Elizabeth May: Lone Green Woman in Parliament

Ann Duong | Contributor

Ann Duong | Contributor

When I was younger the only political parties I had ever heard of were the Liberal, Conservative, and New Democratic parties. Or at that age, they were mostly referred to as the red, blue, or orange parties. But wait, there was the Green party too. That was different; not because of the colour but because for the first time in 2011, there was a green party seat on Federal Parliament, led by an extraordinarily accomplished author, environmentalist, activist, lawyer, and Member of Parliament (MP), Hon. Elizabeth May. On Friday, October 13, a notoriously inauspicious day turned into the opposite when May came to Prince George and UNBC to speak to students and members of the community about environmental issues and her experience as a parliamentarian. A figure that had captivated me since my early youth came to life and it was an incredibly inspiring encounter, one that I will likely never forget.

The first talk was at UNBC, organized by Inspiring Women Among Us. The topic was the Paris Agreement, Canada’s contributions towards becoming a “climate leader,” and the implications of President Trump’s intention for withdrawal from the agreement. She began with a brief history of COP (Conference of the Parties), which was created using the international treaty of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 1992. Ratified by more than 170 countries, it was one of the largest and most ambitious worldwide endeavours to curb global climate change. Targets are assessed yearly for successful execution and new targets are ratified every few years. But whether the targets and goals could be met would be a different story. Traditionally, if a country had failed to meet its climate targets, then the ramifications would be in the form of trade sanctions – a very effective financial penalty. This led to the former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, a reprehensible move that made Canada the only country to pull out of an agreement while previously ratifying it. But since the Paris Agreement, there is no well-defined punishment if a country falls short of its promise. It soon became clear that reducing climate change required more than just commitment, it required cooperation and accountability from countries on a scale never seen before.

The United States is one of the highest contributors to carbon emissions second only to China. President Trump emphatically announced recently that the US was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Fortunately, it was an empty threat, as the legal mechanisms require one year written notice and a commitment of three years before withdrawal, by which time a US re-election would already be in place. Addressing a bad-faith bargaining dilemma, we cannot achieve the target goals of the Paris Accord if a country decides to increase emissions on the basis that another will reduce by the same factor. Developed and developing, rich or poor, climate change affects all, and the only possibility of saving the planet is to help one another achieve the lofty goals set forward responsibly.

The second event at the ArtSpace was about a topic that was more personal; it concerned her experience as a lone woman party leader and only green party member elected to Parliament. May had identified many major flaws in Canada’s Westminster Parliamentary Democratic system, and it was shocking to see how undemocratic many of the practices were. In fact, Canada’s Prime Minister has more power than the President of the United States in determining the fate of bills and their passing in a majority government. Though provincial MPs have autonomy over how they interpret a bill, once elected to the Federal level, any semblance of independence from partisan dogma is frowned upon. This demotes constituent’s needs and concerns with which these MPs had been elected for. Furthermore, members are instructed on what to vote on a bill, are discouraged from acquainting themselves with the bill itself, and a leader’s efficacy is dependent on how well they can hegemonize their party members. Sometimes bills that are presented do not address current problems but raise an irrelevant issue designed to create redundant cultural and social divisions – what is colloquially referred to as a “wedge issue.” Together all these attributes contribute to the extremely polarized and partisan politics that make up the current political climate in Canada. Compounded with Canada’s first-past-the-post system, this generates as May says, “a voting culture that is based on what people are against rather than what people actually want.”

So, what to do about all these problems? Well, one can do many things as an “employer” of the government, such as writing letters to the editors of newspapers or your MP, voting, and attending demonstrations. Because as May quite wonderfully put it, “If you decide to put your mind to something and be dogged about it, you will change everything.”

Though a lone Parliamentarian leader of the Green party, her ideas are shared by the many people who attended, and confirmed with a unanimous standing ovation at the end of each talk. There is, after all, a reason to be hopeful for the future. At the end of the day, as May mentioned, politicians are just human, and while their actions seem at times to be antithetical to their initial values and promises, they make mistakes too. It is often easy to find the politics that humans engage in everyday as divisive and filled with conflict, but it is harder to find the humanity in politics, and that should be what we all strive for.