Green Horizon Magazine

Breakthrough in Canada

February 8th, 2012  |  Published in Beyond the U.S.

By Elizabeth May [from GH Issue No. 24]

On May 30, 2011, I was officially sworn in as the first Green Party Member of Parliament in Canada. The election on May 2, 2011 was bittersweet for Canadian Greens. After a difficult campaign in which we were kept out of the national leaders debate and received far less media than in 2008 (when I had been included in the live televised debates) our popular vote fell. We held on to half a million votes, but many very strong local campaigns were deprived of the increase in popular vote that we had legitimately anticipated. On the other hand, the sweet part, was winning our first seat in the British Columbia seaside riding of Saanich Gulf Islands. In SGI a very high voter turnout of 76% elected me as their MP by a healthy margin (46% of the vote to the incumbent Conservative’s 35%).

As U.S. Greens will know well, I became the first elected federal Green in Canada or the U.S. (we cannot say North America, as the Mexican Greens have long been elected). With our historic win, I have joined UK Green Leader Caroline Lucas in breaking through the perverse “first-past-the-post” [winner-take-all] voting system.

Despite the similarity that both Caroline Lucas and I are on our own in our respective House of Commons, there are significant differences in our situations. There are 650 Members of Parliament in the UK. In Canada there are 308. In terms of impact, just on the numbers, I start out with a significant advantage over the UK Greens.

Where Canadian Greens are at a disadvantage compared to the UK Greens is that the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper just won its first majority government (more of the bitter in the bittersweet results). Again, thanks to first-past-the-post, with a voter turnout of 61% Conservative candidates garnered just 39% of the vote, yet a significant majority of the actual seats (166 of 308). In the UK the current government is a coalition, and the situation is therefore more unstable politically. There are, at least, the possibilities of political changes in the UK. Even though the Greens do not have anything like the strategic position of the Australian Greens in holding a position of influence, that could change.

In Canada the current majority, barring completely unforeseen upheavals, means that no election will take place until 2015. It also means that the Conservative Party has the votes to pass any bill Mr. Harper wants. And, due to his powers of appointment since he first formed a government in minority in 2006, Harper has stacked the [unelected] Senate with Conservative partisans, so he has the votes he needs in the Senate as well.

During the campaign few pundits had entertained the thought that the election outcome would be a Conservative majority. Fewer still imagined that the New Democratic Party (NDP) could displace the Liberals and become the official opposition. And even fewer thought that the Green Party would make our breakthrough! The election results were, to say the least, a surprise to many. Just days before the election, I did an interview with a popular radio station in Vancouver in which the host said to me, “With all due respect, you couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”

The House of Commons also had an amazing level of turnover. While some MPs chose not to run again, adding to the number of new faces, many more were confident of re-election and found themselves turfed. Canada went into the 2011 campaign with five leaders of federal political parties vying for seats. Two of those five, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, lost their own seats. So I entered the House as one of a bumper crop of new MPs. One hundred and ten of the 308 members were newly elected in 2011. (Two of those elected were not actually elected for the first time, but they had not been sitting in the 40th Parliament.)

The 41st Parliament has a number of changes, beyond those mentioned above. There are more women in the House — 25% (up from 22% in the previous House). The members’ average age has never been as young, thanks to a whole group of very surprised new MPs who ran as students or recent graduates to help the NDP have names on the ballots in parts of Quebec where they thought they had no chance at all. Even the Conservatives brought in some younger members, and their majority contributed to electing a 32-year-old Conservative as the new Speaker of the House.

A New and Challenging Experience

Fortunately for me, as the first Green MP, I have had a lot of experience on Parliament Hill without having been an MP. I worked for a federal Minister of Environment in the 1980s, and in 17 years as Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada, based in Ottawa, I worked routinely in and out of Parliament Hill with friends and colleagues of all political stripes. One of my friends from law school joked that I was a “rookie MP with 20 years experience.”

Still, there is no doubt that actually being a Member of Parliament is a new and challenging experience. Doing constituency business — helping local residents sort out all manner of difficulties in their lives, mostly due to problems with government — is a huge part of my work load.

Growing the Green Party and gaining more seats in the next election will, however, depend on how I conduct myself in the House of Commons. I pledged in my campaign to bring greater respect and decorum to the House. I promised to do politics differently and escape the hyper-partisanship which, I fear, is crushing democracy.

I have always loved our Parliament buildings. They are beautiful as architecture, and lofty goals breathe through the pores of old granite and marble, carved Moose and brass wildlife that surround the ornate chamber where the House convenes. It is a spectacular room with high ceilings and stained glass and endless amounts of filigree carvings in wood and stone. I was looking forward to taking my seat there, but first I had to find it! There is a saying that there are no bad seats in the House, and I subscribe to that. Still, finding my seat in the House on the first day was amusing … I am in the back corner of the Opposition benches. There are 308 Members of Parliament. In some magical way, my seat is 309!

