ONE afternoon 33 years ago, Elizabeth May was picked up outside her dorm at Smith College for what she thought was a weeklong study break. She never returned.
“Stop subsidizing the most profitable companies in the world to produce the world’s most profitable product. Should be simple.” ELIZABETH MAY (NYT Photo/Yannick Grandmont)
Once in her parents’ car, Ms. May learned that the family’s home, a farm outside Hartford, Conn., was up for sale. Her father had quit his job as an insurance executive and all of them, including her younger brother, were headed to a new life in Cape Breton, the picturesque but economically deprived island in Nova Scotia.
For Ms. May, her parents’ impulsive move soon meant trading a life of relative affluence for periods of near poverty. Undergraduate life at Smith was exchanged for years of waiting tables and cooking in a restaurant. And instead of her parents’ circle of politically active friends, including George McGovern and a young Bill Clinton, there were villagers who were suspicious of, and sometimes unfriendly toward, all who were, as they put it, “from away.”
That situation, however, gave Ms. May a perspective that was critical in her development into one of Canada’s most prominent environmentalists. After founding the Sierra Club of Canada and running it for almost 17 years, Ms. May has emerged as the leader of the Green Party of Canada, an also-ran in Canadian politics but a group with a platform nonetheless.
Under Canadian election law, the 5 percent of votes the party won in the past two national elections entitles it to about 1 million Canadian dollars a year, or about $800,000, in government campaign financing. And in Ms. May, the party — which has yet to send a single member to Parliament — has its first leader who is a well-known figure.
Ms. May’s switch from environmentalism to politics was prompted, she says, by the election of a minority Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January. “I was going through a nail-biting, wrist-slashing phase of my life known as watching Harper get to victory,” she said.
Perhaps the most surprising factor in Ms. May’s ascent is that she has overcome misgivings about her American upbringing, though she did become a Canadian citizen. Many Canadians, particularly voters on the left, are mistrustful of politicians who have simply lived in the United States, not to speak of being born there.
Yet, the chaos that Cape Breton brought to her life has helped her bridge many of the subtle, if significant, gaps between Canadians and Americans. “I’m lucky that I didn’t go to Toronto, where I then immediately joined an environmental group,” she said. “I wouldn’t have developed that strong sense you need to find the differences in a culture that aren’t immediately apparent.”
Canadians, Ms. May said, are more cautious and deferential to authority than are Americans. And brash appeals simply do not work here.
“In the United States, I can say: ‘I’ve got a check here, who’s going to match it,’ ” Ms. May said of her money-raising efforts. “If you do that in Canada, it’s a terrible social faux pas. People look at their shoes.”
Ms. May’s introduction to fund-raising and campaigning came early. Her mother, Stephanie May, was a founder of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and that took Elizabeth to Washington for a news conference when she was still a toddler.
“My mother represented motherhood, I represented the contaminated innocent,” Ms. May said. “I sat on Hubert Humphrey’s lap for a good chunk of the press conference.”
Stephanie May’s political work expanded to include fund-raising for several Democratic campaigns, including the presidential bids of Eugene McCarthy and Mr. McGovern. Mr. Clinton, Mr. McGovern’s Connecticut organizer, became a regular houseguest and remains a family friend.
THOSE campaign efforts ultimately produced disappointment, culminating in the re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972. That and the general disruption of the era gradually soured the Mays on the United States. In the fall of 1973, they decided to abandon the country for a 100-acre farm with two dilapidated houses that Stephanie May had purchased on a whim while vacationing in Cape Breton the previous summer.
To support the family, or so they thought, they bought a long-closed restaurant along the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton’s scenic highway, that was housed in a permanently moored sailing schooner built in 1918. Attached was a gift shop.
Within a year, the money-gobbling Schooner Village transformed the family into what Ms. May called “nouveau pauvre,” as they slept in the gift shop’s storeroom over the winter because they could not afford to heat their house as well. Instead of finishing her college degree, Ms. May took correspondence courses in restaurant and kitchen management.
When not cooking, waiting tables or begging neighbors for vegetables that missed a supplier’s weekly shipment, Ms. May found time for environmental work. Gradually she become noticed, not just in Cape Breton but nationally, for organizing a campaign against aerial spraying by the pulp and paper industry, which spread a toxic cloud over the entire island.
It was a difficult crusade. The closing of coal mines and the decline of fishing had brought unofficial unemployment levels in Cape Breton to over 30 percent. For many people, work meant cutting spruce trees or leaving the island. But the province eventually banned all aerial spraying of insecticides.
With credit for her work experience, Ms. May was admitted to law school in Halifax without even an undergraduate degree, and won scholarships that paid her living expenses and tuition.
After practicing advocacy law for a while, she accepted a post in 1986 as special adviser to the environment minister in the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.
But that ended two years later, when the government allowed a province to build two dams in Saskatchewan without an environmental assessment, and Ms. May quit in protest. A court later found that the government had acted improperly, though the dams were ultimately built.
IN 1989, she started the Sierra Club of Canada and, as in Cape Breton, took on unpopular causes — in particular, Alberta’s oil sands or, as she prefers, “tar sands.” While they are a source of wealth for Western Canada and oil for the United States, they require tremendous quantities of natural gas in the extraction process — a huge contribution to the greenhouse gases that are widely believed to be contributing to global warming.
“So we’ve got a huge amount of energy being consumed in order to produce the oil, which we then sell to the United States for cars that don’t have proper energy efficiency standards,” she said. “This is an appalling megaproject.”
While calling for a moratorium on new oil-sands developments, she is also focusing on ending subsidies to the industry. “Fix the tax system, stop subsidizing the most profitable companies in the world to produce the world’s most profitable product,” she said. “Should be simple.”
On a recent afternoon, Ms. May was wearing a green and yellow Green Party pin (which actually bears a resemblance to the logo of the oil giant BP) as well as the tiny white, enameled medallion of an officer of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s top civilian honors.
“Canada’s a wonderful country,” she said. “If you beat up on the government for 30 years, you can still get the Order of Canada.” New York Times