Nathan Cullen year-end interview
Chris Gareau of The Interior News and Daryl Vandenberg of Moose FM spoke at length with Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen Dec. 21 on what happened in 2016, and what he sees in store for 2017.
Daryl Vandenberg (DV): What sticks out to you as the highlight of 2016, with Smithers in mind?
Nathan Cullen (NC): With Smithers in mind – The infrastructure money was important to get. When the government starts counting the numbers, just regionally and for British Columbia, we in the last round got about I think 16 per cent or so of the funding for B.C. just into the Northwest, which might mean much for people but we only have about two per cent of the population. So that feels good that our communities are able to crank up the volume. I mean Hazelton’s arena was really important for me. I know it’s not Smithers but it’s certainly in the catchment and people here understand what kind of a hard time that community has been going through. So that’s a real vote of confidence.
“… the fact that we’re not going to have to talk about Enbridge Northern Gateway in 2017 is really good; just to have that conflict, that threat, put to bed finally.”
Perhaps again a little more regional than you’re thinking, but the fact that we’re not going to have to talk about Enbridge Northern Gateway in 2017 is really good; just to have that conflict, that threat, put to bed finally. Many people thought it was probably dead anyways, but it wasn’t quite. So now that that’s been – as they say in the language – set aside, that’s good. It’s good so we can focus on other things.
DV: Do you think that’s kind of a shot at how the regulatory process is with how rights and title is looked at federally, or even with the provincial government or any government, and how they work with unceded territories? Maybe they got that wrong because it got shot down in the courts so maybe that’s why they didn’t choose this route and they chose the other two south?
“… simply firing up the bulldozer and doing whatever that you wanted isn’t good enough, and that there’s enough law and public pressure in place now that you have to bring in local communities and local First Nations. Rights and title are real, and they have to be addressed.”
NC: It’s probably a lot of things coming together but let’s put it this way: I was with an LNG company just last week in Ottawa and they acknowledge and understand the different world that we live in; that simply firing up the bulldozer and doing whatever that you wanted isn’t good enough, and that there’s enough law and public pressure in place now that you have to bring in local communities and local First Nations. Rights and title are real, and they have to be addressed. I mean even south of the border, Standing Rock and the protests that we’ve seen up here, if there’s a way to work together and get along, it’s better than not. And so, Northern Gateway, I still contend that economically, environmentally, just for us as a country, the project doesn’t make any sense – never did. So yeah, the shift is on. And I think both sides, First Nations and companies, are still working out what that new dynamic’s going to look like on a normal basis, right? It’s very re-inventing the wheel every time almost right now.
Chris Gareau (CG): I guess connected to that, there were oil pipelines approved, there were LNG projects approved, there’s an announcement coming in April – coincidently – about Petronas. When we’re talking about Native rights and title and working together, it seems like there – and I’ve asked you about this before –
CG: There are impasses in places. The Premier said ‘we’ll figure out a way,’ but there won’t be a way with some of them. It’s ‘no means no, no matter what.’ What do we do in those situations, as a country, as a province, as a community?
“So even from within First Nations communities, folks will say ‘who speaks for us?'”
NC: I think the first thing, it doesn’t necessarily help out projects that are in the pipe right now, is that you confirm and establish in law what to consult and accommodate means. We still haven’t, right? And the government has avoided ever coming up with a definition or a step on, step two type guide for no good reason; and it creates a lot of uncertainty, right? So even from within First Nations communities, folks will say ‘who speaks for us?’ And how much is it Band council, how much is it hereditary system? Because … just if you take this region alone, never mind the rest of the country or province, but if I take you through the different communities, the different nations, how strong and vital the hereditary system is varies greatly. How strong the elected leadership is varies a lot. And who has credibility to make decisions is different village to village, nation to nation. So for the companies, that’s just a confusing minefield of who do I deal with, who do I need a yes from, who has the power – and they got to figure it out every time. It’s part of the reason we try to do that work, if you remember back when we tried to put a social license guide together for the region, First Nations was certainly a component of it – of the sort of five key elements that we described to companies, based on what we heard from communities: this is what you need to do in order to get our support.
