Environmental icon Elizabeth May reflects on her 50 years of activism and how she plans to keep up the fight for years to come.

Lessons Learned and Stories Told

Elizabeth May has been fighting the frontline battles in the name of our environment for over 50 years, and she still has a few more tricks up her sleeve. As a recent sustainability grad, Ms. May has been a true icon for me – and for countless other women of my generation who chose to pursue an educational path in the environment. A hero in my eyes, she is someone who paved the way for Canadian citizens to have climate change be among the top of our political concerns. Elizabeth May fought these battles with her heart and soul, and, as with most soldiers, her battle scars mark the record of her determination to the cause she devoted her life to. As an icon to our community, much of the work Elizabeth did in raising our environmental literacy has shaped our national consciousness, and the enormous strides made by Canada’s environmental community are most definitely reflective of Ms. May’s successes and impacts along her journey.

You can imagine my surprise when our editor tasked me to interview Ms. May for this issue. The theme of the issue is – raising a ‘little green army’ of everyday change-agents – and no better person came to mind than Ms. May. It was that instant lightbulb moment, that’s what she’s been doing for most of her career; being the Lieutenant General of making this world a better place.

Admittedly, I was a touch nervous as I embarked on this interview – imagine telling a little kid they are about to speak with Batman, it was that sort of reaction. As I delved down the rabbit hole of my research and prepared my questions, this interview had more meaning to me than I imagined it would – and not just because I’m a slight E-May fangirl. But as a woman who is about to begin on a career path, that’s fundamental focus is doing good while enjoying the ride and making ends meet all at the same time. How do you balance the world of all three of these priorities as overcoming the hurdles life throws at you at the same time? As we like to say here at A\J – “Are there any flaming chainsaws coming at us and have we found any golden unicorns?” and that is what life often feels like, especially as someone who is about to set sail on this journey to make this world even a smidge of a better place, all while dodging any flaming chainsaws as we run after the golden unicorns disguised as opportunities and solutions along the way.

So, that is how I found myself here on a Sunday afternoon. I turned on my Zoom – did a mic check. I Introduced myself…took a deep breath and before I could exhale, Elizabeth jumped in with the warmest “HELLO GRETA!” you could imagine with a smile that lit up the room. She proceeded to show her sincerest concern about what is going on in my world as I was eager to learn more about hers – to hear the story from the soul that shaped her into the mother, the educator, and the fighter she is. She proceeded to share with me stories of battles won, and battles lost, including the stories that reflect the true reality of being a working mother, raising a child, all while trying to fight for what’s right. It was an amazing conversation, one that I will treasure forever, both as a writer, an environmentalist and as a woman who hopes to even do a sliver of what she accomplished.

Please find below a summary of my conversational journey in a Zoom-induced world with Elizabeth May. It went in directions that I never expected and, truthfully, shook me just a bit as I digested the wisdom and insight gleaned through the laughs and tears. I hope you’ll enjoy the lessons-learned and stories-told by Elizabeth as much as I enjoyed getting to hear them.

Greta Vaivadaite for A\J: Can you tell me about someone who has had a big influence on your life?

EM: The person who had the very biggest influence on my life is my mother, for sure. My mom had the biggest influence on me by far, mothers often do – but she was an activist. So that’s unusual for a child of the 1950s, that my mother was very involved in individual activism in a brave way. So as luck would have it, or it’s just quite bizarre.

Thomas Homer Dixon’s new book is called “Commanding Hope’’ and he made it largely about my mom. It’s very strange how he came to this. He wanted an example of how individual citizen activists have ever made a difference on big issues. He remembered this professor in undergrad who mentioned to him that the movement that ended the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere was a movement led by mothers, and women across North America. He wanted to show that you can command hope. You can use hope as a tool in public mobilization and so then he went looking for evidence of this thing that he had been told by a professor years before and found something that wasn’t signed or attributed called “My mother stopped nuclear testing”. In pursuing this randomly posted essay, he discovered that it was something that I have written about my mother. It is the story of my mother’s activism in fighting against nuclear weapon testing in the 1950s/60s, because Thomas Homer Dixon actually decided to do the research.

