Elizabeth May steps down as Green Party leader
Published Monday, November 4, 2019 11:24AM EST
Last Updated Monday, November 4, 2019 7:07PM EST
OTTAWA – Elizabeth May has announced she has stepped down as leader of the Green Party, but will stay on as the leader of the three-person caucus in Parliament.
“Effective today, I am no longer leader of the Green Party of Canada,” May announced on Monday, two weeks after the federal election and after 13 years as the leader of the party. “I’m very excited about this.”
May -- who has been the leader since 2006 -- said she wanted to choose her own time to go, and has named her interim replacement: Jo-Ann Roberts, who until today was the deputy leader of the party.
Roberts ran for the party for the second time, first in Victoria in 2015 and then in Halifax in 2019, where she came third with 14.5 per cent of the vote.
“This is a position I take on somewhat reluctantly,” Roberts told reporters. “For now in the Green Party the focus is to start the search for the person who will take the Green Party into the next stage. This is not a replacement for Elizabeth May, I don’t think anybody would be up for applying for that job.”
Roberts will now focus on how to expand the party’s membership in time for the leadership vote, encouraging more of the 1.1 million voters who cast their ballot for a Green candidate in the 2019 election to sign up, as the party membership sits at around 20,000 at the moment.
She made this announcement flanked by her two Green Party caucus colleagues MPs Paul Manly, and Jenica Atwin, as well as Roberts, deputy leader Daniel Green, and May’s husband John Kidder.
May said her decision to step down now was done, in part, to follow through on a promise she made to her daughter Cate May Burton after the 2015 election: that the 2019 campaign would be her last at the helm.
“I’m very excited to know that I’ll have time with my husband and time with my daughter and my extended family, and that I keep my promises,” May said. She and Kidder got married on Earth Day, April 22.
Cate told CTV News Channel she had initially suggested her mother step down out of concern for her work-life balance.
“My whole life my mom has been working like nobody’s business, because she’s so driven to help protect the planet,” she said. “Under her responsibility as leader of the Green Party, I witnessed it go up several notches and I was getting concerned about her well-being, and whether she was going to have any balance, and space in her life for herself.”
May also asserted she is “not done yet.”
“I’m not stopping my work, the climate crisis is as critical as ever,” May said.
In various interviews with CTV News since the election, May has spoken candidly about the unlikelihood that she will still be the leader by the next scheduled federal election in 2023, though with the nature of minority parliaments it’s possible that the next campaign will kick off before then.
She recently mused about running for House of Commons Speaker, but for now she won’t be doing that, saying she’d like to run for speaker after the next election.
May intends to stay on as the member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands.
May said that, in her view, given the unpredictability that comes with minority governments, the sooner the party names her official replacement, the better, adding that while so many people leave politics when they are already being helped out the door, “that’s not happening here.”
Cate said her mother’s 13 years as leader of the Green Party have been a valuable experience for the whole family.
“It’s been very stressful…but I’ve had an amazing learning experience to be part of Canadian politics from the inside,” she said. “We’ve always been very close, but that relationship has gotten stronger over the years.”
Leadership race hoped to boost momentum
May has said that she wanted to make the decision about her future in lockstep with Atwin and Manly, adding that she would rather go out after delivering the party’s “best results ever,” and that a new leader and leadership race could reinvigorate the party.
An automatic leadership review was scheduled to take place in the spring, but with her stepping aside now, there will be a formal leadership convention in Charlottetown early next October.
“By Oct. 4, 2020 Canadians will know who the best choice is going in to an election campaign,” May said, predicting that the current government won’t fall before then.
In an interview on CTV’s Power Play May said she thinks a new leader will have more opportunities and gain attention in the lead-up to the next election, whenever that may be, than she would have.
In the same segment Roberts said the party is aiming to have the roster of leadership hopefuls unveiled in the spring, then spend the summer working the Pride and picnic circuit and holding candidate debates before naming the new leader should the next general election be not far behind.
“This is the time to reset for sure,” pollster Nik Nanos told CTV News.
“Elizabeth May will be considered the leader that took the Green Party as a fringe party that was not on the political radar into the mainstream as a major player in the national dialogue especially when it comes to the environment,” Nanos said.
Already discussions are beginning about the direction in which various Green Party representatives think the party should go.
Green Party of Quebec Leader Alex Tyrrell is calling for an open leadership race and for the party to “turn left and adopt an eco-socialist platform,” similar to what he’s overseen in Quebec, focused on the links between environmental protection and social justice.
