Elizabeth May’s Leadership Was Always Tied to Guelph

Elizabeth May became the leader of the Green Party of Canada on August 26, 2006, and from that point she set herself the goal of taking the Greens from a fringe party to a national movement. Although she didn’t achieve that goal as extensively as she would have liked, May’s left an indelible mark on the party she led for 13 years, and a lot of that involves a steady relationship with Guelph.

May’s first campaign as the leader of the Green Party was a by-election in London, ON in 2007. May ran for the seat in London North Centre, which was vacated by then-Liberal Member of Parliament Joe Fontana, who stepped down to run for mayor. Though she lost by about nine percentage points to Liberal Glen Pearson, she got about 6,500 more votes that the Green candidate who ran in the riding just one-year before.

With the possibility of another general election coming in 2008, May settled on the riding of Central Nova as the place she would attempt to secure as the first Green MP in Canadian history. Running in Central Nova would pit May against a tough opponent in the form of Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay, but she wouldn’t have to run against a Liberal candidate thanks to a detente with then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, who promised that he would not run a candidate against her, if she didn’t run one against him.

This was an interesting time for the Liberals. With Dion in charge, the Liberals had unveiled the main piece of their election strategy, the Green Shift, which was the first time a major political party in Canada had made putting a price on carbon a central plank in their platform.

In July 2008, Dion came to Guelph to sell the public on his Green Shift, and it was an uphill climb because the Conservatives had already branded it as the “tax on everything,” and had started to paint Dion as “not worth the risk” of electing prime minister. Guelph was going to be a test case for all these arguments since it was expected that a byelection would be called by the fall to replace the retiring Brenda Chamberlain.

“It may well be a test for the Green Shift plan, but I can tell you that a lot of non-Liberals I know have come to me and expressed their gratitude that something so bold and something so innovative has been undertaken by this party because something must be done about global warming,” said then-Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote after Dion’s Guelph appearance. 

Dion though was late to the game. May had already been to Guelph to support her party’s candidate who had for years established himself as Guelph’s best option for environmental action, and the Green Party smelled a legitimate chance at victory with an open Guelph seat that was supposed to be decided over the course of a late-summer byelection campaign period.

“The Original Mike”

“By-elections have the lowest voter turn out, and summer by-elections are the worst turn outs of any elections. The good news is that they also have the lowest threshold to win.” That was sent out to Green Party members at the beginning of July 2008, a kind of rallying cry to get local Green members riled up for a potential Green victory in Guelph.

The candidate was Mike Nagy, who ran for the Greens in Guelph in 2006 and finished a distant fourth place with 5,376 votes, or 8.7 per cent. It didn’t come close to winning the seat, but the the fortunes of the party were heading in the right direction; Nagy had won 3,866 votes in 2004, which was a huge leap from his predecessor, Bill Hulet, who came out of the 2000 election with not even 1,000 votes.

Adding fuel to the new fire felt by Greens was the third place finish of Ben Polley in the 2007 Provincial Election. Polley secured 19.45 per cent of the vote, and came within 2,500 votes of taking second place from the Progressive Conservative candidate. The prevailing thinking of Green Party political strategists was that the combination of a seasoned candidate, the strong support of a grassroots base, and a late summer election date would allow them to make history.

“Since we’ve been on hold for two years, its given us time to plan,” Nagy said in an interview published in Echo Weekly in August 2008. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the other campaigns and that means we’ve become very organized and disciplined. And with that, it’s attracted some very skilled people.”

May was one of the skilled people that the party was using to promote their profile in Guelph, but she was not the only party leader to see opportunity in this riding. Stephen Harper had come to Guelph in April to support Conservative candidate Gloria Kovach, and Jack Layton had made multiple appearances on behalf of NDP candidate Thomas King.

In a May appearance at the Guelph Youth Music Centre, the Green Party leader took no prisoners on either end of the political spectrum. In so much as she was mad at Harper for a lack of action on climate change, she also had harsh words for Layoton, who suggested in a Globe and Mail interview that a carbon tax was a punishment on regular Canadians.