“And you’ll even hear First Nations leaders say ‘we don’t have a veto,’ but they sort of act like they do.”
To your specific question: if a nation establishes title and the people speaking have the right to speak for that land, for that group, and have said under no circumstances, etc., as soon as it’s established in court it becomes very difficult for a company or government to push through that. This debate going on, I’m sure you’ve seen it Chris, what’s a veto, is it not a veto, who has a veto, and that’s another place the government has been really reluctant. And you’ll even hear First Nations leaders say ‘we don’t have a veto,’ but they sort of act like they do. It’s confusing and confusion’s never good for investors. What I’d say, particular to what we’re talking about, is that if the Wet’suwet’en as a nation confirm that either in these areas or in general no pipelines can pass, then that’ll have to be proven and taken all the way through court, because that’s a pretty big statement. And it may go that way – I don’t get the sense broadly from the Wet’suwet’en that that’s the policy right now for the nation, but certainly within the Unist’ot’en they feel strongly that way.
CG: My understanding from the Wet’suwet’en is because of their system, the hereditary chief in charge of that particular house gets to make the decision, and whether the other chiefs are for or against the project, they have to support that house because they’re in control of that house.
NC: Yeah, and I think that’s – I mean I’m not going to claim to be an expert on Wet’suwet’en inner politics – I think that’s true and it’s also true that the nation has a lot of conversations between the houses, for sure. That if a house is continuously left out on its own, the strength of the entire nation can be weakened over time. And I’m not saying that’s what’s happening, I’m just saying that both things are true: that the nation tries to act together, and out of respect – because it’s all neighbours. So if the reverse were true, if you had a house that was just allowing all sorts of development in that was impacting downriver families and communities, it wouldn’t be enough to just say ‘well, they’ve said yes to that really bad mining project, so that just means yes.’ That’s not how the Wet’suwet’en work from my – because that’s not how the environment works. You know what I’m saying?
DV: It has to factor in the whole ecosystem.
NC: Sure. So when you get into something like a pipeline, or anything that has impact across a boundary, the conversations between the houses are what happens … And I’ve watched it happen. I’ve watched people get into disputes and I’ve watched them resolve them. That’s why you really want a healthy governance on the First Nations side, so they can handle tough questions. And there’s not a lot of uncertainty as to who the spokespeople are, whether the community has the right information or not – you want all of that. And I think there used to be – and there is still is for some – folks …
(Pause in interview due to Interior News editor’s pen dying.)
NC: What the Unist’ot’en in particular – I haven’t raised it with any of the companies whether routing options are possible. That’s a choice that a proponent makes, right? They decide do we press ahead as it is; can we make some accommodation and still get it passed, or are we facing an immovable political force that won’t step aside, and do we have to go around or what else can we do.
CG: Well, it seems like we’re going to get a test of it if LNG ever comes to pass because TransCanada says ‘we’re going to try to go around,’ Chevron says ‘we’re going to go right through.’
NC: That’s a good test, right?
CG: So, my question is, these people are going to go to the extreme to try to stop it, I guess, can anything get done until we figure that out? And how do we get things done?
NC: Well, things do get done.
CG: But then there’s court challenges now.
“At some point you hit a point in the spectrum where authority is no longer enough to say yay or nay on something.”
NC: Yeah, for sure, but I think my sense in talking to the courts is that the more these – take, Enbridge was sitting under – it lost an appeal, right, that the government had done a bad consultation job and said the Province was not allowed to just pass off their duties to the feds. All those things get settled out. Now you’ve got some juris prudence; you have some history on those questions. We’re answering question by question by question. Because one of the things we’ve asked the government to decide on is at what level of First Nations governance is the authority resting at. Does it have to sit at the national, whole nation level? Is it the house group? Is it down to an individual family group? Is it down to an individual? At some point you hit a point in the spectrum where authority is no longer enough to say yay or nay on something.