He said that while May shepherded the party through key milestones, it’s time for a fresh face. He’s considering a run himself, saying he’s “thinking very hard” about throwing his hat in the ring, after six years leading the provincial party.
“There’s also a rising youth-led climate movement that’s demanding increasingly radical solutions from the politicians and so I think that the Green Party of Canada should really be a home for these people and that we should adopt a more ambitious platform going forward,” Tyrrell said.
Greens now caucus of three
In advance today’s post-caucus meeting announcement May tweeted that it was a “historic day” for her party.
May will continue on as parliamentary leader, but will now have two colleagues to pick up files and areas of focus. Manly was first elected to represent Nanaimo-Ladysmith, B.C. in a 2019 byelection, and Atwin gained her seat in the 2019 election. As the MP-elect for Fredericton, N.B. Atwin is the first Green MP to be elected to represent a riding outside of British Columbia.
Some have speculated Atwin would be an ideal replacement for May, though today she asserted that it not her plan, citing her young family and work to do for her riding.
Both Atwin and Manly spoke before May made her big announcement.
“I’m ready to get to work,” Atwin said, adding that she was invigorated after a few days of meetings with her colleagues over the weekend, which included members of the Green Party shadow cabinet and national council.
“We may be a small caucus but together we are certainly mighty,” she said.
May entered the 2019 federal election campaign hoping that her experience, the uptick in support for her party — with voters in four provinces electing more Greens to provincial legislatures than ever before — and a renewed focus on climate change as a ballot box issue would result in more Green MPs winning seats.
In the end, that momentum did not translate into big gains, with the surge of the Bloc Quebecois relegating the NDP to fourth-party status and keeping the Greens in fifth, but with one more seat and securing more than a million votes Canada-wide.
Now, the focus is on the potential power the caucus of three could have in the Liberal minority parliament. In her address from Victoria, B.C., on election night May said she was confident that the Greens will be able to have a “really significant” role.
With the Liberals just 13 seats short of a majority however, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has options on both sides of the ideological spectrum to garner support to prop his government up.
While the three Green votes could be important to secure, the party is not likely to be in the position of playing kingmaker in the months ahead. The Prime Minister’s office has confirmed that he has scheduled meetings with the leaders of all opposition party leaders to be held in Ottawa next week.
In a press release, the Green Party said that the climate emergency is their caucus’ top priority, but they will also be pressing the prime minister to follow through on his 2015 promise of electoral reform, and be pushing for improvements to health care, affordability for seniors and students, and advancing Indigenous reconciliation.
Federal leaders, colleagues thank her
The federal party leaders who faced off against May in national debates and in the House of Commons for years offered their best wishes and thanks throughout the day.
“You’ve been a champion for the environment for decades, and your leadership on the climate crisis has helped push our country forward. I know you’ll continue to inspire Canadians of all ages and political stripes to fight for a better and cleaner future,” tweeted Trudeau.
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer thanked her for her “many years of service to Canadians.”
“Congratulations on your leadership of the Green Party - glad to hear you intend to continue serving as the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
The Green Party is also circulating a contact information-gathering form to allow people to send their thanks to May, their “fearless leader who inspired millions and grew our grassroots movement into a powerful political contender.”
May at helm for over a decade
May has publicly offered up her leadership role at various points over her tenure, including when she offered to give up her leadership to former cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould—who was since reelected as an Independent—and Jane Philpott after they were dismissed from the Liberal caucus in April.
In a tweet, Wilson-Raybould said that May’s “passion, determination and thoughtful advocacy on the environment” as well as on Indigenous reconciliation and democratic reform, “will be ever-present.”
Philpott also offered her thanks, saying she is “inspired by your generosity and determination. I can't think of another MP who worked as hard as you in the past four years to study each bill and consider how it could be advanced or improved.”
May was first elected to represent the Vancouver Island riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C. in 2011, as the first ever Green Party MP. Aside from raising the issue and impact of climate change, May has used her voice in the House of Commons to implore her colleagues to cut down on heckling and improve the level of civility.
For the 17 years before she was the leader, May was the executive director of the Sierra Club non-profit environmental advocacy group. Born in Connecticut, May moved to Nova Scotia with her parents as a teenager. Her family gave up their home there a few years later to fund a fight against plans to spray the province's forests with Agent Orange. In the 1980s, she worked as an adviser to the environment minister of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. She went on a 17-day hunger strike in 2001 to call attention to toxic waste in the Sydney Tar Ponds.
May turned 65 in June, which made her the oldest election-time leader of a major national party since Paul Martin in 2006 in this last campaign.
With files from CTV News’ Ryan Flanagan and Ben Cousins