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Greens leader Elizabeth May wants spotlight on climate: ‘Stakes couldn’t get higher’

WATCH: Green leader Elizabeth May launches election campaign

Elizabeth May was so crushed by her Green party’s failure to pick up seats in the last federal election she was ready to hand the leadership reins to someone else.

May even approached prospective successors she thought might lead the party into the next campaign.

Four years later, with another national ballot looming, she’s relieved no one stepped forward. May said the coming contest presents a prime opportunity to be “brutally honest” with Canadians on averting climate catastrophe.

READ MORE: Elizabeth May reveals Green Party transition plans for fossil fuel workers

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s stark 2018 warning on the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions has injected fresh urgency into May’s mission to make the Greens an influential force in Parliament.

“I’m thrilled that I’m the leader going into the election where we can make the biggest difference,” May said in an interview.

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“We’re playing high-risk stakes with hanging on to human civilization.”

May has led the Greens for 13 years, easily making her the longest-serving federal party chief. At an age when many eye retirement, the 65-year-old has been criss-crossing the country to hear the concerns of Canadians as the Oct. 21 election approaches.

WATCH: May says election is about telling Canadians climate change is ‘serious’

2019 Federal Election: May says this election is about telling Canadians climate change is ‘serious’
2019 Federal Election: May says this election is about telling Canadians climate change is ‘serious’

“I’ve never believed in work-life balance. My work is my life, my life is my work,” May said. “I’ve always been on something of a mission, a calling, not a career.”

May was born in the United States and spent her formative years there. Her mother was active in the peace and civil-rights movements and as a political campaigner _ endeavours that left an indelible mark on the young Elizabeth in rural Connecticut.

One day the family’s beloved lamb died mysteriously. In junior high school years later, May read about pesticide poisoning of sheep in Arizona. Her inquiry to the town of Bloomfield, Conn., revealed that pesticides had indeed been sprayed along the roads where the lamb liked to walk.

READ MORE: Canada election: 5 economic issues to watch for this campaign

An environmentalist was born. May would go on to play an instrumental role in the movement against planned aerial insecticide spraying of Nova Scotia forests.

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May came to Canada as a teenager in 1972 when her family, struck with the beauty of Cape Breton, opened a restaurant on the Cabot Trail.

Their meagre finances prevented May from doing undergraduate studies but she later won special admission to Dalhousie University in Halifax, earning a law degree.

In 1986 she became a senior policy adviser to Tom McMillan, environment minister at the time in the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney. May was hired despite her lack of party credentials precisely because she was the sort of person who would quit on principle — which she did after two years.

WATCH: Green Party leader says more members elected during this election cycle 

2019 Federal Election: Green Party leader says more members elected during this election cycle than last
2019 Federal Election: Green Party leader says more members elected during this election cycle than last

While in government, however, she helped create several national parks and was involved in negotiating the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer.

Work on many environmental, consumer and aboriginal causes followed. May left her job as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada in 2006 to successfully run for the Green party leadership. Five years later she won the B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands to become the party’s first elected MP.

P.E.I. Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker admires May’s vigour, industriousness and ability to articulate things clearly.

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“She has an exceptionally sharp mind, and an open mind — someone who’s willing to learn,” he said.

“She’s always inspired me.”

READ MORE: Liberals, Tories begin election campaign neck-and-neck while NDP, Greens tied: Poll

In the 2015 election, it seemed the Greens were poised for a modest breakthrough but May found herself a party of one when the ballots were counted. Since then Paul Manly has scored a byelection win in B.C. and Quebec MP Pierre Nantel recently defected to the Greens from the New Democrats.

Despite May’s environmental pedigree and the very name of the party, the Greens have never been a one-issue outfit, she points out. The party will campaign on a platform, vetted by the parliamentary budget officer, that fleshes out policies in areas including education, foreign policy and social justice.

But May feels a moral responsibility to emphasize the need to move society away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.

WATCH: May on SNC-Lavalin affair says, ‘powerful men have powerful friends’

‘Powerful men have powerful friends’: Green party leader Elizabeth May
‘Powerful men have powerful friends’: Green party leader Elizabeth May

“We’re at a very, very serious danger zone for sustaining life in the biosphere,” she said. “The stakes couldn’t get higher. So I can’t go into an election campaign and say, ‘Well, everybody knows we’re the strongest environmental party, so I’m just going to talk about housing affordability.’ ”

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May said she is the only federal leader who grasps the gravity of the climate threat, an understanding that infuses the party’s outlook.

“We see this in a very out-of-the-box context where Rotary clubs and service organizations will be asked, ‘Do you want to plant trees or would you rather put on solar panels? You want to do both?’ This is much more like a wartime effort than it is anything one can imagine in a peacetime economy.”

At the same time, she acknowledges the day-to-day limits of what is possible.

READ MORE: Fact check: Singh, Scheer and May slam an absent Trudeau with half-truths at debate

In the interest of running as low-carbon a campaign as possible, the party isn’t renting a plane for May. She’ll travel mostly by electric vehicle, bus and train. However, she will fly when necessary and purchase carbon-offset credits.

May has a hybrid car but yearns for the day she can afford a fully electric vehicle and never have to visit a gas station again.

She hopes her blunt call to climate action will resonate with voters who want to send a message that the future of Canada’s children is non-negotiable.

Several Green politicians have been elected in recent years at the provincial level in British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick and P.E.I., boosting the party’s profile.

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WATCH: Trans Mountain pipeline makes ‘no economic sense,’ May says 

Trans Mountain pipeline makes ‘no economic sense’: May
Trans Mountain pipeline makes ‘no economic sense’: May

“We surprise people whenever we win anywhere because the expectations for us have traditionally been so low,” May said. “That’s now our past, we don’t know what our future will look like exactly. But we no longer encounter voters who think that voting Green is a wasted vote.”

May also has a highly personal stake in seeing more Greens elected to Parliament. Her husband of four months, John Kidder, is running for the party in a mainland B.C. riding. His-and-hers victories would allow the perpetually busy May to spend more time with her husband in Ottawa.

It was Kidder’s idea to run, she insisted. “He said, ‘Honey, I could get the romantic vote. I can tell everybody, if you don’t vote for me, I’ll never see my wife again.’ I don’t know if that’s a big vote-getter but we’ll see.”

Whatever the overall outcome, May is prepared to work with any party, including the Conservatives, on common ground in the next Parliament.

“What Greens will do is what is required, not what’s popular,” she said.

“And we have to hope that there are enough people out there who are as terrified as I am.”

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