appear. May, NDP candidate Sabina Singh and Liberal candidate Ryan Windsor are quick to support. Ron Broda of the Peoples Party and David Busch, Conservative party candidate, provide longer, less unequivocal answers. During the exchange, May asks Singh to deliver an appeal to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh: “Ask him to stop constantly challenging and smearing us because it is beneath him.”

Many in the audience likely wouldn’t get the reference. May is invoking a conflict brewing for weeks between the Greens and NDP–one likely to boil over onto the Oct. 7 English-language leader’s debate. The parties sit some five percent apart in the polls, with the NDP in third place, depending on the day and pollster. To continue the speed-dating analogy, they’re courting the same progressive audience and seeking advantage.

Singh saw an opportunity to alchemize political hay into political gold after May gave a CBC  interview in September. May boasted that her party would never whip Green MPs votes, as other parties did, an important point of democratic principle. Yes, May said, that potentially meant reopening the “abortion debate,” words with thermal-nuclear power in the political moment. In the ensuing fury, May back-pedalled. She said she’d always been pro-choice, and that was Green policy; the party’s vetting process excludes anti-abortion candidates. And in three-two-one, two Green candidates who had expressed “anti-abortion” sentiment years previously were outed. The party said they’d be re-vetted for current views on the topic.

The subject was fodder for Singh during the Maclean’s–Citytv debate in September attended by May, Singh and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (Justin Trudeau chose not to participate). The NDP leader invoked the CBC interview and other Green snafus to draw lines between his party and the Greens in four areas: the NDP had a “solid position” on women’s right to choose and “national unity,” Singh said adding: “We have a belief that we can’t leave workers behind, and we strongly believe that we should not be putting Mr. Scheer in the prime minister’s seat unlike Ms. May and the Green Party who believe that’s the right choice.” “Absurd” is how May characterized Singh’s claim at the time.

Still, the issue continued to suck oxygen from the Green’s campaign at the very time the party is poised to build a caucus beyond the two seats it currently holds, at a time millions are marching in the streets led by a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl against government inaction on the climate crisis, at a time May has urgently called the election a “national referendum on climate crisis.”

On the campaign trail in her riding over the past few days, May diverted energy that could be spent attacking the provincial NDP’s record on energy and its support of the LNG pipeline, a major sore point among environmentalists who have been longtime NDP supporters. She’s “disappointed” in Singh, May has said, for spreading false information about the Greens. May hinted something more was up on Thursday at a press conference at the campaign office of Victoria Green Party candidate Racelle Kooy. The Green Party leader, flanked by Kooy and David Merner, Green Party candidate in adjacent Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, announced the Green’s plan to reform policy for seniors.

After questions about the Green’s dementia strategy and a demand for federal pension plans to divest from fossil fuel-based investments, the May-Singh tempest took over. May accused Singh of making “a string of statements about me that he knew to be false.” She alluded to an Oct 2 story published by an outlet associated with the Broadbent Institute few would have read titled “Three-quarters of Green Party candidates who spoke to PressProgress said party officials never asked about their views on abortion.” No Green candidates are anti-abortion, to her knowledge, May said, describing PressProgress as “a third-party group that’s essentially a voice of the NDP that doesn’t want to let this drop.” If candidates are found to have lied during the vetting process, May says, the federal council can remove them:  “We will never retreat one inch from a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion.”

May called on Singh “to be honest about this,” noting that some current NDP candidates at other times in their lives said they were anti-abortion. “I can see that the NDP is feeling desperate,” she said. “But it’s not honourable. This is a campaign whipping up a non-issue, and it’s lamentable when we have real issues to discuss that we are essentially distracted—and not just the Greens—Canadian voters would like to hear us discuss as parties what we propose to do.”

May’s disappointment was heightened, she says, by the fact her party extended Singh an “olive branch,” by honouring the “leader’s tradition” and not running a candidate against him in Burnaby, B.C. where he won a seat; the Greens were the only party to do so. It was the right thing to do, May says, noting the Green’s willingness to work across party lines to achieve shared goals, even if it comes at a political cost.  “If we had run a strong campaign in Burnaby, he might not have been in the House of Commons at all, and that would have hurt NDP fortunes a great deal,” May says.

On Friday morning, before the Saturna Island debate, the Green Party announced it had filed an official complaint with Canada’s National News Media Council and the Broadbent Institute over “intentionally misleading reporting” from PressProgress, which it described “as a project of the Broadbent Institute with close ties to the NDP.” The outlet “sent an intentionally misleading questionnaire to 200 Green Party candidates,” the complaint said. “Only 35 candidates responded, but PressProgress claimed that was enough to present their unscientific survey results as fact.” As a gambit, it’s risky, destined to expand readership of a story most people would never see. Still, May says, not correcting the record has consequences. She’s seeing the aftermath when door-knocking. “People worry about our stance on abortion.”