DV: But how do you who is the hereditary chief? Like in the Gitxsan?
NC: Well, in most places you know. In the Northwest, there’s sometimes for sure – like the Gitxsan are complicated.
DV: There’s like 60.
NC: 64. And then there’s wing chiefs. Sometimes there can be dispute over a name, for sure. That can arise, but it’s really in the nation’s interest to sort those things out because there may be projects that generally the nation does’t want, but there’s going to be projects that the nation definitely wants. And if there’s a bunch of confusion as to who the spokespeople are, that hurts the nation. So there’s a big incentive to sort those things out within their traditional practice. It happens all the time. There’s some in the United States right now that would say, ‘Hillary won by 3 million votes, this is crazy. How is he the president?’ So there’s a dispute. It’s not the same thing, but even in European electoral politics we see –
DV: Who people believe is the leader –
NC: Your system has to be seen as legitimate. Whatever system you use within a nation. And I you look around the Northwest, the most successful nations almost always have the most coherent political system. The ones that are able to not fight about that part of it, are able to fight about the stuff that advances their interests.
DV: They’re not divided.
“It is of the federal government’s interest, if they’re interested in resource development, to improve the internal capacity of First Nations, with respect to politics and governance.”
NC: So back to your question: We’ve said this to the feds for years. It is of the federal government’s interest, if they’re interested in resource development, to improve the internal capacity of First Nations, with respect to politics and governance. It really is.
CG: It is, except in the northwest of B.C. alone, it’s incredibly complicated. To bring that onto a national scale – of course other provinces are different, they have a more set Band system – seems like an impossible job.
NC: Maybe, but it’s not a quick job.
CG: And that brings me back to how can we get stuff done in the meantime?
NC: Yeah, and I think in the meantime what we’re seeing – OK so say if you go back just the 12 years since I’ve been elected, I’ve watched a whole bunch of the nations in the Northwest set up independent economic arms for their nation. Because 10-15 years ago, almost all the nations with one or two exceptions, all those economic decisions were happening at the chief and council table, which is a difficult mix because you’ve got all the politics, now you’re talking about business. It’s almost set up to fail. So one advancement has been that all of these companies, when they sign impact agreements, are doing it with a professional business arm of the First Nation.
CG: Except that brings us to the Gitxsan again. People are saying Gitxsan Treaty Society, Gitxsan Development Corporation, Gitxsan Government Commission, aren’t legitimate, and they’re – and in Kitwanga (Gitwangak), hereditary chiefs brought them an eviction notice.
CG: I mean, it doesn’t seem like these economic organizations are helping, so what can we do in the meantime?
NC: Well again, in places where the politics or the governance is more accepted and understood – the development arm isn’t the fix, it is just simply a tool. But it has to rest upon strong internal governance. And the Gitxsan have had –
DV: Is it transparency maybe, because leaked documents and people not showing the audits to the public, apparently.
NC: And that’s always been my position, is that the First Nations have to have audited books and those audited books have to be displayed to the members of that community. That’s who they’re accountable to, full stop.
I don’t want to make any excuses but there are times when you’re – as I was dealing with one First Nations leader he said, ‘Well, you know, I just buried’ – he’s in his maybe 40s – ‘I just buried my fourth sibling. We have internal social challenges that make day-to-day stuff that you think is obvious, challenging.’
“Connection to land, authority to make decisions, good strong governance: these are the principals of successful communities anywhere in the world. That’s a fact.”
