Elizabeth May hails from the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding in Vancouver. As the leader of the Green Party of Canada since 2006, and its first elected Member of Parliament in 2011, May is an environmentalist, lawyer, writer, and activist. She has extensive background in grassroots activism and working with Indigenous Peoples internationally, as well as with First Nations communities in Canada. In 1986, May served as senior policy advisor to Environment Minister Tom McMillan. In recent years, her peers in Parliament have voted her Parliamentarian of the Year, Hardest Working MP, and Best Orator.
The Varsity (TV): You’ve committed to eliminating tuition. How do you plan to do that?
Elizabeth May (EM): We said by 2020, we’d abolish tuition. It’s not complicated but it does require some steps. We would be working across jurisdictions because education is primarily provincial jurisdiction. But the cutbacks in the federal provincial transfer payments in the deficit-cutting era under Paul Martin as finance minister were really the beginning of a serious crisis, which is now spiraling out of control in post-secondary education. Two things happened in the deficit-cutting era: one was the transfer payments were reduced so the universities had less money [and] as a result started putting more students into classrooms and increasing tuition. At the same time, the federal government started applying interest payments on student loans. So the combination of these has gotten to the point now where the average student has a $27,000 student debt.
How we would get rid of tuition is pretty straightforward. We’d sit down with the university administration — we need to work with them to figure out how much they need in stable predictable funding from the government to make sure that we don’t need to have tuition at all.
We start next year in our budget by removing tuition for low income Canadians and we immediately next year in the budget remove the two per cent funding cap for Aboriginal education.
TV: The Green Party changed its position on the Divorce Act in its revised platform. Why?
EM: There was some language that could be misconstrued and it didn’t reflect the platform. It was a question of clarifying language; the politics didn’t change. We still believe the Divorce Act needs to be reformed and revisited. The BC Family Act [is] a very good model — if at all possible, it’s preferable to see mediated settlements and resolutions and less of an adversarial model. The concern is that families end up with a much worsened economic situation at the end of a matrimonial breakdown and it’s certainly preferable to ensure that partners in divorce proceedings end up with an equitable division of assets. In an acrimonious dispute that is very adversarial, everybody loses. We consulted with family law experts and we think it makes sense to revise the Divorce Act.
The way it was drafted picked up on some language that looked as though we were advocating sort of a fathers’ rights position, which wasn’t our position. We do believe that the best interest of the child is paramount in any proceeding, and that language had to be clarified. We didn’t change the position.
TV: Where would you start when implementing the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada?
EM: There’s a long list of things that are long overdue. One of course is the establishment of an enquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Another key part of the Truth and Reconciliation Report is to work — and this is going to be done across provincial and federal lines together — but we definitely need to take action on the protection of Indigenous languages across Canada. That was a key part of the recognition of cultural genocide within the residential school system.
But there’s a very long list of overdue aspects of the nation to nation reconciliation that needs to take place between those of us who are descendants from colonisers and the original Peoples of Turtle Island, so for Métis and First Nations and Inuit concerns, we believe we should actually reimagine what Canada is as a federation.
We’re advocating for the creation of a council of Canadian governments, which would include the Canadian government, provincial and territorial governments, representatives of municipal government, as well as Métis, First Nations, and Inuit leaders at the same table to deal with every issue, not just First Nations issues, every issue. That would mean that we’d be looking at a housing strategy for Canada with a specific focus on ensuring that the housing crisis in First Nations communities is dealt with urgently. Also, there’s no question that the quality of education in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities is not as good as it should be to meet the national standards. The same thing is true for clean drinking water.
TV: Do you believe that you can balance the budget while achieving your goals?
EM: Yes, absolutely. We’ve presented a balanced budget, but we don’t have a fetish on balanced budgets. If we needed to go into a deficit because the economic situation altered, if the efforts we put in, if we were forming government — which we’re not going to form government — but if we did, we’re presenting a platform that’s credible and that would work.
As things now stand, we’ve put forward a budget in detail over a period of four years that remains in surplus. We’d also increase taxes on large corporations, which is how we’re able to maintain a surplus while expanding social services. There are a number of substantial and extensive items on our budget, but we cover those with increases in tax revenue from large corporations. We also have a significant and interesting revenue strain from legalizing cannabis and regulating it and taxing it.
