Lunch with Elizabeth May: on shrimp, the Senate and why the prime minister is “not Canadian”

(Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images).

OTTAWA – Elizabeth May scans the menu for something she likes. But all she sees is a bunch of poisoned fish, so she settles on the crispy goat cheese salad.

“It’s not organic goat cheese but I’m prepared to compromise from time to time,” says May, who eats seafood, but only the sustainable kind.

“And goats don’t get treated as bad as cows when they’re not organic.”

The leader of the Green Party – caucus of one – is sitting in the Parliamentary Restaurant, a silver cross around her neck and a glass of Cabernet Franc in her hand, at a table overlooking the Ottawa River and Victoria Island.

I make the mistake of ordering shrimp on my quinoa risotto, which I thought would be an eco-friendly May-approved choice.

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It’s not.

“This is the worst. I’m trying to change the Parliamentary dining room,” she says.

“The shrimp is farmed and the farmed shrimp is from Thailand so it means they slaughtered a Mangrove forest to get at it,” she says. At the end of the meal, she launches into a six-minute monologue about the Mangroves that continues until my tape recorder runs out.

But she didn’t choose the storied restaurant on the sixth floor of Centre Block for its barbecued crustaceans, nor for its stunning views, or because she seems to know every waiter and the Maitre d’ by name.

May is here because it’s a safe place, never too far from where she needs to be, where she practically lives: the House of Commons.

“It’s not too much of a risk because I’m only four floors above the House. If something happens I can race back down,” she says.

May usually dines in the chamber, watching debates from the opposition lobby. She was in the House until 1:30 a.m. the night before, too, arguing with Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, about the UN arms trade treaty. The Conservatives haven’t yet said if they’ll sign.

As a one-woman show, it’s important for May to be there. The House doesn’t take attendance, so recorded votes are the only ways her constituents of Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C., know why they sent her to Ottawa in the first place.

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“I never leave the House, generally,” says May, who was elected the first Green MP in 2011.

“Sometimes I have to miss votes. I missed some votes when I had my hip replacement, I missed some votes when I went to the climate negotiations. I missed a vote the other day when I was just two minutes getting back because I was on the Senate side, and the bells weren’t ringing in there.”

I ask if that upset her “It’s only happened once, and yes.”

But what upsets her most, it appears, is Stephen Harper.

She brings him up a lot and at length, for almost half her interview, referring to him always by his full name. It’s clear the prime minister is a driving force in her political life.

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“If the Canadian public doesn’t see, and isn’t informed, that Stephen Harper is dismantling all of our Parliamentary institutions in favour of executive control by him, then it would be very hard when a new prime minister and a new party forms government to get the system fixed,” she says.

“Because no one will know it’s wrong.”

Stephen Harper: “He’s not Canadian.”

May claims she never wanted to end up in politics – that, in a way, Harper pushed her there.

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An environmentalist and lawyer by training, May first met the future prime minister a decade ago, when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance and she was executive director at the environmental organization Sierra Club of Canada, which she founded in 1989.

“I’ve known Stephen Harper since our kids were in the same dance class,” she says. (Her daughter, Victoria Cate, is about a decade older than Harper’s daughter Rachel, but she’d help with the tutus, May says.)

Has he changed in the time she’s known him? “No,” she says.

“He’s done much better in learning how to smile, and he’s projecting himself in a much less personally hostile manner to all the people around him.  He’s able to carry off being affable.”

Without Harper, May says, she would still be at Sierra Club, which she left in 2006. She also served a stint working as a policy adviser for the environment minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government in the 1980s.

“I wasn’t interested in going into politics myself until Stephen Harper became prime minister and I  realized everything I’d ever worked on for decades and decades and decades was about to be unravelled,” she says, stabbing her spinach.

She’s concerned about the tightening grip of the Prime Minister’s Office, a $10 million operation that she says operates without accountability. She cites numerous examples: increasing partisanship of committees that make no amendments to government legislation; time allocation on bills; a weakening public service and policy decisions that run contrary to scientific evidence, such as eliminating the long-form census.

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“You can no longer count on government information, from the civil-servant side, being evidence-based,” she says. “For some reason Stephen Harper has decided to make everything a fight to the death.”

I ask her if this is coming straight from the prime minister himself.

“It’s Stephen Harper personally,” she says.

“He’s not Canadian.”

It’s an interesting thing for May to say – she was, after all, born in the United States. But she doesn’t mean by birth.

“His political identity was forged with young Republican camps south of the border in the U.S. where Tom Flanagan used to take them,” she says, referring to Harper’s former adviser.

In Westminster Parliamentary tradition, says May, people with power learned to control themselves.

“And I think Stephen Harper looked at a system like that and thought, what a bunch of chumps. Wouldn’t take long to run the whole thing out of PMO, and nobody will know because it’s a theft in plain sight,” she says.

“He’s stealing Canadian democracy in plain sight and nobody is screaming about it.”

On the Senate, and issues we can understand

She remembers the comments she received upon first arriving in Ottawa: Good for you, but we’ll never hear from you again.

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But for a solo MP unconstrained by party politics, it appears the opposite is true.

Even though she sits on no committees and gets one 30-second question per week, May was the third-chattiest MP in the House of Commons last year, according to an analysis from non-partisan organization Samara. She gets her kicks, evidently, while proposing amendments and during debates.

She also won Parliamentarian of the Year in 2012 at an annual celebration organized by Maclean’s magazine, an honour bestowed by her fellow MPs.

“There is no reason why every MP can’t make a difference,” she says,  “except that they are instructed what they’re supposed to do, what they’re supposed to say, when they’re allowed to breathe, when they’re not supposed to breathe, when they can sneeze.”

In recent weeks, she has been standing up during question period, a reaction to the Speaker’s ruling on an MP’s right to speak without party approval. She’s not doing it to get recognized, she says.

“I stand up to remind all the other MPs, we’ve had a ruling, party lists are not the boss here…try to catch the Speaker’s eye.”

And as for the Senate spending scandal plaguing the Conservative government?

She’s demanding an inquiry.

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“It’s huge. It’s not really about the Senate. It’s about the payoff – and was it hush money? And if it was hush money, what is it they don’t want Mike Duffy talking about?” she asks.

“The prime minister should resign. If he cares about his party, he’d resign.”

Then again, to her, Harper’s entire tenure has been “a massive scandal.”

“There’s nothing to me that is as scary as the fact that he is building up the ability … for any future prime minister to operate as an unaccountable dictator,” she says.

“Over and over again, it’s the minister falling on their sword for Stephen Harper. Just the way Nigel Wright just did.”

But her biggest concern remains climate change.

“I’m terrified all the time about the climate crisis. I am terrified that we are so close to the point of no return that no one in this country understands,” she says.

“If we pass the point of no return, we will have runaway global warming and the end point is human extinction. I don’t think people quite get that yet.”

Three weeks ago, as the Senate scandal was breaking, the planet passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, she says.

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“We relate better to issues we can understand. Which means we will get very excited about things that are fundamentally trivial and miss that we are sleepwalking towards the edge of cliff,” she says.

May is speaking quickly now, almost desperately, as if she has one chance to get this message out.

“I have to stay focused and I have to stay optimistic. I can’t fall apart,” she says.

“I’m a grandmother. I have obligations, and it’s not to future generations yet unborn, it’s to the kids I can see in front of me at every family gathering.”

Her eyes are moistening with tears, but she holds back.

“I have obligations.”

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