It’s difficult. And he wasn’t making excuses either; he was just opening me up to his life, which is tough. He’s been through addictions; and he’s together. He’s got his stuff moving and he’s somebody I rely on, and he is challenged every single day in ways that I am not. Fact, when I go into the House of Commons, I am not facing the same social strife that he is at all. And we know this, right? It’s not an excuse, it’s just an obvious reality that you have to address. And some people would say this is chicken and egg: if you had better economics, then a lot of that social strife goes away. And I say yes and no. I could take you to northern Alberta Bands that had lots of economic development flow through them and there’s still similar problems. Connection to land, authority to make decisions, good strong governance: these are the principals of successful communities anywhere in the world. That’s a fact. OK. So we haven’t had that here for 200 years, we’ve had the opposite: I’m going to grind your culture down; we’re going to take away your language; we’re going to break your governance. And only in the last 20 or 30 years, after Delgamuukw (1997 Supreme Court decision on Aboriginal title, brought forward by the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en) actually, mostly, did we start to say ‘oh, you should rebuild your governance.’
DV: Instead of making things at Band council, instead of drawing up treaties?
“I don’t think it’s being done to divide and conquer, but that’s the result.”
NC: I mean, we’re into some of the political philosophy, but the distinction that government makes between Band council authority and elder, hereditary authority is highly selective and often highly divisive from federal and provincial governments. I’ve watched it all the time. So if you’re representing the hereditary system, and you’re representing the elected system, and one’s saying yes and one’s saying no, the provincial government will come in and acknowledge and give authority to the one saying yes – and then flip. It’s a divide and conquer strategy. I don’t think it’s being done to divide and conquer, but that’s the result. And so a little consistency from the non-native side wouldn’t hurt, because if you’re sitting in one of those nations, it’s like ‘OK, on Tuesday the Premier said my elected chief and council get to make decisions on the land. And then the next Tuesday, said no, no, it’s the head of such and such a house that now has the authority.’ Because I’m getting the answer that I want.
CG: Yeah, a perfect example of that was when I spoke to the LNG Minister, that ‘no, we’re only dealing with elected Bands.’ And then the documents come out that they signed with the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan.
NC: That’s right. Because why? Because he wasn’t getting what he wanted.
CG: From the Bands of the Gitxsan?
“They’re not consistent, and they don’t negotiate in good faith.”
NC: Right. So if you’re negotiating with anybody – I used to be a negotiator, and one of the core principals you need across the table is good faith and consistency. There’s been many times the provincial and federal governments have lacked either one or both of those things. They’re not consistent, and they don’t negotiate in good faith. Look, lots of responsibility on both sides.
To get back to your question: can things be done. Yes they can be done. I think it’s a two track. You have to – we’ve pitched the feds a number of times on youth leadership initiatives; young native kids coming up in their teens and early 20s. Invest in these kids now, and while you won’t see the payoff one year from now, the payoff comes 10, 20 and forever more after, if we’re bringing these kids up, exposing them to leaders around the country. This is only hopeful because they’ll bring that back home. And we need more of that.
CG: That still goes around – you say yes, things can get done now, invest in kids and you’ll see it in 10-20 years. What about the meantime?
NC: OK, so like I said, two tracks. In terms of – that’s a medium, longterm track. The reason I want to raise it all the time is we never do it. Everybody always says, ‘oh yeah, we need to invest in the kids, and we ought to make sure the next generation coming up.’ Well I’m 12 years in. I’m dealing with the generation, in some ways, were in high school when I started. I’m seeing them come in, and I’m saying did we do any of that yet? No we didn’t. We’re still waiting. So we need to do both. We can walk and chew gum, same time.
In terms of the now, every company that meets with me and will raise a question like Unist’ot’en, what I try to do is facilitate and say, ‘here are the options as I see them. I don’t know your industry. I don’t claim to be a mining expert, or an LNG. So, you’ll make your decisions, but you need to go in and start conversations early and make your decisions early based on this.’ But ignoring people, or only doing what the Province is doing, which is ‘we’re only going to talk to chief and councils,’ is a way to almost guarantee conflict. Because what you’re saying is we just don’t respect you.
DV: It’s technically illegal in a way?