TV: How does your plan to legalize cannabis differ from that of the Liberal Party’s?
EM: It was a position taken many more years ago than the Liberal Party’s. I don’t know their specific details — I know ours. I’ve heard them say they want to legalize and I’ve heard the NDP say they want to decriminalize — both provisions are preferable to the Conservatives’.
Stephen Harper, in the midst of a campaign quite incredibly said that cannabis, marijuana is “infinitely worse” than tobacco, which really made me wonder if he knows the meaning of the word “infinite.” In any case, we want to legalize cannabis. It would be legal to grow it for yourself for your own use. If you’re getting into commercial production it would need to be regulated for quality, for safety, and labeled and taxed appropriately.
TV: Last time we spoke, we discussed democratic reform. Are you still in favour of getting rid of party politics?
EM: Absolutely, if we possibly could. I mean the political party system is what’s wringing the life out of democracy in Canada. I don’t know if when we spoke before I mentioned that Petra Kelly, who founded the German Green Party, one of them, used to call the German Green Party the “anti-party party.” I think it would be wonderful. But I think [that] with the stranglehold that other parties have, what we would more likely be able to achieve is to reduce the power of political party leaders, increase democracy within all the other parties, and in Parliament itself by empowering them as a Parliament to represent their constituents and not have to vote the way they’re told and say what they’re told, and so on. And of course we want to change our voting system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation.
TV: Would you put the proportional representation to a popular referendum?
EM: We have not taken a position on whether there should be a referendum first. Frankly, working in a minority Parliament if we were able to get Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau in a minority Parliament to agree to move more quickly to a system of proportional representation before the next election, that would be great. In principle, [if we were to] explore the idea of a referendum to make sure that Canadians know why we’re making the changes and to have a full discussion within Canada. It starts from the question [that] has never been put in any referendum: “do you want to keep first-past-the post?” That’s the first question.
That’s really what we learned from the New Zealand experience where they got rid of first-past-the-post and brought in mixed member proportional. But they did do it with a series of referenda. But we’re not rigid on that point. If the other parties are ready to move, if they prefer a referendum, we’ll work with a referendum. This is going to take co-operation across party lines to make sure we get rid of first-past-the-post before the next election.
TV: What is the most important election issue to you?
EM: I think the most important issue is climate change, election or not. It certainly hasn’t gotten the attention it should have in this campaign. But it’s critical and it’s urgent. Within 40 days of the end of this long campaign, we will have to be ready as a country to negotiate in the UN conference in Paris that begins November 30. We’ll have to be prepared with a different set of targets, a very different approach to how we operate in the world. It’s urgent and we won’t get another chance after Paris to have a negotiated treaty that has any hope of avoiding two degrees Celsius. Our view is, we should move the world as much as possible to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is not a small issue, this is not a political issue, it is the single largest challenge to human civilization at the moment and we should have made it a bigger issue in this election campaign.
TV: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
EM: Make sure that your readers know that our full platform is available with details at greenparty.ca. We are looking forward to the role of Greens in a minority Parliament to ensure that we have the kind of productive, co-operative Parliament. We see real potential in this election to have a Parliament that, for the first time in a generation, takes large steps to improve our social safety net to act for democratic reform and other platform items. There certainly are many, including a $1 billion commitment to community and environmental service core, to hire young people across Canada, to deal directly with the current levels of unemployment for young people.
We’re looking forward what we hope will be a significant increase in young people voting and turning out, and that’s the best way to make sure that Stephen Harper isn’t Prime Minister come Tuesday morning, and we’re looking at more Green MPs in the house that can bring the policies we’ve just chatted about to fruition.
One big issue I should mention is that we wouldn’t prop up any party in the House of Commons unless they were prepared to repeal Bill C-51—that’s a critical issue for us; act on climate change of course, as well as the democratic reform items. That gives you a sense of what we would negotiate with a minority Parliament made up of larger parties, to ensure that we have a co-operative working relationship for ideally a four-year Parliament instead of a fractious two-year minority.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.