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Green Who Wants to Abandon Oil May Be Canada’s Next Power Broker

By Natalie Obiko Pearson

Elizabeth May has been the lone green voice in Canada’s legislature for most of the eight years since she became her party’s first elected member of parliament.She may soon have more company. Polls indicate the Oct. 21 election could be a breakthrough for the Green Party as climate change climbs front and center for many voters — a groundswell captured late last month when half a million people poured onto the streets of Montreal alongside Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg in the largest protest in Quebec history.The Green Party is poised to win a handful of seats. Some polls show its support at a record high, nipping at the heels of the New Democrats as No. 3 by popular support. May, herself, has the highest approval rating of any leader, considerably better than that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who faces long odds in his bid for a second majority government.

She’s gunning for 12 seats — the minimum number a party needs to be recognized for the purposes of parliamentary proceedings, such as the ability to participate on committees. That may be a stretch, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. projecting Green wins in four districts, up from their current two. But under Canada’s system, a single seat can be pivotal.

“It all depends on how tight it is,” May said in an interview last week after a campaign stop at a private club in Vancouver. In British Columbia, her provincial colleagues have held the balance of power — or the “balance of responsibility,” as she calls it — since 2017, helping drive the country’s most ambitious climate plan for a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030.

“In a minority parliament, what’s the number for balance of responsibility? It can be just one seat.”

Legislative Record

From her far-left seat in the House of Commons, May, 65, is already a one-person powerhouse. She’s intervened more than any other lawmaker and racked up the highest attendance of any leader, ensuring no proposal escapes her scrutiny. She pushed through the Green Party’s first bill into law — a national Lyme disease framework to deal with surging infections linked to warming temperatures — and says she’s passed more amendments than any other opposition party during her time.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, May immigrated to Canada as a teenager after her family bought a restaurant on Cape Breton, a rugged island in Nova Scotia off the Atlantic Coast. May, who toiled to help the family business stay afloat while earning a law degree from Dalhousie University, credits those years of cooking and waitressing for teaching her resilience, empathy and drive.

Read more: Politics Take a Nasty Turn in Canada

She’s become one of the House’s most tenacious lawmakers: In 2012, May didn’t leave her seat for 23 hours straight as she fought to amend a controversial Conservative budget bill. She’s also respected as one of Canada’s most civil parliamentarians, refusing to engage with heckling. In a poignant address before dying of cancer in 2017, Liberal lawmaker Arnold Chan said he considered the Green Party leader “a giant” of the legislature and called for debate to be elevated to her standard.

“I don’t like politics — I’m not very political,” May told the crowd of about 70 people from the Canadian Club of Vancouver who gathered to hear her speak over a breakfast of waffles and eggs. “The bottom line is that Greens being elected is the only way to ensure that the next parliament changes the course of our country. We’re the only ones who’ve done the homework for a real climate plan.”

Climate Agenda

The party’s platform, “Mission: Possible,” calls for Canada to double its emissions target to a 60% reduction by 2030. It proposes ramping up renewable energy to feed a national electricity grid, eliminating fossil-fuel vehicles within two decades, and planting lots of trees. It pledges a “just transition” for oil, gas and coal workers into environmental remediation, clean tech and building retrofits.

It would also mean no new pipelines, putting May staunchly at odds with Trudeau and his main rival, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who both back the Trans Mountain expansion project. The controversial pipeline carries bitumen from landlocked Alberta to the Pacific Coast for export to Asia but has been marred by public outcry and legal challenges in British Columbia.

May, who was arrested near Vancouver last year protesting the project, doesn’t rule out working with anyone. She seeks an all-party cabinet on climate change — modeled on the U.K. war cabinet of Winston Churchill — to enact an environmental strategy capable of surviving changes in government.

“If we had the balance of responsibility, everybody’s positions would become much more fluid,” she said, citing the example of Australia in 2011 when a minority government, propped up by Green Party support, walked back a campaign vow and introduced legislation for carbon pricing. “That’s where I know things shift and move.”

While Trudeau argues that Canada — with the world’s third-largest oil reserves — can balance economic development and the environment, May says the nation must eliminate fossil fuels completely, and soon.

This month’s vote is effectively Canada’s referendum on climate change. The country has just enough time to do its part to avert runaway global warming or else the window of opportunity will close before the next election, she said.

“The house is on fire,” May said. “You have no time for procrastination.”

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