NC: It’s not illegal, but it’s likely challengeable in court, right? You’re opening yourself up to lawsuits, as Enbridge did and as the Province did on Northern Gateway. They set themselves up for a lawsuit when Victoria wouldn’t consult with First Nations. Well, the duty to consult is going to be challenged in court, and they lost. Trudeau had that decision on Gateway to appeal it, which would have been the next step.
DV: So looking back over the year, we haven’t really made any progress on that file? On that whole what you’re talking about: trying to make things clear; figuring out how they can work together.
NC: From the federal side, this is the first year of the Trudeau government, with lots of big promises – particularly towards First Nations. He’s going to do all the truth and reconciliation recommendations; he was going to end boil water advisories. Some things have been done, like the launching of the murdered and missing women inquiry, which is important. On some of the moment to moment things, I think there’s a sense of confusion or even betrayal: on Site C, on the promise to make credible the environmental assessment again, which Trudeau said he would do before he approved Kinder Morgan, which he lied.
DV: That’s connected to the same issue in a way.
“As soon as this process is shown as flawed and people lose confidence in the process, then they seek to throw the process out, which is normal.”
NC: Sure it is, because you expose yourself to lawsuits and conflict. You guys have been in a courtroom. The moment the room feels like the judge is biased and exposes a bias, the lawyer losing will seek a mistrial, right? As soon as this process is shown as flawed and people lose confidence in the process, then they seek to throw the process out, which is normal. The reason Trudeau made that commitment – it was a correct commitment – was that Harper had so gutted the process, the way we do things, that it lost credibility with large parts of the public. I mean people up north here who went through the Enbridge hearings would just get confused, like this is so – you can’t get answers; this is not a real inquiry into this question, and these questions matter. And then it got worse for Kinder Morgan. The process for Kinder Morgan is you can’t ask the company questions. Like they present evidence: This is our cleanup plan or this is what jobs will be created. And you can’t question the evidence; it just gets submitted and the NEB just takes it as fact. There is no cross examine mode under the environmental review right now. Which is just weird. It’s just a bad process because you want to attest evidence. Because they could say we’re going to make a million jobs.
CG: You say there’s no cross examination, and I don’t want to get too much into Kinder Morgan because it’s down there, but –
NC: Cross file.
CG: – to compare it to the LNG project that was approved, you can, yes, cross file. That’s a perfect example. They put in their evidence, the company hires scientists to put in their –
NC: And then you hire other scientists and they try to debunk it.
CG: And they try to debunk it. And then I guess the professionals, or – I don’t know actually who in the federal government looks at all this stuff. Are these scientists?
CG: Or are they bureaucrats that are in the government going, ‘OK, I got this from these scientists, I got this from these scientists, this is what it kind of actually is?’
“… it’s shown for what it is, which is the worst science and maybe the worst fishermen in the history of humankind, right?”
NC: It’s not transparent as to actually how they weigh it out. And that’s – I know it sounds like a splitting hairs thing – but the reason open hearing where the evidence is challenged, is that the company defends it, the opponents attack it, you can see – and the NEB is showing you – what their wrestling with and what they’re likely going to – and they also ask questions, right? That’s how the process usually goes. When you just submit, submit, and then it goes into a dark corner and then an answer spits out at the end, you don’t know actually what evidence won out. And I know we’re talking a bit about – so a good example is Lelu Island, where the evidence was saying this is clearly harmful to fish. And the company submits evidence that says we couldn’t find any fish. And you say well, what was the methodology? Well, they went out with a metre by metre net that had three-inch holes in it looking for salmon smolts. Well, you put that in open court or in open hearing, it’s almost inane because it’s shown for what it is, which is the worst science and maybe the worst fishermen in the history of humankind, right? Like, you were trying to catch fish that way? Well, boy oh boy, I hope you’re not feeding your family; you’ll never.