So, my mother had a huge influence on me, not just in terms of the way mothers have influences on daughters, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, always complicated. But she had a huge influence on me in terms of the tools of activism and the two key messages that were drilled into my head all my life. One was from her mother: “Thought without constructive action is demoralizing.” The other was, “You can accomplish anything you want if you don’t care who gets the credit.” I’ve recently had some other women in politics say to me “You know women do that really well, you can accomplish anything you want if you don’t care who gets the credit for it and then the men get the credit and then the women don’t get any progress.” I helped my mom as a kid on many grassroots tours if you will, driving from town to town in Connecticut with a Volvo station wagon loaded with literature for ending the war in Vietnam or how to advance civil rights.

My childhood was defined by my mother’s political campaigns. None of which were about parties and politics until when I was about 13, and we started realizing that to end the war in Vietnam we had to support Democratic candidates. My mother was a huge influence on my life in terms of values and the notion that if you see something going on and you think it’s wrong, you have a personal obligation to get really involved in it and change it. So, there is no question that’s a huge influence on my life. When I decided I was doing environmental work for the rest of my life, which I decided when I was quite young, it had not been a cause of my mother’s. My mother’s causes were civil rights, anti-nuclear, and anti-war. I was committed to ending pesticide spraying and protecting the natural world, all those issues my mother agreed with me – but those weren’t her causes. She has given me all the skills and training and tools to work on all of these issues that involved public mobilization to change government decision-making.

A\J: It was a whole generational training of activism for you. Very interesting – and speaking of generational things, what is one piece of advice would you give to a 17-year-old Elizabeth May?

EM: It’s the same, it’s strange because I have gotten way older, but I was already an experienced activist by the time I was 17. And I guess I might have advised myself that it would make sense to me at some point to start to put some money aside for a rainy day, but I worked my whole life. Until I became a member of parliament, I had absolutely no financial security. I put every job I ever had as working for a greater good and I still haven’t done a very good job, and if it wasn’t for the way the government of Canada organizes MP pensions – I wouldn’t have a pension. So, I guess a kind of personal life advice; don’t always work for no money in a precarious position. But I probably wouldn’t have taken that advice if I would have given it to myself anyway.

A\J: As one of the most esteemed members of the environmental community, where does your hope stem from? As fighting battles that end in more losses than wins – what stopped you from throwing in the towel over the years?

EM: We had more wins than losses, particularly when you start in my early campaigns. We stopped pesticide spraying in Nova Scotia. We stopped Agent Orange spraying. We stopped uranium mining. We stopped the ozone depletion. We got the Montreal protocol. The difficulty is in an abrupt spot in the 1990s when I have already been doing activism for several decades – neoliberalism took over. Governments became beholden to corporations and the whole notion of neoliberalism. On how
the private sector does everything better than the government became an assumption of our national media and it became really hard to buck the notion. That you can’t do anything if corporations don’t agree and let the government do these things. So, in early campaigns we succeeded in getting the government to do things that the corporate world didn’t want them to do.

The last 50 years in activism, it pretty much divides in 25 and 25, because by 1995 we had the creation of the World Trade Organization and the rise of neoliberalism. And the rise of things like investor-state settlements – which allows corporations to sue governments for decisions they do not like. It’s the larger frame that needs to be understood, it’s not like a constant set of opposition with the same levels of strength they had in the beginning. The presumption that people make is that it must have been harder in the 1970s but it was way easier. It was way easier to win campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, but after in the 1990s because of neoliberalism, the rise of the WTO, and the creation of client groups for elected heads of government – the fight became harder. COVID-19 may change that.

I think the lessons learned from COVID-19 is the leadership and civic willingness to put the needs of many ahead of their own, it will mean we have fundamentally begun to unlearn some of the most corrosive ‘lessons’ of neoliberalism. Strangely enough, the Climate Accountability Act just tabled. In a context in which you can see whoever came up with this missed the fact that everything changed because of COVID-19, they came up with legislation which is weak and dangerous. Now we have
a context within which governments would say “we are hitting the reset button, we know we have to have a green recovery. It will look different than what it was before.” There are a million different slogans out there now: “We don’t bounce back, we bounce forward” and “We bring it back better.” All of that is being ignored by our own government and there is still a very significant role of deep state control over our civil service from corporate rule and that is a very big problem, and it is very evident in the current bill C-12, the so called Climate Accountability Act.

