Elizabeth May steps down as Green Party leader; made promise to daughter
Elizabeth May stepped down as leader of the federal Green Party on Monday because of a promise to her daughter.
In 2016, May told daughter Victoria Cate May Burton, 28, that this year’s election would be her last as party leader.
“Cate was very concerned if I kept doing this, she wouldn’t have her mom around for much longer,” said May, 65, in an interview from Ottawa, where she gave a news conference on Parliament Hill. “I wasn’t having much of a life.”
May said she and climate-change scientist Ian Burton lived together for about two years, but when they separated, they didn’t want their child transitioning between two homes. They mutually decided Cate would live with May while Burton remained a large part of his daughter’s life. May has been a single mother since her daughter was three years old.
Burton has been concerned that her mother is not taking care of herself, often working seven days a week, said May, who is known to read every piece of legislation and to be one of the hardest-working MPs in Ottawa.
“I get one day off a month,” said May, who has served as Green leader for 13 years. “In the spring of this year, I worked 51 days without a break, including a couple of times where I [went] 36 hours without sleep.”
In April, the Green Party leader married retired entrepreneur John Kidder. Between her and Kidder they now have seven kids and 11 grandkids.
May said her husband might have liked to see her remain leader, but agrees with her choice to step down. “I’m very excited to know I’ll have time with my husband and time with my daughter and my extended family.”
May will remain MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and plans to run in the next federal election.
“I definitely want to continue to be the member of Parliament,” May said. “Whenever the election happens, I’ll be running again to be the member of Parliament.”
Deputy leader Jo-Ann Roberts, formerly of Victoria, will serve as interim Green leader until a leadership convention in October 2020.
May said now is a good time to leave, while the party has momentum, with a minority Liberal government and another federal election possibly on the horizon.
May said that does not mean she’ll be “slacking off” as MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands. “I’m not going on vacation,” she quipped. If anything, she said, she’ll be able to do more in her riding, as she won’t be distracted by travel or duties as leader.
As federal Green leader, May built a foundation for the party and embedded climate action as a national issue, said a University of Victoria political analyst Michael Prince. “Her legacy will be that she’s mainstreamed environmentalism — she’s mainstreamed climate action as a serious central policy issue for Canadians.”
May’s job now is to continue to educate Canadians and the other political parties on the need to lower emissions targets, Prince said.
May was executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada prior to winning the party’s leadership in 2006 and became the first Green MP elected to the House of Commons in 2011.
“I’m not stopping my work — the climate crisis is as critical as ever,” said May. “Human civilization has a very limited window in order to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change that threaten the survival of human civilization. That’s not hyperbole — that’s science.”
May blamed the media for failing to inform the public on the extent of the climate crisis and the inadequacy of the Liberal government’s emissions target, calling it a “target for failure.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that for decades, May has been a “champion” for the environment: “Your leadership on the climate crisis has helped push our country forward.”
B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver thanked May for her service to Canadians, calling her impact on politics in Canada substantial. “As the first Green MP, she led the way for the multiple Green caucuses elected in Canada today,” said Weaver. “As a voice of principle and reason on issues such as climate change, she has elevated the national conversation and forced other parties to take bolder positions.”
May will remain parliamentary leader of the Green Party caucus.
Despite expressing interest last week in running for the job of Speaker in the House of Commons, May said after discussing it with her party’s two other MPs, Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Paul Manly and Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin, she has decided to wait so she can mentor them. May said if she’s re-elected, however, she’ll likely still be interested in the Speaker position.
May said she plans to meet with Trudeau following Remembrance Day.
Roberts, who lives in Halifax, is a former CBC journalist who ran unsuccessfully for the Greens in Halifax in the October federal election. Before that, she lived in Victoria. After she retired from the CBC, she ran unsuccessfully for the Green Party in the Victoria riding.
As interim leader, Roberts won’t be able to seek the job on a permanent basis. Even on an interim basis, it’s difficult to think “that I would try and fill her shoes,” she said of May. “This is a woman who came in with a group of political activists and created a national party that could hold its own on the national stage. She has ignited a movement across this country.”
Both Atwin and Manly are eligible to run for the leadership in a one-member, one-vote ranked ballot at a leadership convention in October 2020, though Atwin said she is not interested in the job, given her young family and the challenges of being a rookie MP.
The leadership contest will partly overlap with the B.C. Green Party leadership contest. Weaver said while they remain distinct parties with separate leadership races and internal processes, he expects it to be “an exciting time to explore new ideas and visions for Canada and B.C.”
May said she knows “fantastic candidates who are considering running.”
She noted that the party won 1.1 million votes in the October election, doubling its showing from the 2015 election. “I wanted to choose a moment when we had had a lot of success before leaving.”
May, who lives in Sidney, said she plans to continue to live in Saanich-Gulf Islands: “I’ll be here for the rest of my life.”