“The strategy is ‘the enemy of my enemy,’ that when the Liberal Party is crushed and eliminated, than the NDP can replace them as the natural alternative to the Conservatives,” May said in an interview after her GYMC rally. “It doesn’t make sense in terms of climate crisis and it panders to the idea that gas prices will go up if you have a carbon tax.”

When the writ for Guelph was finally drawn up in late July, May was back in Guelph in August. The Nagy campaign promised three appearances over the writ period, and on August 11 May spent a full day in Guelph with a series of events including a stop at Canadian Blood Services with Nagy to donate a couple of much needed pints.

By the beginning of September, it was clear that things were going to a full-blown general election, and local election events were postponed or cancelled until the government decided if it was going to collapse or not. When the general election was called, much of May’s focus went to running her race in Central Nova, and struggling to secure a place on the leaders’ debate stage. She still made the time to return to Guelph though, and held a rally at the University of Guelph after arriving in town by train.

But it wasn’t just May’s attention that could have tipped the election, any progress in getting a Green MP in Guelph was also riding Nagy’s strength as a candidate. The Globe and Mail called Nagy one of eight “candidates you should care about” in the 2008 election, and the Guelph Mercury endorsed Nagy saying, “He has a solid vision of green-job creation here, and a complex understanding of local and national environmental issues.”

At the same time though, the Mercury foreshadowed the end result. “There was clear momentum and optimism during the byelection that the Greens had a legitimate shot at electing Canada’s first Green MP,” the Mercury wrote. “The outward signs are that the party retains that enthusiasm, even if polls indicate otherwise, and that’s something in itself.”

There was enthusiasm, but not enough to win the seat. On Election Night, Nagy secured 21.15 per cent of the vote, and 12,454 ballots compared to Valeriote who won the seat with 32.22 per cent of the vote and nearly 19,000 ballots. The understandably disappointed Greens still left the election feeling good about their odds for the future.

The Lost Years

May lost Central Nova and finished in second place behind the re-elected Peter MacKay. The east coast was not the answer to May’s quest for a seat in the House, but she needed to plant a flag somewhere because Harper had been re-elected with another minority government. One report suggested that May might have looked to Guelph as her possible homebase, and the place that the Federal Green Party was going to concentrate all its efforts.

“Now the party is convinced that our number one goal is to elect me to the House of Commons. So that changes quite a lot of things,” May said in July 2009. “Where is the greenest riding in Canada? Where is the place where people are more likely than anywhere else to say, ‘We want that voice in the House of Commons?'”

In the aftermath of the 2008 election though, there seemed to be some lingering resentment. A Green Party member from Alberta named Mark Taylor blamed the loss of Guelph on May, saying that precious resources were transferred from a winnable Guelph campaign to May’s more difficult campaign in Central Nova.

“Money was funneled into the riding to open two campaign offices,” Taylor wrote on his blog. “Staff was hired to run these offices. I know, from a personal contact, that requests were made of the Guelph team to turn their focus from [get out the vote] efforts in Guelph to (get out the vote) efforts in Central Nova.”

In the end, May would end up running in Saanich-Gulf Islands on the west coast.

Back in Guelph, there was further controversy about May’s leadership. At a backyard barbeque hosted by then-Green Party candidate Bob Bell in July 2010, a civil engineer named Sylvie Lemieux declared her intention to challenge May in a leadership review to take place later that year.

“This is not about running against Elizabeth May,” Lemieux told the Globe and Mail in an interview. “This is about creating a better option for Canadians by building the party into a true contender that’s more attuned to Canadians from coast to coast.”

Bell was non-committal when asked for comment. “Elizabeth has been the leader for four years, so it’s time to ask the question, and Sylvie is doing so,” he said. “There’s been this possible impending election for a year and a half and I believe that’s why our leadership issue has been pushed back.”

The members of the Green Party opted to hold off on a leadership review until after the next Federal Election. That review was supposed to take place in August 2010, and it was in August 2010 that Bell stepped down as the Green candidate. “My business is seasonal — busy in spring and slow in fall,” Bell told the Guelph Mercury. “Originally it appeared as though we’d have a fall election and I was ready for that. But now an election is likely in the spring, and that’s not good timing for me.”