All that said, we won more campaigns than have lost particularly early on, and what keeps a person going is recognizing that, “Oh this is hard – so what? I’m going to give up and decide my kids don’t get to have a workable human civilization, a surviving biosphere of millions of species that actually thrive?” For me to give up because it’s hard is to say that I have abandoned my children into an unlivable world because it’s gotten really hard – and I’m not going to do that. And we need the youth movement to really call Trudeau’s Liberals onto the carpet for such a bad piece of legislation – that is actually dangerous. Frankly, it’s time for a lot of people in the environmental movement to call out the leadership of environmental groups. They will take your money and take your donations, and then lie to you and tell you they are working for climate action when they are prepared to cheerlead a piece of legislation that makes things worse. And that’s hard, nobody in politics should ever say that and nobody in politics should criticize NGOs, but I have had it up to here now. The celebratory press releases from environmental groups about how we should cheer for C-12, which actually makes things worse. I don’t think it’s their intention, I don’t think they realize how bad it is. I think the political people in government have been conned by their civil service – that’s what I think. It’s not good, it needs massive fixing before anyone can celebrate it and it sure misleads the Canadian public when a whole bunch of environmental groups celebrate compromise and defeatism.

A\J: A lot of what has been achieved in the environmental community has been because of your work, with this comes hurt and growing pains. What cost came from this record of achievement?

EM: There is certainly a cost to personal life, there is a reason why I was a single mom for 27 years. I put everything I had into my daughter and my work. My daughter was born when I was
the Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada, and she was 14 when I became leader of the Green Party of Canada. Her whole life I was putting every living breathing second into the work and she is an extraordinary human being. As a single mom with one little girl, I was able to talk about what she missed out on because of my work but I brought her with me to everything I did. So, for instance I didn’t think to make it a priority to date, at that level – my daughter is my priority and saving the whole world for her is my priority. Certainly, sacrifices in terms of financial security and sacrifices in terms of the things that people think of under the frame of work/life balance. I don’t regard them as sacrifices personally, I’m okay with the decisions I’ve made because I think my priorities were correct. But there are definitely things I have lost out on because of making my priorities aligned with the survival of this planet, and a living biosphere for my own daughter and everybody else.

It’s interesting how I started the conversation on the relationship with my own mom, my mom wasn’t a single mom, my dad was very present in our lives. But he was holding down a kind of normal job and more than 9-5, but definitely normal. I grew up in Connecticut, and I moved to Cape Breton Island when I was 18. So for most of my childhood, my dad was an accountant at an insurance company. He supported my mother in some pretty out there decisions. She went on a public hunger strike against nuclear weapons testing in New York City and got national and international media attention. Many men in that era would have not supported a wife to do that, but just in terms of that strength of mother to daughter linkage – it’s a very strong element of my own activism, has been the mother to daughter relationships. By the time my mom passed in 2003, my daughter who was born in 1991 had already become the most important person in my life, in terms of support and drawing strength from a relationship, it transited at some point from being the relationship with my mother to being the relationship with my daughter.

A\J: It’s this web from your mom to yourself to your daughter. The theme that I’m catching is that intergenerational activism and strength that I see through your journey.

EM: And I don’t know if you know this about me, but my husband and I have been married now for about a year and a half. We got married in April of 2019, and that is a tremendously strong and important relationship for me. Fortunately, it would be really hard to marry someone who didn’t share my activism. John definitely does share my activism, and that is something that I really treasure. So definitely, whatever family I’m talking about I’m coming from a family of activists.

A\J: With the global economic shutdown from the pandemic – many may feel that environmental issues should not be our first priority right now and have fallen to the edge, what is your take on it?

