Saanich News

Elizabeth May made headlines in 2011

Elizabeth May faced major lifestyle changes after becoming the Green party’s first-ever candidate to be elected to the House of Commons.

Victoria Cate May Burton describes 2011 as a “pretty normal” one for her.

The 20-year-old finished up her third year of studies at King’s University in Halifax, she did some traveling, and she provided support for her mom, whose year was anything but normal.

In September, the family matriarch had hip replacement surgery – after a painful nine months on a wait list. Earlier in the year, she got a new job that transferred her 3,000 miles across the country.

She also made significant political history.

“I haven’t lived on my own in more than two decades,” Elizabeth May says with a laugh in the living room of her Sidney home.

May faced some major lifestyle changes after becoming the federal Green party’s first-ever candidate to be elected to the House of Commons.

Sidney is May’s permanent address, though she lived out of her apartment in Ottawa for most of the year.

“I sometimes wonder whether other leaders of other parties have problems finding time to do laundry, finding time to clean their apartment. … I like living on my own, though. It’s nice knowing I’m not inconveniencing someone else when I’m up early and working late.”

After Burton’s spring exams wrapped up, she returned home to the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding to help with her mom’s federal election campaign.

On May 2, the 57-year-old May overwhelmingly beat incumbent Conservative MP Gary Lunn.

That night, inside a hangar just steps from Victoria International Airport, May and Burton were thrust onto the national stage. Media outlets across Canada broadcast the Green leader’s historic victory speech, her youngest daughter standing at her side.

“Candidates usually have this ritualistic thing where you don’t mingle with supporters until you know the results. I had a really unpleasant experience in the previous election … where the media kept me busy with interviews, by the time I got out to see my friends it was midnight and a lot of people had gone home,” May says. “I thought: ‘I’m not going to let that happen again.’ … It was quite fun watching the election returns with friends and supporters. I was much happier this time – and not just because I got elected.”

Inside May’s home, it’s apparent kith and kin are important. Photos of people populate the aquamarine walls, and peer out from handmade ornaments dangling off the  Christmas tree.

One dated snapshot features May with her mother and daughter alongside then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in the oval office. “Oh yeah, Bill’s an old friend,” she says, explaining that her mom Stephanie met Clinton in the 1960s when she was an activist and he was a student at Yale.

In the dining room, May shows off two more framed photos of herself and the former president at more recent gatherings.

Burton is May’s biological daughter with her ex-husband Ian Burton, who has two daughters and a son from a previous relationship.

Despite separating, May remains close to her step-children, she says.

“The sad thing (about 2011) is how little I got to see my family. We’re really close,” she says. “We try to get together as often as we can, which is hard, because we’re scattered between Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Toronto, Haliburton (Ont.), and Nova Scotia.”

After the House of Commons adjourned on Dec. 16, May and Burton travelled to Toronto and then Margaree Harbour, N.S. to see family. They returned to Vancouver Island for a few days, then headed to the mainland and caught the train back to Toronto for more family visits and to ring in the New Year.

Looking back on 2011, May says she won’t soon forget the state funeral held for NDP leader Jack Layton, who passed away on Aug. 22.

“The funeral was quite a stunning event in Canadian political life, and it managed to be a very uplifting, life-affirming event,” she says. “It was emotional for Canada – whether you’re NDP or not, and obviously I’m not NDP – but it was certainly a moment and an experience I’ll never forget.”

As for the political strides she made this past year, she first offers a caveat: “You’re very, very much at a loss for ways to make a difference when there’s a majority government.

“I refuse to heckle, but I also refuse to speak while being heckled. If I sit down in the middle of a question it’s because I’m being heckled,” she says. “I want to engage other MPs in the same strategy, because if you can bring about decorum, I think that’s a huge contribution. … I’m also trying to be really respectful and non-partisan in the way I approach issues, so that I’m making friends on all sides of the House, so I can hopefully change the opinion of some government members.”

She has a good attendance record – better than any other party leader – having only missed nine days in the House (four days following hip replacement surgery, and five for a climate change conference in Durban, South Africa last month).

“This is the perfect time in my life to work this hard. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to make a difference,” she says.

Fifteen-hour workdays are pretty standard for her during the week. She works almost exclusively from her desk in the House of Commons so as to not miss anything important.

“I want to track all legislation. … Thus far, I’ve spoken on the floor on every single bill,” she says. “The average MP, with a caucus of one, would not be up to speed on all the things that come through the House, but we have great volunteers in (the Green Party’s) Parliament Hill office.”

Her only opportunity to relax, she says, is her Sunday morning church service. May, an Anglican, enjoys the fellowship that comes with attending church, and the chance it provides  – albeit briefly – to step away from a hectic life.

“I don’t think I could do this work without how much (church) restores me on a weekly basis,” she says. “I feel revived, I feel refocused in my energy and my purpose.”

Despite having a higher profile job now and facing the different stresses that come with it, Burton says her mom hasn’t changed – she’s just a little busier.

“All I get to experience of my mom’s work life is what she tells me about it,” Burton says, noting that her mom has been active in political movements for a long time. “Things like going to climate change conferences, being exposed to politics – that’s not new.”

Though it’s challenging and intensive, May says her job – which she’ll hold until at least October 2015 – is a perfect fit.

“This is exactly what I should be doing. I hate to sound vain, but I’m really good at it,” May says.

“I love being a Member of Parliament. I’m not naturally fond of politics, in the sense of party politics, but I love government. I know a lot about how parliament works, I have a lot of experience on Parliament Hill, so in a weird way being elected felt like coming home.”

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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