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Elizabeth May wins first seat for Greens

Source: The Globe and Mail

Written by: Justine Hunter

With 48.1 per cent of the vote, Elizabeth May made history election night, becoming the first Green elected to Parliament in the idyllic riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands.

Veteran incumbent Tory cabinet minister Gary Lunn conceded the vote, when it became clear he could not catch the environmental leader.

“We need hope over fear, compassion over competition,” Ms. May told a jubilant crowd, before focusing on the wider parliament of which she is now a member. “We are elected to serve the people of Canada, not one ideology.”

She also quoted one of her favourite sayings: “Amateurs built the ark; professionals built the Titanic.”

Of the country’s 308 ridings, Ms. May pegs Saanich-Gulf Islands as the greenest. But other colours dominate here too. Tory blue, for over a decade. And grey – with the oldest median age of any riding in Canada, and the third-largest senior population.

After running unsuccessfully in two other provinces, Ms. May moved to this riding in the summer of 2009, calculating this was where the Green Party could finally corral enough votes to get her foot in the door of the House of Commons.

She dismisses the suggestion that the demographics of this rural and suburban riding paint it solid Conservative country. “Someone told me, ‘You don’t understand, that riding is full of retired oil company executives from Alberta,’ ” she said in a recent interview. She paused and smiled: “Well, one of them is one of my volunteers on Saltspring Island.”

In the 2008 election, Gary Lunn, the Conservative candidate, scored his fifth electoral victory here. The carpenter-cum-lawyer entered federal politics in 1997 as a Reform candidate. Victory has never come easy here for Mr. Lunn, but voters in Saanich-Gulf Islands haven’t elected a left-of-centre politician since 1988.

Ms. May, a lawyer and author, picked up on the riding’s conservation ethics, particularly on the Gulf Islands, when she served as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.

But Norman Ruff, political science professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, cautions the riding doesn’t fit neatly into one box.

“This impression of it being green is an exaggeration. It’s only one portion of the riding that lives up to that reputation,” he said. The Gulf Islands make up a small fraction of the voting base – with the retirement community of Sidney-by-the-Sea and suburban neighbourhoods such as the upscale Gordon Head community dominating on election day.

“The Greens’ message in this campaign is that they want to make history,” he added. “But the question is, do the older voters want to make history with the Greens?”

In the 2004 election, the Green candidate, Andrew Lewis, took almost 17 per cent of the vote. It was a high water mark for the Greens, and Mr. Lunn eked out a victory with less than 35 per cent support.

In the last election, Mr. Lunn bounced back, garnering over 43 per cent of the vote. But it was his narrowest margin of victory to date. He defeated the Liberal candidate Briony Penn – a former Green Party candidate – by just four percentage points.

Those two results, together, fed Ms. May’s belief that this is the Canadian riding where voters would be willing to break out of the Big Party box and allow her to make history.

In 2008 the Green Party won 937,613 votes across the country – almost seven per cent of the ballots cast – but not a single seat in the Commons. Throughout the campaign, Ms. May appealed to voters here to give those nearly one million votes a chance to be heard.

She went to court in the first week of the campaign to fight a decision to keep her out of the televised national leaders’ debates. Although she lost in the courts, the battle did raise her profile. However she stuck close to the riding for most of the campaign, spending just eight days on the road for the party’s national tour.

Although Mr. Lunn now serves in a junior cabinet post, he hosted Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in the riding twice during the campaign. It was a boost he needed, particularly after his demotion to minister of state for sport. As natural resources minister, Mr. Lunn fired the head of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in 2008 after Linda Keen refused, on safety grounds, to back the reopening of the Chalk River, Ont., nuclear reactor that produced crucial medical isotopes.

Ms. Keen endorsed Ms. May in this campaign.

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