Activist Elizabeth May – Lost 28 Hectares of Land and Family Home to Bogus Claims of Pesticide Safety – Judge ruled Pesticides are SAFE

Green Party leader Elizabeth May in a September 2009 file photo.



Green Party leader Elizabeth May in a September 2009 file photo.
Photo Credit: Deddeda Stemler, National Post



VANCOUVER – When Elizabeth May took part in her first news conference, her bonnet-topped head barely peeped out over the table top.

About four years old, she sat at the head table beside her mother at the Washington, D.C., event with a panel of Nobel prize winners. They were announcing a lawsuit against the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons testing.

Eleven years later, May wrote her first piece of legislation. Copying a newly passed bill from the State of Oregon, she carefully removed the word Oregon and substituted Connecticut for a law that would ban throw-away cans and bottles.

Connecticut lawmakers passed the bill after she and her family moved to Nova Scotia.

At 56, May has spent a lifetime in preparation for the job she wants in Parliament.

And if she's elected, her longtime friend and fellow environmentalist David Suzuki said she'll stir things up.

"Any party would be lucky to have her. If she gets elected into office, she will raise hell in Parliament and will be unavoidable."

May's true activism began with the unexplained deaths of three lambs – Baa, Spring and Thunder – on the family's hobby farm in Hartford, Conn.

She later discovered pesticide spraying along the roadway had killed the animals.

That research and boxes of files later gave her ammunition in a successful campaign against aerial insecticide spraying over the forests near her Cape Breton home to eradicate the spruce budworm.

"I was always baffled when people thought I was a tree hugger since my motivation was to keep people from dying," she said in an interview in a Vancouver restaurant.

"I was very much focused on public health and chemicals that were dangerous to people."

Her family lost their home and 28 hectares in a second legal battle against herbicide spraying when a judge ruled the chemicals were safe to use.

CBC ARCHIVE VIDEO:  Year 1989 – Highlands of Cape Breton – Foresters Nightmare – Spruce Budworm Damaged 95% of 300,000 Acres

"She's a real hero, you know," Suzuki said. "Way back in Cape Breton, fighting against aerial spraying of forests, she was a really powerful campaigner."

She worked for years in her family's restaurant and gift shop on the Cabot Trail and didn't have the money to attend university, so never got an undergraduate degree.

But she was later accepted into Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, and was admitted to the bar in both Nova Scotia and Ontario.

In 1986, she was recruited by then-Conservative environment minister Tom McMillan to be his senior policy adviser.

"In all the things that I'd ever done to prepare me to be a member of Parliament, those two years were the most important."

She abruptly quit on principle two years later when she learned the ministry approved permits for dams in Saskatchewan without an environmental review.

Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, worked with May on many issues, including collaborating on a book about the Sydney tar ponds in Cape Breton.

They spent hours together interviewing nearby residents, retired plant workers, medical personnel and academics, Barlow said.

"The thing I most appreciated about Elizabeth during this process was her deep compassion for the people we were working with," she said in an email.

May later staged a 17-day hunger strike outside the House of Commons until then-health minister Allan Rock announced the government would fund the relocation of nearby residents if tests proved there was a health risk.

"I was worried about her, but understood that her commitment was real and deep," said Barlow.

May is the author or co-author of seven books and in 2005 was named an officer of the Order of Canada.

She spent 17 years as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, building the environmental group's profile before becoming Green leader in 2006, hoping to build the party's standing in the same fashion.

Within months, May ran in a London North Centre byelection and surprised everyone by coming in second in the southwestern Ontario riding, with 26 per cent of the vote.

Her next move was to take on Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay in his riding of Central Nova, in Nova Scotia.

May said her main goal wasn't necessarily to win, even though she believed she had a chance to beat MacKay.

The media wouldn't have paid attention if she ran in her home riding of Cape Breton, May said.

"You know it's hard to keep the Green party in the news. So I didn't do it only because I thought it was a media-savvy thing to do. I thought I could win as an outside chance," she said.

May has since moved to Sidney, B.C., and will be running against Minister of State for Sport Gary Lunn in the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding.

It's a move May called "very smart," saying constituents of the riding are more open to change and have moved to the area from all over Canada for a green lifestyle.

Besides, she said, she's not the average Green party candidate.

"I'm a leader of the party. … There's an awful lot of people who remember seeing me in the (televised election) debates and thinking 'wow that's great, love to see what she's doing'."

May said there's much more willingness now from voters to say she belongs in the House of Commons, even if they normally vote Liberal, Conservative or NDP.

"I'm asking for their vote, but that doesn't mean (voters) have to tear up their membership card to the party they voted for before," she said.

May – who billeted with friends and supporters during the last election, never using a hotel – is careful about her energy use.

She lives close enough to her office in Sidney to walk to work and said she tries to lives as "greenly" as possible.

Leader profile: Elizabeth May.