Elizabeth May vs. the Boys’ Club

By Adella Rose Khan

In the last few *cough* nine *cough* years, Canadian politics has felt like a sad joke, and one that only white men are laughing at. It’s not to say that politics in this country haven’t always been dominated by white men—systemic racism and sexism is as firmly entrenched in our federal system as anywhere else—but whatever heart there once was seems to have disappeared.

Canada has lost any peacekeeping notions that once defined us, we withdrew from the Kyoto Accord in 2011, ditched climate change as an issue altogether, and our prime minister refers to the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women in this country as standard “crime” rather than a “sociological phenomenon,” and definitely not a “crisis” like the United Nations has declared it. That list could be a lot longer, but it’s already such a bummer and makes one thing very clear—none of the politicians making decisions seem to give a damn about me.

But there is one voice that keeps breaking through the Conservative clamour in the House of Commons. Leading the Green Party of Canada since 2006, Elizabeth May started punching above her weight as soon as she won a seat in 2011 and hasn’t stopped since.

The 2011 election saw May unseat Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn to represent the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding with 75 per cent voter turnout—one of the highest in the country. Since then, May has stood as a line of defense between Canadians and Conservative omnibus bills, putting forth more amendments to bills in the last session than any other MP in the history of Canada. There are times when quantity is sometimes mistaken for quality but luckily, May marries them both.

And with only 76 of 308 seats in the House of Commons filled by women, May’s voice is even more crucial.

Without a breath of hesitation, May pinpoints the key issue keeping women out of politics: “Patriarchy. Assumptions that the word power is associated with men.”

Despite her political prowess, May feels the effects of sexism frequently in her field.


Photo via the Green Party website.

Growing up in a family of civil rights and environmental activists, May quickly took to feminism and activism. A 24-year-old May did her first television interview in 1978, representing the movement against aerial insecticide spraying in Cape Breton. Rex Murphy was interviewing her and she couldn’t have been more excited.

“I really thought Rex Murphy was the cat’s pajamas. I watched him on TV, I thought he was super bright, and I was looking forward to the interview,” she recounts. “I tried to explain to him and the TV crew that was filiming me, why using broad spectrum toxic chemicals over thousands of hectares of forest would both be futile in erasing an insect outbreak, but would also threaten human health and wildlife that was in the forest.”

At this point, I am nodding vigorously, sure that she knows what she’s talking about because, duh, she is an expert in this and has been since she was a teenager.

May continues: “They sliced out quotes from me that lasted about 30 seconds and then they had a knowledgeable older man speak for two minutes to explain why I was uninformed and hysterical. It had a profound effect on my speaking style and my awareness of media. It did mean that as a young woman environmental activist, I was very careful after that. It was a very profound learning experience for me as a young feminist.”

Her largest take away was simple: she had to control her own voice or no one would take her seriously. Decades later, May is still speaking in a lower register than her natural speaking voice in an attempt to dissuade sexist ideas that she is not as intelligent and powerful as she is, just because her voice is high.

“I have to be careful and I think all women are aware of this in public life,” she says. “You have to work twice as hard and be very careful about how you express yourself because any one slip and people can say, ‘well, that’s a hysterical woman.’”

This double standard is always tiring and problematic, but with a federal election looming, it’s also undemocratic.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to be in all but one debate with May—the Maclean’s debate that took place August 6. Otherwise, the “women’s issues” debate was cancelled, and May has been left out of the other national televised election debates.

This is the first time in Canadian history that any leader of a party with a seat in the House of Commons has been excluded from the national debates.

May points to the 1993 election when Preston Manning was almost excluded from the debates because he was not fluent in French, but even then Manning ended up debating alongside the other party leaders. Notably, the Reform Party had only one seat in Parliament at the time, which was not actually held by Manning.

“I don’t know that they could get away with that in a male leader. They’ve assumed [in the past] that the Bloc is in debates, but not the Greens,” May says. “I don’t know that they would be doing that if the leader of the Green Party was a man. I can’t presume that it’s only due to sexism but it surely fails young women in this country to say that we have important discussions on the economy, but we’ll leave the only woman leader out of the debate.”

It is completely absurd that I had to watch a horrible debate on the economy, put on by the Globe and Mail that was just three white men talking in circles when there is a woman leading a party. There is absolutely no reason, especially not the Globe’s excuse of wanting a “focused” debate, for young girls and women not to see a woman on the stage.

May says it’s clear that the Conservative Party is trying to control the debates as much as possible and it’s not hard to see why: they’re scared. Watch the Maclean’s debate and you’ll notice: May schools them all. While the other leaders mostly spout party lines on repeat, she actually discusses facts and provides rebuttals to the prime minister when he otherwise goes unchecked.

But excluding May from the debates not just takes away from that immediate representation, it poses a threat to the Green Party gaining more seats.

In 2011, the Green Party was excluded from the debate for not meeting the requirements, which Harper later clarified to be that the party did not have an elected seat in the House.

When May was included in the 2008 debate, the party received just over 1 million votes. After being excluded from the debate in 2011, national media stopped covering the Green Party as a viable option generally, despite running candidates in every riding. The result was astounding, with votes for the Green Party cut in half in 2011.

But May won’t be kept out any longer. With the help of Twitter Canada, May crashed the Globe and Mail’s debate online by answering questions and fact-checking the boys’ club through videos on Twitter. 

Now, the Green Party is challenging the legality of May being excluded from the Munk debate. Because the Munk Centre is a charity, they’re able to engage with politics, but not be partisan—the difference between having a debate with all the party leaders, and excluding just one.

“Really, it’s important that I be included in the debate because I have a good memory for everything that’s happened since he became prime minister in 2006,” she said. “That’s something the Canadian voters are entitled to see—a discussion of the Harper record.”

With the Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Perry Bellegarde, supporting the Green Party’s platform because it addresses First Nations priorities and respects their jurisdiction, it is clear that the Green Party poses a threat to the status quo and this heightens the more you delve into their politics.

The Green Party has become a crucial voice in Canadian politics and May won’t sit still while it’s quieted. And thank goodness, because we need politicians who want to be truly representative of their constituents, respect indigenous peoples, make sure the masses living under the poverty line have a guaranteed livable income, and stand up against a complete lack of environmental policy.

But this lack of representation is a cyclical issue. Old white men make decisions that cater to their largest voter bases, ignoring the more complex issues that they don’t think will get them re-elected. And when our politicians don’t look like us or care about us, we become less engaged in politics. As we become less engaged, the white man syndrome only gets worse. At the very least, we need a loud, intelligent woman making her voice heard in politics so more of us can follow.

As May so eloquently put it, “it’s time for people to start raising hell.”


Full disclosure: since conducting the original interview with May and pitching this piece to Witchslapped, Adella has accepted a temporary position in the Green Party’s call centre.

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