In order to advance decorum, I started out determining how to work with the rest of my fellow Parliamentarians across party lines. I am determined to avoid making assumptions about people who ran under different coloured banners. Greens began the session by hosting a “Non-party party.” I invited all 110 newly elected MPs and had a very good turnout. It was a social agenda, but the message was clear: We must be able to talk with each other and find ways to support each other.

Standing Up, Making Some Waves

Due to a bizarre decision by the other parties to agree with the Conservatives on a wide range of measures, I was the only MP standing up on certain critical issues. For example, I was the only MP to vote against extending bombing in Libya. I do not understand why the NDP closed ranks with the Harper government on this issue. The Liberals and the Bloc also voted to extend the mission. The forced (whipped) vote meant that Members of Parliament who agreed with me were forced by the party bosses to vote to continue military action. Thus, the vote to continue the mission was 294-1!

I was the only MP to refuse unanimous consent for the rapid passage of a bill to deal with “mega-trials” (trials of multiple defendants, usually in organized crime or terrorist organizations). “Unanimous consent” does not require any vote. No bells ring to notify members of a call to vote. And it also does not require asking all MPs if they consent. The measures can be brought in when there are about 30 MPs in the House and if no one objects the government has unanimous consent. Luckily I found out about this and got in my objection. While I support the goal of streamlining process for these trials to reduce the lag-time to justice and reduce the costs, I could not in good conscience support a bill that had never had a single day of hearings nor consulted a single expert. So I denied my consent.

The initial reaction was to try to paint me as someone who had never read the bill or who supported Hells Angels! The minister of Justice from Quebec came to Ottawa to twist my arm. The release of 31 Hells Angels from jail in Quebec due to court delays had made this bill an urgent matter (not that passing it would have gotten the 31 Hells Angels back into jail). I told the Quebec Minister I would be happy with expedited hearings to get the bill passed. The federal Justice Minister agreed to hold hearings and I agreed as long as we could get amendments. By that point I had consulted leading criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby, who agreed the bill needed some changes. As well, former justice minister and Liberal MP, the brilliant Irwin Cotler, noticed the bill lacked a definition section and realized the complex mega-trial procedure could be applied to regular trials. So I felt pretty sure the hearings would allow for the few gaps to be filled and for unnecessary infringements on rights to be fixed.

The hearings forced by my vote took place on June 21. The Canadian Bar Association brief said the bill as drafted would not meet its goals. Even a Justice Department prosecutor showed up to point out that the bill needed a key amendment to clarify appeal rights.

As an MP, not a member of the committee, I had a right to sit at the table, but in order for me to ask a question or speak the chair had to ask for committee members to agree. The one Liberal on the committee consented, but the NDP and Conservative members said “no.” The excuse was that they had to go through the bill clause by clause in a hurry. I kept trying to raise points, but the NDP and Conservatives would not allow me to utter a syllable. So the bill was rammed through, no changes allowed. They finished so fast (starting at 9 with witnesses, done by 10:30) there was time left and they then allowed me to speak. I urged them to return to this bill in the fall and pass the needed amendments. A Conservative MP interrupted me to say it was “egregious” that an observer should attack the committee’s decisions and that he would not agree to me ever speaking in this committee again!

Additionally, I was the only MP to actually participate in almost all (all but three hours) of a 60 hour filibuster. In Canadian-style filibusters, the MPs from each party move to rotation shift-work. Being the only Green there was no one for me to rotate with, so I stayed throughout the debate on back-to-work legislation for Canada Post. My marathon participation gained media attention! I felt it was my duty to be there; otherwise, there would be no Green voice or vote.

Despite widespread media speculation that I would never be heard from in the House, in the first three weeks I rose to speak on at least two dozen occasions and gave four substantive speeches. The first, albeit just a brief congratulations to the speaker, gained a round of laughter and a standing ovation when I promised that neither I nor my entire caucus would heckle! My most important speech was the explanation for why I would not be voting with all other MPs to extend Canada’s mission in Libya. In Question Period I asked a question of the government each week, raising issues of offshore oil development, budget matters, and Canada’s shameful position on asbestos. My first statement to the House was on the climate crisis, but I have raised questions in debate on everything from Big Pharma to labour rights to fiscal policy.

All in all, I think Canada’s Greens are off to a bright start in the House.

[It is important that U.S. readers not confuse the Canadian unelected Senate with the U.S. Senate; nor the Canadian Speaker of the House, with the U.S. Speaker of the House.]

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