Elizabeth May: Jews have been the heart, soul and conscience of Canada for a long time

Elizabeth May

Who will be Canada’s next prime minister? 

As election day draws near, The CJN speaks to the four party leaders about domestic security, Israel, Iran, BDS, the economy and more  

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Elizabeth May is currently in the midst of her third federal election campaign as leader of the Green Party of Canada, a post she has held for nine years. The member of parliament for the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C., spoke recently to The CJN about the upcoming election, Israel, accusations of anti-Semitism in her own party and the Syrian refugee crisis. 

The CJN: How is the campaign going?

Elizabeth May: I think it’s going remarkably well for Greens, considering we have a certain amount of struggle to claim space and be heard. 

We’re gaining momentum for the first time ever for us in an election campaign. Usually when you go into an election campaign, people in public opinion polls will say, “I’ll vote Green,” but when it comes to the ballot box, they say, “Oh, maybe not.” So, this is the first time that our public support levels across Canada, and particularly in British Columbia, are growing during the writ period. So, that’s pretty encouraging.

Parts of our policy inspire people who used to vote Conservative – things like the fact that we’re the most transparent party, and the most accountable. And we’re respectful in Parliament – we never heckle. So, some of the more traditional Conservative voters are deciding that they want to vote Green.

At the same time, some traditional NDP voters are thinking they don’t like the way their party is moving toward the centre. So for the other issues – for instance, trade agreements – we have former NDPers moving to the Green party. 

And the biggest voting block that we are really going after are people who simply haven’t voted ever, or for years. And that’s, of course, the largest voting block in Canada in the last number of elections, the 40 per cent of people who don’t vote. 

What do you think Canada should be doing regarding the Syrian refugee crisis?

It’s a disaster at many levels. 

If you’re looking for the single-largest instigating factor, you’d be talking about the brutal dictatorship of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad. 

We abhor the existence of Islamic State (ISIS), but in the context of Syria, ISIS is just one of a number of what we would normally consider terrorists and horrible organizations, like Al Qaeda and Al Nusra, allied against Assad. I don’t there’s a single group that I’ve mentioned that any Canadian would think could form a government in a way that respected human rights. We don’t want to be aligned with Assad and Hezbollah any more than we want to be aligned with Al Qaeda, ISIS and Al Nusra. It’s a terrible set of choices. 

And in the midst of all this, there are the suffering innocents of Syria. 

Right now, we need to mobilize. We should have been doing it years ago, but I think Canadians are demanding that there be a more urgent and robust response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Where does the Green party stand on Israel? 

We stand very firmly in support of the right of the State of Israel to exist and defend itself. We do think that there is a question of proportionality, so we have been critical from time to time of the decisions that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has made, but we are very mindful of campaigns that can verge into anti-Semitism. 

We are very concerned about Palestinian rights and Palestinian justice, but we are also very concerned about any rise in anti-Semitism either in the region or in Canada.

I think that’s the responsible position to take, and I think we are where most Canadians are.

Where do you stand on the boycott divestment and sanctions movement specifically?

We don’t support it.

What do you say to Jewish voters who want to support a cleaner environment and some of your other positions, but are concerned that if they don’t support other parties that they might be endangering Israel. Is there a way that voters can have both?

We really have to find a way to explain to people that it doesn’t help the security of Israel to have Canada only support the most right-wing party in Israel. Israel –  as a state, as a country, as a society, as a democracy – needs to be defended and supported by Canada, but Canada loses our influence in the world – we reduce the credibility of our statements – when we appear to be aligned with only one party.

We believe that the strongest way to defend the right of the State of Israel is to achieve a durable peace in the region. And that will occasionally mean that we don’t agree with everything a particular political party in Israel does.

Take us back to the controversy last year after former Green party president Paul Estrin published a pro-Israel blog on the party’s website and the backlash that ensued, which eventually led to Mr. Estrin leaving the party. How did the Green party handle the situation? Is there anything you wish you would have done differently? 

Mr. Estrin didn’t put the blog under his own name. That was the problem. He signed his piece as the president of the Green Party of Canada.

Paul is a very great guy, and I wish that I hadn’t been in a remote location with no access to a phone when all this started to blow up. 

The party executive talked to him, and he decided to resign. I reached out to him immediately and said, “Paul, let’s keep you involved in the party – it would be great if you would stay on the executive in a different position other than president – or how about running, being a candidate in the election for the Green party?”

If I have any regrets, it’s that I wasn’t in a position to call Paul earlier. I sure regretted losing him. 

Life is long, he’s a young guy and he’ll probably come back and work with us again. I sure hope so.

In the wake of that situation, it did seem to awaken people to the fact that there are some in your party who hold strongly anti-Israel views. Does that concern you?

I’m not aware of people in the party who hold anti-Israel views. But, of course, there are about 20,000 members and I don’t know all of them. But certainly within the party leadership, within party policy, our debates are really respectful. The position that we came up with during the Gaza conflict called for more neutrality on the part of Canada and to work as hard as possible for a ceasefire and for peaceful solutions to the conflict. That entire debate happened in a spirit of respect and neutrality. And certainly, no one expressed any anti-Israel positions. That would have violated what we consider Green values.

Do you think Israel is being turned into a wedge issue of sorts in this election?

No, I don’t think so. I think what’s happened is, strangely enough, that the other three major parties seem to feel that even the most muted criticism of Mr. Netanyahu’s actions is off limits. 

I don’t think a chill on the discussion is healthy in Canadian democracy, it would certainly be unacceptable were a discussion about the Middle East to give any aid, comfort or space to views that were anti-Israel in the sense of being against the right of the State of Israel to exist. 

You have the ear of the Canadian Jewish voters. What’s your pitch?

You have been the heart and soul and conscience of Canada on many issues for a very long time. This is not the time to wed yourself to one hardline position of a party that has done so much to make Canada a less compassionate place. And I would urge you to look at the Green party’s policies and platform and see if you don’t see yourself there. 

If you don’t, let me know, I certainly would apologize if we are not meeting the aspirations of Canadians who have done so much for this country. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.