So I know it sounds like something small, yet when you want to have faith in the outcome. Similar to this – and we’re deep down the environmental assessment line – the NEB will always come out with conditions. And the government and the company will say, ‘well look, there are a lot of conditions here: 100 conditions, 200 conditions.’ The auditor general of Canada audited the NEB as to whether they follow through on their conditions on pipelines and found that it’s just a little over 50 per cent of the conditions were ever monitored again. So these are ways that you undermine your own credibility, is the thing that you hold up to say, ‘have confidence in us,’ you don’t actually do; and that the evidence that you actually make your decision on is never properly challenged. You know, it’s like again back to the courtroom because that’s the analogy that works for me. So the evidence is submitted, you don’t know how the judge determines her decision, she spits out a decision and then puts out a bunch of conditions on the person being accused, but those conditions are never followed up on. And you see it time after time, like wait a second, this is a bad courtroom. I have no confidence in this. I want a different judge. So getting the judge right.
Anyways, we’re down a bit of a thing. In terms of getting things done here, and I told this to an LNG company here last week – and they agreed, by the way – I said, if you get a decision from the regulator, you have to go beyond that decision in convincing the public that your project is good and safe.
DV: Helps your cause further.
NC: It’s required. The stamp from the government – boonk, here are the conditions, here’s our approval – does not win over enough of the public for you to have social license; for you to have enough community support to not run into conflict.
CG: Is social license a thing that people who disagree with government decisions something that they use just to fight approval?
“I see companies say we have social license, never define it. And I see opponents say they don’t have social license, and don’t define it.”
NC: I see it used by both sides. I see companies say we have social license, never define it. And I see opponents say they don’t have social license, and don’t define it. It is a nebulous term, that’s why a lot of people don’t like it, because it’s not a –
NC: Yeah, it’s just not a test that you can hold up and transparently say –
DV: Like you’re doing a survey or something.
NC: – yes or no.
CG: Isn’t that done through elections?
NC: That is a form, I suppose. That Trudeau gaining the support of British Columbians, in some measure anyways, said when it comes to pipelines – pipelines were a big issue – I think it was something like two-thirds of all the votes that Harper lost in the last election compared to the election before were lost in British Columbia. Of any votes that Conservatives lost, 64 or 65 per cent of them were lost here. It’s an interesting thing. I don’t know what it means, but anyways B.C. was a place where Conservatives went backwards. Where they stayed the same or even went up in other places in the country, yet they lost the election in large part to B.C. Trudeau got the most votes for a Liberal ever, certainly in 30 or 40 years, out of British Columbia. They got a lot of MPs out of B.C. Pipelines were a big issue. The commitments on pipelines was pretty clear: no to Northern Gateway, a review of environmental assessment to make it credible in your eyes.
To my mind, if you say is an election not a way of doing social license, it was an acknowledgement that the way things are right now has got the acceptance of people in the west coast.
DV: Like in the past year he hasn’t done –
NC: No, but going into the election, going through the election. The only reason you make a commitment is, I think, because you think it’s the right thing and you think people will support you. There may be other reasons why people make election promises, but those are two pretty good reasons: You think it’s good, and you think you’ll win votes. Although, I was with a Liberal on TV, we were presenting our electoral reform report – the one that the Minister then slammed – and somebody said this is in your election platform; you promised to change the voting system. And then the chair of our committee said, look, election platforms are just ways to engage voters. And I was sitting beside him at the national press theatre in Ottawa, 20 reporters in the room, and I actually said, ‘really?’ Like, I don’t know if that’s a Freudian slip or that’s actually how Liberals think about election platforms. A cynic would say yeah. Like, you put your platform out, you’re just saying things to get elected, but it’s just an engagement tool; it’s not a guide to what you’ll do in government.
DV: What you say is not what you mean.
NC: That’s super cynical. That describes the worst of what people think about politicians, which is just say anything, do anything, get elected, and then see you in four years. But he said it into the microphone, it’s not me speculating.
CG: And on the pipelines issue, you’re saying that became a big issue in B.C. and that’s why the Liberals did so well, and that might represent the social license?
NC: But then that social license is predicated on, is built on you actually following through. Not just as an engagement tool.
