Being leader of Canada’s fifth political party is not the easiest way of getting the nation’s attention.
But that has not stopped Green Party chief Elizabeth May from making her presence felt in the hurly burly of Ottawa politics, even if the NDP, Liberals, and Bloc have priority in Question Period and with the media.
In May’s history-making first term as the Green MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands on Canada’s left coast, she’s making an impact with her incisive critique of Harper’s slash-and-burn approach to government.
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There was so much “gotcha” stuff with which to potentially fault Harper that as summer neared we contacted her at home to inform and remind readers of the perilous track down which the Conservatives are taking the country.
We spoke to May at home in Sidney, B.C., 26 kilometres north of Victoria, where she is surrounded by the glorious natural heritage she is committed to protecting and preserving. She lives there with her teenage daughter.
She is outraged by what some describe as the most destructive pieces of legislation in Canadian history, innocuously known as Bill C-38.
To the Conservatives, the bill introduced April 26 was known as the “Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act.”
To May and many Canadians, it is a pernicious act that, among other things, makes it easier for tarsands pipelines and continued climate change and adds two years to get Old Age Security eligibility. It introduces, amends or repeals about 70 federal laws, without having allowed time for full debate.
May prides herself on being possibly the first MP to read it all, and becoming a “go-to” contact who spent time with rushed reporters “just to tell them what’s in the bill.”
“I was so shocked,” she recalled on her reaction after reading through it.
As a lawyer, environmental activist and author, May knew what she was talking about. She also knew the Ottawa Hill scene, how Question Period and media scrums work, what makes media headlines and why.
She worked in Ottawa on the creation of environmental law and policies in the 1970s, and in the 1980s with the Mulroney government, and notes that “important initiatives were undertaken and laws passed that Bill C-38 repealed.”
“It’s been personally heartbreaking. It was like a drunk with a sledge hammer in terms of the kind of damage that was inflicted, and without that much forethought.”
The reaction crossed party lines, highlighted when four former federal fisheries ministers—two Conservatives and two Liberals—denounced the changes, saying they will irreparably harm fish habitat.
“They are totally watering down and emasculating the Fisheries Act,” said Tom Siddon, fisheries minister from 1985-90, supported by fellow Tory John Fraser, and Liberals Herb Dhaliwal and David Anderson.
Under the new regime, the Fisheries Act will protect only fish that support commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, not the overall habitat including fresh water supplies and forest eco-systems.
The Environmental Protection Act was repealed, and replaced by a new act that May says will dilute environmental protection.
“No one is quite sure how it’s supposed to work, but it is quite clear that it will involve many fewer environmental reviews examining a narrower concept of environmental damage.”
It sounds technical, but here is the threat: Endangered species habitats and navigable waters, formerly protected by Environment Canada, will now come under the National Energy Board, whose priority is energy production and delivery.
“This is turning different laws on their head—devastation of minimal levels of prudent review in advance and of major projects,” May said.
But it doesn’t end there.
Under this legislation, Harper has scrapped the office of the inspector-general of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, ostensibly to save $1 million.
That is the watchdog that since 1984 has been monitoring the activities of Canada’s spy agency and reporting to the minister in charge.
“The chief eyes and ears for the public safety minister to make sure that our domestic spy agency was not going rogue have been deleted,” May said.
That role will now be carried out by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, but critics, such as
University of Toronto intelligence expert Wesley Wark, doubt that it can produce the detailed annual reports the inspector-general had been providing.
These reports have cited CSIS for an increasing number of errors.
“If it makes mistakes, that can potentially impact on the civil liberties of Canadians who may find themselves subject, and perhaps wrongly, to CSIS investigation,” Wark has said.
Although the details are murky, May says it is opposed to a provision that allows American law enforcement agents onto Canadian territory to arrest Canadians under U.S. law.
When it comes to integrity, May notes the as-yet unsolved robo-calls scandal, and the “dozens” of reports she has received of fraudulent calls to registered voters in her riding that the location of polling stations had been changed.
She has speculated that her riding may have served as a “pilot project” in the 2008 election. Midway through the campaign the NDP candidate had dropped out, but too late to pull his name off the ballot.
The evening before the Oct. 14 vote, an automated phone message was received by “thousands of NDP supporters” suggesting they vote for the NDP non-candidate, who ended up with 3,667 votes.
Most of them would normally have gone to the Liberals, May noted, who lost to the Conservatives by 2,625 votes.
“Elections Canada and the RCMP never got to the bottom of this,” she said.
This brewing scandal comes amid concern about changes to many aspects of Canadian life under the cover of a 425-page budget bill– from new rules governing Employment Insurance to how the Food and Drug administration deals with products that have pesticides.
It can only add to growing cynicism about how we are governed, May said. Of 800 amendments proposed, not one was passed.
“This is absolutely an affront to common sense.”