On Friday, March 15th, a friend and I took some time out of regularly scheduled programming to attend a potluck supper and then an evening town hall hosted by the local Green Party and featuring Elizabeth May as speaker.
I have followed Ms. May’s fortunes and those of the Green Party since she was first elected to Parliament in 2011. Her knowledge and understanding of the issues from environmental to economic to foreign affairs is both broad and deep. It’s unfortunate that more people aren’t willing or able to recognize that.
As one would expect, critics of her message rely on misconceptions and fear to keep her and the Green Party’s prescriptions far from the levers of power. Despite public suspicion of and apathy to May’s central message that we are in a race to save the planet, it is long past time to address Canada’s global responsibility in tackling climate change.
We have come to expect politicians to recycle their comments from a limited vocabulary of safe and sanitized talking points such as Trudeau’s tired references to ‘the middle class and those working hard to join it.’
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has lamented the public’s focus on the upcoming carbon tax, yet he and his party have been the ones constantly hammering on the notion that carbon pricing doesn’t work while offering no alternatives.
Like the changing of the seasons, we’ve become accustomed to these endless loops of hypocrisy and vagueness from leaders whose policies amount to useless tinkering around the edges of a problem that threatens human civilization.
That’s why I found Friday’s experience a breath of fresh air. The Green Party leader took questions from the audience for well over an hour. Her answers were thoughtful and specific. Not only did May outline a vision for a more equitable and satisfying Canadian society, she spelled out specific steps and timelines toward that goal.
One questioner asked about UPOV 91, which represents a significant strengthening of Plant Breeders’ Rights and was passed into Canadian law a few years ago. May spoke knowledgeably to the specific concerns of farmers in the audience who worried about their declining options to save their own seed without paying ongoing royalties.
A self-described libertarian attendee asked why market forces shouldn’t be relied on to foster necessary climate action. A recent example of this would be the noticeable reduction in single use plastic drinking straws in response to public pressure. May responded that there are currently far too many other interfering factors (such as powerful lobby groups and corporate subsidies) that undermine ‘the market’ and delay or thwart much needed action.
She noted that the urgency for climate action means governments are uniquely positioned to more quickly and effectively direct large-scale changes. We simply don’t have the luxury of twenty or thirty years to turn the climate change ship around.
Prior to the town hall, we joined a small group for a potluck at the home of a Brandon Green Party member. Elizabeth May and her fiancée John Kidder showed up late, but I had a chance to chat with them for a few minutes.
Manitoba is the latest stop on her cross-Canada Community Matters Tour. Her day had started with a late arrival in Winnipeg by train at 3 a.m. She fit in a fundraising lunch in Brandon, hosted a talk at Brandon University, did a media interview and took time for conversations with people like me before heading to the evening’s event.
I would have expected her to be showing signs of fatigue after a long day, and yet our conversation was engaging and wide-ranging. I told her that in advance of this fall’s election, I was reading through all the major political parties’ policy statements – including Vision Green which she had a major hand in developing. She asked me to send her any feedback I might have on how the Green Party could tailor their ag policies to better address challenges faced by farmers.
Honestly! She was interested in hearing from some guy from southwestern Manitoba on how to improve her party’s national platform. I don’t think ‘pleasantly surprised’ or ‘taken aback’ would adequately describe what was going through my mind.
In Canada, many of us have the luxury of going about our daily lives without paying much attention to the wider world. We pick and choose the issues we pay attention to based on our jobs or our interests. Politics is a past-time that we indulge in mostly as a spectator sport, picking a side and taking pot shots at the missteps of our team’s opponents.
It is regrettably rare to have a leader who consistently practices positive politics. To her credit, May commended Justin Trudeau on taking the high road by not engaging in attack ads in the last federal election. Her hallmark is graciousness and generosity, even to her political adversaries. That refusal to get down in the gutter has also made it challenging to get the message out in a world that pays more attention to negativity and outrage than it does to positive calls to action.
May has been a tireless advocate for a cleaner and greener world for most of her life. We need more leaders like her who can focus our energies where they can be most effective. However, she is only one voice and one person. Her greatest legacy, like those of other inspiring leaders, whether in local community organizations or on the national stage, will be measured in the ripples of influence that travel beyond her reach.
Her determined activism is bearing fruit as the tide of public opinion and awareness begins to turn. A comprehensive plan to address climate change in the US, the Green New Deal, is gaining traction. Children are rallying to let adults know that the status quo is not an option. Elizabeth May is consistently rated the most ethical of our Canadian political leaders.
The title of this column borrows from Coca Cola’s ad slogan during the Great Depression. The world looked bleak and people were desperate for a hopeful message. Last Friday also marked the worldwide School Strike for Climate Change inspired by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for the Future campaign. The voices calling for meaningful action can no longer be ignored.
Surveying the state of our political landscape, both at home and abroad, we might be forgiven for surrendering to cynicism and defeat. For me and many in the audience on Friday night, May’s words were a refreshing pause. After the pause though, the heavy lifting needs to continue. With May and others like her leading by example, we’ve got a blueprint to a brighter future.