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Harper Evolved? May Doubts It

Riding the campaign train with Green leader.

By Monte Paulsen 23 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is Tyee investigative editor and captains The Hook, The Tyee's new political blog.

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Green leader Elizabeth May.

"Evolved?" asked Green leader Elizabeth May incredulously as she rode the train towards her next campaign stop. She was discussing what Prime Minister Stephen Harper might do with a majority in Parliament.

May made it clear she worried that outcome would allow Harper to dismantle public health care as he had espoused years ago before taking the national political stage. Harper has said his formerly hard right views have since evolved towards more moderate positions.

"Evolved? We'll that's good. It must mean that he believes in evolution. But beyond that what does it mean?" asked May.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May departed Vancouver Sunday night on what she billed as the first national whistle-stop election tour since John Diefenbaker made a similar journey more than half a century ago.

May plans to greet more than 90 trackside campaign rallies before arriving in her home province of Nova Scotia on Friday afternoon.

In an onboard interview with The Tyee, May talked about where Via Rail has abandoned Canadian passengers, about why she's running in one of the most staunchly Tory ridings in the nation, and about how she might go after Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the upcoming leadership debates.

Harper's base 'mean-spirited': May

As her train snaked its way through the fast-growing Fraser Valley communities that could help Harper claim the 28 extra seats he needs to form a majority government, May challenged the very notion that Harper is anywhere close to winning a majority. "I wish the media would stop talking about Harper being in majority territory. That gives Canadians the sense that he's popular with the majority of Canadians, which is a lie," May said.

"What has Harper accomplished?" May asked. "He has so closely studied these few dozen swing ridings. He has figured out how to manipulate them, how to telegraph messages of intolerance and fear, how to appeal to a base that's mean-spirited.

"He may win enough of these ridings to gain a false majority," she concluded. "But that's all it should be called: A false majority."

Ittinuar to run in Nunavut

May and her entourage arrived at the train station in Vancouver in a fleet of small, black electric-powered trucks that looked like toy Hummers. Bagpipes blared as she hugged supporters at a pre-departure rally.

"We're committed to linking this country again the way that Sir John A. Macdonald had a national dream," May told the cheering crowd of about 300 supporters. "We also share that dream of a country knit together, not one region against another but all of us together in a common commitment to future generations."

May announced the addition of a new Green Party candidate: Former MP Peter Ittinuar, who made history as Canada's first Inuk MP in 1979, and represented Nunavut under NDP and Liberal banners through the 1980s. May said her "carbon-neutral leader's tour" won't generate "anything close to the amount of carbon as jetting around in our own private planes from one side of the country to another."

"We will travel through some of the most beautiful scenery on this planet. We'll go through this country at a level where you can see all of it," she said.

"We'll be reaching out to Canadians, and we'll be asking you -- even if you can't embrace voting for the Green party -- to embrace yourselves as communities. Embrace the power of your vote. Embrace your commitment to make this a better world," May said.

"And I know Canadians can do that. Because I watched you all rise up to get me in the leadership debates."

'Trains are not anachronisms'

May spent the first hour of her five-day train ride granting interviews to the onboard platoon of television crews. In pithy sound bites, she repeatedly explained how passenger trains -- which generate as little as one per cent of the carbon emissions that airplanes do per passenger mile -- are not only part of Canada's history, but must play a role in its future.

The Green Party is advocating a billion-dollar resuscitation of Canada's coast-to-coast passenger rail network, with the addition of a new high-speed passenger line in the Montreal-to-Toronto corridor.

"We need improved rail service between cities," May said. "We need to bring back routes that have been discarded, and not only bring them back, but attempt to bring them back as high-speed rail."

As the sun set, the TV crews packed up their cameras and tottered down the train's narrow hallways in search of dinner. May and I sat down together in one of the glass-domed observation cars.

"I can't tell you how many of these journalists told me they've never been on a train before," May said, seeming a bit surprised. "If nothing else, maybe this trip will acquaint the media with the idea that train travel is possible."

She added, "We just want people to think about the fact that trains are not anachronisms."

'No longer a train for Canadians'

The equipment on which we were riding was built in 1954. For all we knew, this could have been the actual train on which Diefenbaker campaigned in 1957.

And by the time May uttered the word "anachronism," the train itself has stopped moving. We were parked on a siding in Surrey while a lumber train crept alongside.

Freight trains have the right-of-way in Canada. Advocates of high-speed passenger rail point to this as a major hindrance to modernizing Canadian rail travel. Passengers sit parked on sidings while coal and cattle are whisked to market, yet the heavy freight trains bend tracks out of alignment, rendering them unsafe for high-speed use.