DV: To prove to us that you have the social license, right? Not just to say, well then meet the recommendations.
NC: Hey look, we notice this in the North here, that when I would say to a voter – and we polled this, we did some town halls on this – and I’d say, ‘here’s the project, here’s Northern Gateway. Here it is as it is, how many support or oppose?’ There was 70 oppose 30 support, give or take. It’d go high 60s, in that range. If I said, ‘the project’s now different. It does value added; there’s an upgrader; there’s a refinery here or anywhere else, doesn’t matter, but the product we are moving is no longer bitumen.’ The support almost flipped for two reasons, the people would tell us: One is the environmental risks are lower when you’re not dealing with diluted bitumen; and the benefits side of the equation gets a lot better for Canada and maybe the region.
We’ve talked about this a hundred times. I think these things – and this goes for First Nations broadly – these are risk/benefit questions
CG: That brings me to a bigger question with the NDP. There is a large movement in your party, it’s why you’re picking a new leader, pretty much. That doesn’t fly, this value-added. Oil is a bad word. It’s keep it in the ground; it’s the Leap Manifesto.
“… someone in caucus just like last week brought up the Leap Manifesto, and that was the first time I’d heard of it raised in six months.”
NC: Yeah, you know that’s funny, someone in caucus just like last week brought up the Leap Manifesto, and that was the first time I’d heard of it raised in six months. It’s out there and for sure there’s a constituency within the party that whatever’s in that manifesto – even though parts of it are fundamentally and constitutionally incorrect. The Manifesto is paid for by, for example, resource revenues. The federal government doesn’t control resource revenues, the provinces do, so who knows.
CG: Depends which resources, but yeah most resources –
“We kill fish and trees and dig up rocks in this part of the world, and I will defend it.”
NC: Well 95 per cent of the money we get out of resources in this country go to provincial coffers. So paying for a national program on X out of money you don’t control would be an interesting trick. Regardless, there is a huge and strong constituency in our party that is about working people. It the working class party, that’s where I come from philosophically. We kill fish and trees and dig up rocks in this part of the world, and I will defend it. I just want to defend it on terms that are most beneficial to the communities I represent.
And so where you find common ground, not just in Canadians but within New Democrats, is when you say, ‘this is all raw export. This is a last gasp industry strategy, which is just move everything raw until it’s done. You know, oh Lord, one more boom.’ From a philosophy of a working people’s party, you would say as principle, what you try to do with your natural resources is get as much value out of them as you can. And we have been running on fish on trees, on oil, on mining in the opposite direction for more than a generation now. And I think there was a similar backlash in the States with working class Americans not feeling, seeing the benefits of trade, for one example. There is an absolute palpable backlash existing here in Canada. By existing, I mean it’s there, where a lot of working people are saying, ‘wait, I don’t understand. You want to go sign a trade deal with China now?’ Government has a huge case to make why that would help middle class, working class people out, because they just haven’t seen it. We’ve seen the meltdown in ’08, and somehow the very people who perpetrated that got richer out of the process. Three of them went to jail and the rest of them did fine, and a lot of people lost homes.
CG: So are you against trade deals?
CG: And not necessarily with China, but were you for the CETA (European Union) deal?
NC: No, just on sovereignty level. There’s a couple of components: the dispute resolution, the investor state protection, which is you treat a company like a country, is problematic because you give them rights without responsibility. Like, we treat a country that can sue us for doing something like a country because they have rights but they also have responsibility: we can sue them back. There’s state to state relations. But when you give Monsanto or Bechtel the authority of a government, of a state, to sue but without any of the responsibilities that a state has – the responsibility is only to their shareholders, not to citizens – it’s a massive giveaway that you just cannot do. It’s really, really problematic longterm. And there’s been elements of the European groups that have been trying to undo that element. There’s just some pretty decent analysis that our pharmaceutical costs are going to go up quite a bit, and that it’ll undermine some of our milk marketing, some of the basic ways we structure a few of our industries, which may become illegal.
