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Elizabeth May

If only Milton Had Visited South Moresby

By Lisa Blackburn

Volume 18 Number 5
1990 September

Environmental activist Elizabeth May, author of Paradise Won, discusses the behind-the-scenes politics of the fourteen-year battle to save South Moresby in the Queen Charlotte Islands and considers how the environmental movement is changing Canadian politics.

Elizabeth May has worked on environmental issues for over twenty years, as an activist, lawyer and author. In 1986 she became Environment Minister Tom McMillan's senior policy advisor. It was during her two-year tenure there that she worked towards the protection of the Queen Charlotte Island rain forest. Her latest book, Paradise Won, tells the story of South Moresby from the mid 1970s until 1987, when the area became Canada's largest national park.

In 1988 May resigned from McMillan's office after permits were granted for the Rafferty-Alameda dams in Saskatchewan, with no environmental assessment of their possible impact on the Souris River basin. May is now executive director of Cultural Survival, an Ottawa based group that works with indigenous peoples to protect forest homelands around the world.

I spoke to May in her downtown office, among piles of paper, mismatched office furniture, and May's collection of souvenirs, including a huge framed canvas of a hibiscus flower worked entirely in natural pigments. In contrast with her impressive credentials and legal background, May is refreshingly casual. A fast and articulate talker, she punctuates her speech with a wicked grin and frequent laughter, even when the discussion turns serious.

CM: Paradise Won is a history, yet it reads like a novel. You start by presenting some of the major players as if they were fictional characters.

May: Yes, it's the way I'm most comfortable writing. I find it more of an effort to write in the style I use as a lawyer or academic. I can do it, but it's not as much fun for me, or for the reader. The story as I lived it was full of so much love and so many extraordinary twists of fate that to write it in an academic way would not convey the feelings and emotions of the story, so I really made a point of introducing the players as characters, not just historical footnotes.

CM: How true to life are the narrative and dialogue? It must have been a huge research job.

May: I had a lot of notes! When I first wrote it, the book was much longer. I did a lot of research because I was insecure about the years in the story when I wasn't involved. But in the process of making it a reasonable length for a book, I had to leave out a lot of detail and a lot of stories that were good but didn't necessarily move the story along. I wanted the book to be fun and appealing to people who have no interest in the environment at all. I was hoping that people would see it and say, "Oh, this is a good summer book."

CM: Some people might object to the sympathetic way you look at some of the players, even your "enemies" in the South Moresby fight. Your approach is very even-handed, even ambiguous.

May: I think that's a problem with how issues are generally approached. Environmentalists are shown as one dimensional, unreachable people who aren't like everyday people, and the politicians are also sort of . . . a subspecies. Or the loggers and industrialists only have one face, as robber barons. I'm not happy with those characterizations when I approach issues, and I'm certainly not happy with them as a writer. I try to make everyone as three dimensional as possible. It's obvious that Frank Beban (on the pro-logging side) is a nice guy. I liked quite a few of the people I worked against. I'm the only environmentalist who likes Pat Armstrong, who continues to be a particularly effective and dangerous advocate for the logging industry. The reason I wanted these people to be three dimensional is that I think every reader will find someone in the story to identify with.

CM: Tell me a little about working with Tom McMillan.

May: Basically, we were friends--an odd kind of friendship because the power relationship was lopsided. We were more attuned to each other's company than in any other kind of job I can imagine. We'd get on planes together first thing in the morning and work on speeches until 3:00 o'clock the next morning. That's why Rafferty [the dam project] was such a shock. He was barely out of my sight except when he went to P.E.I. to be with his family! (laughs).

CM: That must have been pretty hard on you emotionally.

May: Not to open up old wounds, because we get along well now, but I felt betrayed. I didn't blame Tom then, and I still don't blame him as much as the person who became the chief of staff [Ron Waznow]. After the Fall of 1987 our relationship deteriorated, and I knew Tom had been manipulated.

CM: You end the book with an epilogue on forest preservation world wide --it feels a little inconsistent with the rest of the story.

May: Oh? The reason I wanted that epilogue was that I wanted to show South Moresby as one incredible experience of saving something precious in the environment. I wanted to draw that connection--what's happening in the rain forests around the world and where the real heroes are. The South Moresby activists have their parallel in any hot issue: people with just as much dedication, doing the same work, maybe with less luck. I wanted people to have a sense of a fourteen-year history--all that time just to save one tenth of one per cent of British Columbia's forests, and what that means for planetary survival.

CM: It's a pretty downbeat ending.

May: I didn't want it to be depressing, I wanted it to be inspiring (Laughs). It's a very hard point . . . although it's discouraging that it took so long in a "progressive" country like Canada, can you imagine how discouraging it would be if it had failed?

CM: Do you see a real move to more environmental concern?

May: There's been a definite shift. I think the level of public concern is on not just a rapid increase but a steady one. For at least five years the polls have been showing that the environment is the number one concern for Canadians. Politicians didn't start paying attention to this until the polls were consistent, until pollsters would explain these issues to politicians and say, "We have now determined that the environment is a core value."

CM: And are politicians following through?

May: Well . . . look what happened when [former minister of the Environment] Lucien Bouchard resigned. His resignation was very upsetting and depressing for me, because he was a powerful minister and had a good feeling for the environment. I think that it was good that within forty-eight hours they had chosen an acting minister like de Cotret who's powerful and whose responsibilities at Treasury Board aren't overwhelming. At least the government didn't do the predictable thing. Traditionally, the ministry of the environment hasn't been given to someone with clout, and I think it's important that in this transitional period they gave it to someone with clout.

May, Elizabeth. Paradise Won: The Struggle for South Moresby. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1990. $27.95. Reviewed vol. VNIII/5 September 1990, p. 234.

Lisa Blackburn is a freelance writer in Ottawa.

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