Author: Judy Barlow, Citizen Journalist
Elizabeth May, mother, author, orator, activist, environmentalist, theologian, lawyer, former Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, National Green Party Leader, and Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, was apparently born lacking one thing most people have – the “give-up gene”. She’s been knocked down a lot, with more than her share of defeats. But she always gets back up.
“That’s a very good way of putting it,” she laughs. “You probably hit the nail on the head. Maybe I was born without the ‘give-up’ gene. Whatever it is, it’s pretty ingrained in my personality. Who knows if it’s genetic or if it’s the way I was raised …”
Ms May explains. “… My mom [a prominent anti-nuclear activist and founding member of SANE] was a big influence. She never admitted to defeat. She never gave up … She got involved in trying to stop nuclear weapons testing. She wasn’t an expert, just a housewife. She read somewhere that experts were concerned that it increased the incidence of childhood leukemia and she thought, ‘Well that can’t be right. I can’t let the risk of leukemia go up.’ So she threw herself into it and seemed to have an intuitive understanding of grassroots organizing. So I was raised with the idea that if there’s something in the world that you think is wrong, get busy and fix it. And besides,” she adds, “I’m pretty hard-wired toward optimism … I think a big part of my hard-wiring is my faith.”
Some might declare that unshakable faith, iron will, and a fierce determination to keep going no matter what happens are good traits. Unfortunately, they do not come without a price; and over 40 years of activism, the price has sometimes been almost unbearably high. Almost.
In the 1980s Elizabeth and her family were embroiled in a ruinously expensive lawsuit to prevent spraying of the herbicide commonly known as Agent Orange, arguably the most toxic substance ever created. Elizabeth ruminates on those dark days.
“There are times when I’ve been significantly overworked, like during the time we were fighting the pulp company. They wanted to spray Agent Orange, and seized our land. It was pretty brutal. We were really getting kicked around, especially after we lost the court case. But in the end by the time they won the case and were able to spray Agent Orange … it was illegal to spray it.”
Keeping their spirits up was a struggle for the May family. At one point, overwhelmed as both plaintiff and legal aide for the lawyers as well as chief fundraiser, Elizabeth considered dropping out of law school in her third year. Elizabeth’s mother left her home in Cape Breton and moved in with her to “basically be my slave” so Elizabeth could concentrate on school and the case.
“It was brave of her,” she muses, “and probably the most stressful time in our mother-daughter relationship.”
Things are looking a lot brighter these days. In 2011 Elizabeth made history by becoming the only Green Party member to ever win a seat in Parliament, where she notes that things can get pretty heated; even downright nasty. She’s been practising non-violent communication – making sure that even when she’s “attacking”, rather than getting personal or naming names, she’s been phrasing her words in a non-threatening way, like, “It’s a shame that members of the Conservative party are forced by their talking points to say things that are offensive.” Her strategy to improve civility seems to be working. “Instead of looking upset, a lot of people were nodding. It’s a very different way of communicating.”
Encouraged by the response and support from other MPs, with donations from many of her constituents, especially on Salt Spring Island, and with a very deep discount from the publisher, Elizabeth presented all 308 members of Parliament with a copy of author Pummy Kaur’s book, A Season of Non-Violence: 64 Ways for 64 Days, the only MP to give a Christmas gift to every MP (a brave gesture in itself in today’s politically-correct-charged climate). While the cost was a little over budget she’s glad she did it. “People really liked it and I’ve received so many thank yous and notes about it.”
Sometimes she reflects on how the smallest gesture of kindness can make a meaningful difference. “And similarly, you never know when one moment of rudeness or an unkind cut can just rip a person.” For herself, Elizabeth May chooses the path of kindness.