The Greens asked PressProgress and the NDP to issue a correction and an apology. Based on their responses Friday, Maxime Bernier will be leading a Climate Strike first. “We stand by our reporting and the facts we present in our story, as does the Broadbent Institute,” Katrina Miller, the program director and publisher of PressProgress told Maclean’s via email Friday. She noted that the Greens had been given a chance to respond to the story and chose not to. Green spokesperson Rosie Emery told Maclean’s that the Green’s had “requested more information about their ‘survey,’ as these could be open to different interpretation” before commenting. “PressProgress did not provide the responses that were requested,” Emery says. She hadn’t heard about the complaint being filed, she said, but disagreed with the Green’s characterization of PressProgress; she defined it as “an independent non-profit newsroom launched and supported by the Broadbent Institute, which is a non-partisan social democratic policy and leadership training organization.” The Institute’s founder, Ed Broadbent, was leader of the NDP decades ago, Miller said, noting he “is also well-respected author and political thinker across partisan lines.” Hearing this, May shakes her head. Ed Broadbent is well-respected, she says. “But the institute is controlled by the NDP.”

At a campaign stop in a Saskatoon riding on Friday, Singh waved off the complaint, again asserting that some Green candidates don’t have a clear position on a woman’s right to access abortion services. He then used the opportunity to take another  jab at May: “Those were her words,” he said. “She can’t Photoshop those words,” adding: “I know the Green party likes to Photoshop things,” a reference to another demi-scandal with a day’s self-life: a photo of May holding a coffee cup modified by some Greens comms person to look like a Green Party-branded reusable cup when it was a compostable single-use cup. May calls the Photoshopping done by a staffer “dumb.” “I’ve been told ‘That staffer must be toast,’ she says. “I say, ‘No, we’re Greens.'”

In Victoria on Thursday, May made a few sharp jabs at another federal leader controversy largely forgotten by Friday: a newly discovered second plane on the Liberal tour. “We have a back-up electric car,” May said jokingly, referring to the loaner Tesla used by her campaign in addition to her own Prius with a “Proportional Representation” bumper sticker. “The fact the prime minister has two planes is doubly embarrassing in the climate crisis,” May says, noting that both Trudeau and Singh say their parties buy carbon offsets, while Scheer and the Conservatives do not. May travels by train whenever possible. On the campaign trail, May repeatedly draws attention to the fact that carbon offsets aren’t allowable expenses for MPs.

The Victoria press conference offered foreshadowing of yet another campaign distraction that had not blown over by Friday: Scheer’s newly revealed dual American-Canadian citizenship. Out of the blue, a  reporter asked May, who was born in Hartford, Conn. and moved to Nova Scotia with her parents, about giving up her American citizenship, clearly knowing the Scheer story was about to drop. That happened in 1978, May said, explaining that her identity and loyalty was Canadian.

Hours later, May said she was “astonished” by the news, before saying that dual-citizenship shouldn’t be fatal to anyone’s aspirations. In Scheer’s case, however, it’s part of a concerning pattern, May said–”one of Mr. Scheer not telling exactly the whole truth,” referencing the headline-making news that the Conservative leader didn’t have the credentials to be the insurance broker he claimed to be before entering politics. “He presents himself as something he is not,” says May.

Back on Saturna Island, where daily life provides a reminder of the fragility of ecosysystems, no one cares much about Andrew Scheer’s insurance broker fiction or dual planes or even PressProgress stories. Local resident Pat Carney, a former Conservative MP, cabinet minister and retired senator, takes the floor to ask a question. “I’m impressed by the caliber of candidates,” says Carney, the first female Conservative MP in B.C. when she was elected in 1980. She went public as a Green supporter in the last federal election, telling CBC that May ran the best constituency office. “As someone concerned about the planet, I am also a senior concerned about my own future—and people with disabilities. Your parties all promised grants to everything, camping,  arts, to end gang warfare,” she said, referring to the Liberals and Conservatives. She asked candidates to pledge to community access grants to upgrade her beloved community centre. “This hall is as old as I am and we both need refits,” Carney said. All the candidates made the pledge. When the debate ended, May, who worked as a policy advisor in the Ministry of the Environment during a Conservative government in the late ‘80s, was the only candidate to receive Carney’s hug, a humane moment in a campaign that often isn’t.