Reading Diary: Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada by Elizabeth May

For those that don't know, Elizabeth May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada and one of only two Greens in the Canadian Parliament -- and the only one elected as a Green. As such, you would expect that she would be a strong advocate for democracy and the environment, willing to stand up to the current Conservative government of Stephen Harper and tell it like it is.

In her latest book, Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada, she does just that in an entertaining and inspiring amalgamation of memoir and manifesto.

This is an amazing book, sarcastic and hopeful but still witty and smart and sharp and inspiring. This is a book that instantly sprints to the top of my list of best books of 2014. While not quite a science book, I like to think of it as a "let's pay attention to science" public policy book, kind of like the recent This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (a book I'm in the middle of and will review soon).

The book really has three main narrative strains. First of all, a rather brief recounting of May's life and career, from growing up in the States to moving to the Maritimes as a teen all the way through her work in various NGOs and to the present as leader of the Greens. The second thread is a clear-eyed, honest and rather bleak presentation of the facts about the climate crisis that we face, how dire it is and how urgent it is for us all to start acting rather than talking. And yes, she does have some ideas for how to act.

The third and perhaps most important narrative brings those two together and in great detail explicates exactly how the Harper government is failing us all. The the attacks on science and the environment to the census and the various proroguings and other assaults on democracy, May lays it all out in plain, accessible language. But not pulling any punches by any means. This is a rather short book, only 200 or so pages, so she really hits the high points and tells the stories that need to be told quickly and efficiently.

One of the areas she highlights most effectively is how parliament has become increasingly nasty, dysfunctional and hyper-partisan under Harper, even compared to the Mulroney government where she worked as a time as an aide to the Minister of the Environment. So she knows whereof she speaks. The lack of collaboration among the parties, the petty slights and major ad hominem attacks that are part of the perpetual election campaign all figure into it. And quite a depressing story it is.

But Elizabeth May is nothing if not hopeful and optimistic, if cautiously. And that comes out in every page. She brings a lot of wit and sarcastic humour to the tales she tells, but never in a mean or unkind way. She obviously knows where a lot of bodies are buried and has taken part in a lot of personal conversations with members of all parties where they have bared their souls.

But exposing those confidences isn't the point. Telling the larger story is.

And she does that wonderfully. I recommend this book without hesitation for all Canadians. Buy it for everyone you know on our holiday lists. This is a must for virtually any Canadian library, public or academic, that collects in politics or any branch of public policy, especially around science or the environment. Beyond Canada's borders, any library that is interested in collecting on the environment or public policy should probably also consider this book for it's general coverage of climate issues and it's inspiring story of the life of an activist.

Elizabeth May is a wonderful writer. And since her book is so sharp, witty and biting, with so many zingers, I thought I'd share a few.

In some ways, Stephen Harper may have done us a favour. We have been knocked out of complacency as he held up a mirror to our collective face, and taunted us "This is what you really look like." (p. 6)

This is a book about how to fix what is wrong, rescue democracy from hyper-partisan politics and put Canada, and the world, on the path to a secure, post-carbon economy. (p. 7)

Public relations spin developed by Big Carbon started trumping science in the United States under George W. The same thing did not begin to happen in Canada until a public relations spin master manipulator arrived at 24 Sussex Drive (p. 55)

At every COP since Stephen Harper became Canada's Prime Minister, Canada has received the Colossal Fossil. That's quite the statement when one considers that, until 2008, his competition for Colossal Fossil was George W. Bush. (p. 56)

If the debate of the twentieth century was the relationship between the economy and humanity, the debate of the twenty-first century is the relationship between the economy and the planet. (p. 76)

Somehow I convinced myself that a political leader who told the truth all the time, even if it meant defending people in other political parties, might just be the wild card that restored public faith in Canadian politics. (p. 88)

Protecting the environment through the steady and time-worn methods of building a case, launching a campaign, getting public support, and persuading people in power to change gad plans into good ones had become a Monty Python sketch. It was a Dead Parrot. (p. 92)

As part of my activities in the school environment club, I bought every paperback I could [of Limits to Growth] and maintained a lending library for activists in one corner of the science lab where we tested the pH levels of various detergents. (p. 130-131)

Global supplies of coal are so enormous that counting on coal scarcity to reduce greenhouse gases is a bet we can make on a dead planet. (p. 132)

The new public relations industry makeover has mysteriously decided that anyone who calls bitumen-rich soils "tar sands" is being disrespectful to Alberta. The politically correct term is "oil sands." I don't want to be disrespectful to anyone, so I call them oil sands. Given that bitumen is neither tar nor oil, I decided to use whatever term offends the fewest Albertans. (p. 134)

No one in the environmental movement would ever have predicted that Chretien's environmental record would make us nostalgic for Brian Mulroney. (p. 142)

Our job is to move government from the problem side of the ledger to the solution side. (p. 160)

To watch Question Period on television is enough to make most people want to change the channel. I see school groups come into the house only to have teachers shepherd their young charges out of the chamber as MPs descend into behavior no teacher would allow in the classroom. (p. 168-169)

The outward appearance of a functional cabinet government supported by a non-partisan civil service is being maintained, but the reality is that nothing is normal. It reminds me of the movie I ever saw: Invasion of the Body Snatchers...Ottawa is experiencing metaphorical alien invasion. Environment Canada may look like Environment Canada, but it's not. It's a pod department. (p. 174)

We need to encourage all MPs to speak up, to speak their minds, and to stop accepting the tyranny of whiz kids and spin doctors who ply their craft in all the other parties...[the whiz kids] have their place: during elections. Once a political campaign is over, they should be working in ad agencies or consulting firms, or even as baristas to improve their people skills. (p. 201)

Ok, more than a few.

And before I forget. Elizabeth May for Prime Minister. This is what compassionate, visionary leadership looks like.

May, Elizabeth. Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada. Vancouver: Greystone, 2014. 214pp. ISBN-13: 978-1771640312

One response so far

  • Kyuss says:

    If I could actually directly vote for Elizabeth May, then perhaps I would. It's too bad that the Green Party is chock full of woowoos who think that wind turbines and Wifi give you cancer.

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