May was asked whether, if trains are not anachronisms, perhaps Via Rail might be behind the times.

May guffawed.

"The way Via Rail is run?" she asked. "Yes. Management in Montreal is the problem. They have very little sensitivity to what regular passengers want," she said.

"This trip is a very good example. They've turned the Toronto-to-Vancouver trip into what is basically a land cruise. It's great if you can afford it. But most Canadians can't. And it's very slow. So -- just look around -- most of our fellow passengers are foreign tourists."

"This is no longer a train for Canadians," May observed.

Running against Harper's porter

Don't expect to see May in person back in B.C. until after election day. She plans to spend the rest of the time in Nova Scotia trying to win her seat.

That will be no small challenge. National polls put the Greens at 10 per cent, which is more than double their showing in the 2006 election. But the party has yet to win a single seat in the House of Commons.

May herself is running in Defence Minister Peter MacKay's strongly Tory riding of Central Nova -- which was long held by MacKay's father Elmer, except for the years the family loaned it to Brian Mulroney.

When asked how she planned to scrape together enough votes to unseat the McKay family dynasty, May offered the following formula: She figures to win two-thirds of the 2006 Liberal votes, plus two-thirds of that year's NDP votes, plus 10 to 15 per cent of the Tory base, plus about 10,000 people who didn't vote that year.

There was a long moment of silence in the darkened car.

"Yeah, O.K., so it's not going to be easy to beat Peter," she said. "I know that. But it can be done. Central Nova is not a family heirloom in the possession of the MacKay family."

Choosing to run 'at home'

When asked why she would choose such an uphill battle, May was equally blunt.

"Nova Scotia is my home. People talk about it as if one could just pick a riding and say, 'I want to run in B.C. because the chances are better there.' But I don't want to live in a province other than Nova Scotia," she said.

"Also, I wanted to run against someone who is part of the Harper government… not against a Liberal or an NDPer," May continued. "Stephen Harper is someone who should not be reelected. His policies are dangerous. And Peter McKay has been Harper's chief porter, running along implementing some of the worst of Harper's policies. Running against Peter gives me an opportunity to talk about that."

Jobs -- or rather the dwindling number of them in Central Nova -- are the part of the McKay record that May wants to talk about most. Among various factories to close in the last two years was one called Trenton Works, which, after more than a century in Nova Scotia, laid off its workforce and shipped its equipment off to a newer factory in Mexico.

Trenton Works made rail cars.

'Oh, Mom... kick his ass.'

May does plan to make at least one flight out of her riding this season. She will fly to the upcoming leadership debates, which many observers view as May's best -- some would say only -- chance to significantly boost her own electoral odds, as well as those of her party's candidates.

Asked what she aimed to accomplish in her few minutes on the national stage, May, a woman who has grown quite accustomed to speaking her mind freely, was uncharacteristically circumspect.

She started to talk about how she hoped to give Harper an opportunity to show himself when her daughter interrupted.

"Oh Mom! You're not saying it because you are modest," said Victoria Cate May Burton, who was sitting behind her in the darkened car. "But the bottom line is that you're going to kick his ass."

After the laughter subsided, May said she hoped to force Harper to explain some of his actions before returning to electoral politics.

"When Stephen Harper was working for the National Citizens Coalition, his goal was to end public health care in Canada," she said. "In 2004, he got away with explaining that by saying, 'My views have evolved.'"

May threw up her hands in mock confusion.

"'Evolved?'" she asked. "We'll that's good. It must mean that he believes in evolution. But beyond that what does it mean?"

May added, "I'd like Canadians to know what he did for a living before he ran for leader of the Alliance. And what he did for a living was try to end our health care system. Do they know that? I don't think they know that."

'Hang in for a good ride'

The train rolled on. A harvest moon shimmered across the Fraser River.

Arriving in Mission, the train was too long for the tiny platform, so in order to speak to the 30-something supporters who stood waiting in the rain, May had to hike her way forward through 11 train cars. So did two-dozen photographers, reporters and staffers. We all marched through sleeping cars, lounge cars and even a formal dining car, much to the surprise and bemusement of the elderly European and Japanese tourists who were cutting into their steak dinners.

The small crowd cheered wildly when May hopped down in the rain. Her speech was short and to the point:

"We won't have long here, so all I can tell you is work really hard in the time we have, don't accept any prognostications or pundits' predictions, recognize that Greens can make things happen, and we can have a political miracle. I'm not saying majority government, but hang in for a good ride."

More cheers. Quick hugs all around. And we all scrambled back aboard.

May waved to the crowd through a window as the train pulled out of the station.

"I find this so much more relaxing than flying," she said. "This is a balm to my sanity."

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