John Lawson, then the pastor of Dublin Street United Church, ended up replacing Bell as the candidate for Guelph, and led the local Greens into the May 2011 general election.

Notably absent from that election when compared to 2008 was the regular appearance by May, who was fighting hard to secure her own seat in British Columbia. In a very tight election where strategic voting was a main consideration, plus limited resources and an untested candidate, Guelph Greens saw their fortunes set back to just 6.29 per cent of the popular vote in 2011. It was the worst showing for Guelph Greens in terms of share of the vote since 2000.

Brand Names

After three attempts, May finally secured her seat in Saanich-Gulf Island, and as the sole Green member of the House she quickly established herself as a strong opposition voice to the majority Harper government, especially when the Robocall scandal came to light in February 2012.

In the years following the 2011 election there was a question of what direction the party would go in next; they established their beachhead and proved that a Green can be elected to the House of Commons, and Guelph was an obvious choice to pick-up gains in the 2015 election. Like the 2008 race, opportunity knocked harder with the announcement in Fall 2014 that the incumbent, Liberal Frank Valeriote, was not going to run again.

The Green Party was the last of the major political parties to announce their candidate in 2015, and they were looking to some environmental star power in the form of Gord Miller, who at the time had recently retired as the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. “I don’t need a job,” Miller said about why he was getting back into politics. “I’m running to win this seat, to go to Parliament and change what Stephen Harper has done with this country.”

May was on-hand for Miller’s nomination meeting at the Red Chevron Club in June, and so was Mike Schreiner, who, the year before, finished in third place in the 2014 Provincial Election, and was within one percentage point of overtaking the second place Progressive Conservative candidate.

May, perhaps sensing the loss of local grassroots support in 2011, said that a Green victory in Guelph was not only possible, but it was likely if local Greens could get out the vote. “So we have to get the word out. We need to talk to young people and First Nations people. Voting Green will get you the party you want,” she said, adding that higher voter turnout is generally better news for Green candidates.

May lent considerable support to Miller with a full day of activities on a Wednesday in September that included a rally in Branion Plaza at the University of Guelph, where May announced the Green’s education policy. She called Miller “one of the best qualified candidates in this election of any party,” and tried to persuade local voters away from the idea of strategic voting.

“It’s not a concern in Guelph, and right now the Conservative candidate is not positioned to come up the middle. You can vote for what you want,” May said.

It seemed that what Guelph wanted though was it’s third Liberal MP since 1993. Lloyd Longfield secured victory with nearly 50 per cent of the vote, while Miller finished fourth with 11.32 per cent, which was less than one per cent behind the third place NDP candidate.

Miller gained over the Greens’ 2011 finish, but he was an outsider candidate against three well-established Guelph characters; Longfield had been the long-time president of the Chamber of Commerce, Conservative Gloria Kovach had served as a popular city councillor for two decades, and NDP Andrew Seagram was a well-known community organizer.

Although less focused on Saanich-Gulf Islands, May returned to the bigger picture of building a national movement, which hadn’t gotten any easier. With an electorate weary of the governing Conservatives, the concern of more Robocall-like election shenanigans, and the twice-as-long-as-typical election period, and there was a lot for May to overcome in leading a Canada-wide campaign, plus, she still had to battle for her place in the national leaders debate.

However, nearly a decade after the breakthrough Nagy campaign, the Guelph Greens were about to get their breakthrough moment.

The Last Campaign

In the summer of 2017, Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner was acclaimed as the Guelph Green candidate for the 2018 Provincial Election in an environmentally-friendly gathering at Riverside Park. Three MLAs had just been elected in British Columbia holding the “balance of responsibility” with the new NDP government there, and many Green supporters felt a change coming.

When Schreiner opened a campaign office on Suffolk Street in October, May was there to help make it an occasion. She declared “Guelph is a green town,” with its double meaning of environmental stewardship and the high chance for electoral success.