EM: I don’t think in general Canadians are doing that, the polls make it really clear Canadians want us to come out of a pandemic and they don’t want it to be back to what it was before. There was an extraordinary degree of support for the idea that our society changes around things like social justice, guaranteed liveable income, pharma-care, long-term care homes, and better care of seniors. But it also changes as we are done with fossil fuels; we are really done finding out our government bought a pipeline and wants to spend billions of dollars to build it – we’re done. That’s very clear from the Canadian public and my favourite line on this is one I hope you heard but I’ll repeat it in case you haven’t. Margaret Atwood was asked at a recent conference, “What do you think about climate action being pushed to a back burner because of COVID?” She replied, “Well I don’t know about you but my stove has two front burners.” So you’ve got to do both, you have two front burners
– you’ve got COVID and you’ve got climate action and both pots are on the stove boiling, you’ve got to do both. You can have two back burners and two front burners, and you can do that.

A\J: For future generations of your family listening to this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?

EM: Well, if there are future generations able to hear this and read this advice, that would mean we succeeded. Cause we are on the cusp of a moment where the decisions we make in the next few years is why the new Climate Accountability Act is so unaccountable and unforgivable. It decides the starting point for action, it’s at a point that is theoretically past the point of no return, so the actions that we take now in the next couple of years are critical. Whether my daughter and her kids are able to look back and hear any advice I had or whether they just look back and I think Greta Thunberg’s analysis is right on the money every single time. Does this generation squander our moral obligation to our own children? That’s a question everybody my age should be asking themselves, and not accepting for one single moment that it’s either not our business or too big of an issue for us to do anything about, or that we get defeatist about it because it’s obviously too late. It’s not too late right now, it will be too late in 10 years. Therefore, deciding that our first target for action gets measured 10 years from now is unforgivable and I hope desperately that my kids and grandkids will be able to look back and either celebrate or condemn whatever it was that I was trying to do. All that matters for me is that they have the life chances and beautiful human civilization, I love human civilization, I love our natural biosphere, but humans are part of it and human civilization is arts and poetry and music and beauty are things that we bring forth that actually matter.

Remember, burning fossil fuels and accelerating global warming, it isn’t something that threatens nature alone. First and foremost, it threatens human civilization, and it threatens countless species and we actually have an obligation to arrest our own behaviour, while there is still time. Since we do have time, that’s why my work in parliament has some value. I really, really hope that Canadian civil society, individual citizens, young people and old people start being much more pointed and effective in saying as Margret Atwood said, “We have two front burners.”

This interview opened up a compelling vision for myself, one that I will hold dearly to my heart as our experiences with being an environmentalist could not have been more different. While I most certainly did not come from a family of activists – my story is more of a polar opposite to Elizabeth. In fact when I last visited some extended family in Germany, I was picked up from the airport with a bumper sticker that said “F*ck Greta” right by the exhaust pipe – warm welcome I suppose? I assume it was about Greta Thunberg and not me? As if driving through the Autobahn at 270km/h wasn’t enough for me to want to physically catapult myself out the vehicle, I was then too lectured on how many Germans oppose much of what Greta Thunberg stands for… I mean, I saw more than a dozen car manufacturing plants, dealerships, and stadiums all named after German automotive brands – although not a big surprise. Growing up in a family with often opposing thoughts on causes often put me in challenging positions. But the opposite theme has been running through my life, the feeling that standing up for what you believe in is almost seen as silly and childish, I almost felt like a closeted environmentalist around my family.

Seeing a hero in my world, having generational strength for causes for the bettering of this planet, it’s inspiring to allow this strength to transpire through generations to come. This conversation instilled a newfound perspective on me, that your childhood and the values you see growing up can, and most likely will have an impact on your own values as you come of age. If we see young people fighting and speaking up for a cause, listen and join as this strength can be built into a tidal wave of generational strength. While this is a narrative that is far from familiar in my life, I hope that I – someone who has found a cause to integrate into their heart and soul – do take these words of wisdom and one day tell my children that I once got to chat on a Sunday afternoon with my favourite superhero – no not Batman…Elizabeth May.

Greta Vaivadaite is a Journalist, Online Editorial and Social Media Coordinator at Alternatives Media. Greta has completed her undergraduate studies at York University in Environmental Management, and completed her Masters of Environment and Sustainability at Western University in 2020. Her professional interests lay in advocating for environmental education, sustainable fashion, and a greener travel industry.