After Schreiner was acclaimed, the incumbent Liberal Member of Provincial Parliament, Liz Sandals, announced that she would not seek re-election. It was the ideal scenario for an upstart victory: no incumbent, strong local grassroots support, and an electorate desperate for change. Theoretically, it was the same formula that could have been to the Green advantage in 2015, but the difference in 2018 would be Schreiner himself. Since his third place showing in 2014, Schreiner had embedded himself deeply in the political fabric of Guelph. If there was a community event, festival, or political rally, Schreiner was there.

Winning Guelph would be largely on Schreiner’s shoulders, but before Election Day, all stops were pulled out with a rally at the Hanlon Convention Centre, which featured David Suzuki, Sarah Harmer, and May, who repeated a promise she made often about Green politicians doing politics differently.

“No matter what happens, and no matter how many Greens are elected with Mike, you can count on one thing, Mike won’t be whipping votes,” she said. “We are committed in every instance to listening to our community, and voting the way the community wants them to vote.”

Changing the political system from the inside out was always one of May’s messages. In the fall of 2017, May joined Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong at an event in Guelph to promote a book called Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy; May contributed an essay to the book, and Chong c0-edited it. May, like many Greens, has long been an advocate for electoral reform, and reforming the way business is done in Parliament. In both 2015 and 2019, May would be an often mentioned candidate for the speakership in the House.

In 2019, Guelph Greens had to choose between five different candidates, which was perhaps a reaction to having Miller served to the local party as the preferred candidate in 2015, but it was also a response to Schreiner’s victory a year before. Guelph’s Green MPP had blazed a trail, and people were eager to follow in his footsteps.

Nearly 400 people turned out to choose between the City of Guelph’s Climate Change Office head Alex Chapman, Guelph Solar CEO Steve Dyck, Making-Box co-founder Hayley Kellett, U of G prof Ralph Martin, and activist Jax Thornton. Dyck, who ran for the Green Party in the 2011 Provincial Election, won the nomination after five ballots.

“People across Canada want more Green leadership,” Dyck said after he was named the nominee. “I would be so honoured to be standing next to Elizabeth May in our House of Parliament, building a democracy, building a country of justice and fairness. That is my hope.”

May would stand with Dyck before the campaign even started. In July, she held a town hall in Peter Clark Hall at the U of G, and although she attracted a full house, there was still some lingering trepidation for the way the party had turned by hiring political consultant Warren Kinsella, the so-called “prince of darkness.” The first question from the floor concerned Kinsella’s hire, which May dismissed saying that his role with the campaign was small and they he’d be leading the response to direct attacks on the party. Kinsella was gone before the writ had even been drawn up.

May’s final campaign appearance in Guelph as leader was September 23 at the Dyck campaign office. The timing wasn’t great as that same night city council was debating about the new budget for the planned main library development on Baker Street; many of the same activists that would come out for May, were also concerned about the library project.

Although Dyck didn’t win the Guelph seat, he did more than double the voter share for the Green Party, and delivered their best showing in a Federal Election in local electoral history with a second place finish. It was a story duplicated across the country with candidates like Anna Keenan in the P.E.I. riding of Malpeque, or Kitchener Centre’s Mike Morrice, or Victoria’s Racelle Kooy. Only Jenica Atwin from Fredericton would join the small Green caucus.

The End (The Beginning)

As Conservative leader Andrew Scheer stood firm through a post-election death watch, it was Elizabeth May who announced that she was retiring as the leader of the Green Party, even though she intended to continue as the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and the Green’s House leader.

In 2019, the Green Party secured over 1.162 million votes and got 6.5 per cent of popular support; in the last election before May took over those numbers were 668,000 and 4.48 per cent. Perhaps there was a sense that May, in her 12 years as leader, had taken the party as far as she could.

“We achieved more than one million votes for the first time ever,” May said via the CBC. “As I look around the world … there is no other country with first-past-the-post that has achieved what we’ve achieved.”

The Green Party of Canada will decide on a new leader next fall in Charlottetown, where an Official Opposition made up of Green members sits in the provincial legislature. It will be these places where the Green Party has managed to breakthrough that might have the largest influence on who will be the next party leader, and Guelph will definitely be a part of that conversation. Whether or not the next leader will be able to finally help secure Guelph as a Green seat, will be the real question in the years to come.

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