CG: Protectionist I think is what it’s called.
NC: No, they’re not.
CG: The milk industry? Subsidized?
NC: No, it’s not subsidized.
CG: That’s the wrong word maybe but you know what I mean. The prices should be lower is what a lot of people would say.
NC: Sure, it’s a marketing board structure, as are eggs and whatnot. Well, you got two models that exist right now, anyways. The States does not have supply management, yet every taxpayer in the U.S. whether they ever drink a glass of milk in their life subsidizes the milk industry. We subsidize it through our pricing. It’s actually, I would argue, more equitable. If you drink milk, you subsidize milk producers; if you don’t drink milk, you don’t. If you’re lactose intolerant in the States, you still subsidize milk producers. You’re welcome, right? One of the milk guys in the States was actually enlightening me on it – and Europeans do the same thing – they either have a supply management system on these basic commodities, or you have state subsidy. And the trade deals try to get rid of both. But Canada’s experience on things like softwood is that we do the good boy scout thing, we undermine some of our own policies, but they don’t on the other side stop theirs.
DV: What do we got to do to secure a solid deal?
“I think we’re in big trouble on softwood, actually, because Trump campaigned on either ripping up or fundamentally renegotiating big trade deals.”
NC: On softwood? I have no idea. I think we’re in big trouble on softwood, actually, because Trump campaigned on either ripping up or fundamentally renegotiating big trade deals. When I was in Washington, Republicans were telling me that this was the number one, first test is softwood. And they have a $2-billion slush fund for legal and everything else that they’re – it was actually money we left on the table – anyway.
DV: Does it mean that’s something you’re going to keep your eye on in the coming year, with your constituents, your Conservative friends over in the east? You guys were working on that earlier.
NC: Yeah, and there was a small window – and admittedly small – when Obama was still in, the race was still on. If there was any interest for us to push the new relationship, the bromance that was happening, if you wanted to put a marker down, settle softwood before the new congress came in. And the Trade Minister said, ‘we’re only in preliminary talks. We’re not going to try to settle anything.’ I’m going back now 11 months, and they said oh, it’s a lame-duck congress.
DV: In the summer they tried to do it, right? (MP) Zimmerman was pushing them to do something.
NC: Yeah but summer, in the U.S. election cycle anyone would tell you that by the time you get into July, August, September, you’re now 60 days, 50 days away from the election. Nobody’s in D.C.; nobody’s signing any deals; you’re not getting anything through congress – congress isn’t sitting.
DV: So is it too late?
NC: Oh for Obama?
DV: For any kind of positive deal for us. Is too late to make any kind of negotiation?
“Now we have to deal with the new administration, which is I would say violently anti-softwood lumber agreement.”
NC: This is all about percentages, right? Like, what are your chances of getting a great deal. They went from 50-50 with the last administration, say 11 months ago, January of 2016 let’s just say to pick a spot – Trudeau’s in, we have a Trade Minister, we’re going to Washington. We weren’t raising it. Trudeau sits with Obama at a state dinner, it doesn’t get raised. That was the window.
Now we have to deal with the new administration, which is I would say violently anti-softwood lumber agreement. And know this, the Canadians came in – and I thought this was bad strategy – saying we’ll just take the old deal. And we signed the old deal, we said this is not a great deal … the one that’s been existing the last 6-7 years. We started there, which as you know in a negotiation your starting point is not usually where you end up. So we’re going to downgrade from what we already said was not a great deal to a less great deal, to I don’t know now what Trump means. That was even then imagining Hillary being in the White House.
DV: He’s a great negotiator. The best.
NC: He’s the best negotiator. How dare you say great?
I worry about it, because here’s the other difference – and this is important for people to get – is that you compare it to the last time we went in to this conflict, Canadian companies were Canadian companies almost exclusively. They’ve now –
DV: They’ve bought a lot of mills –
“So large, now multi-national forestry companies can play a trade dispute against itself to their benefit. It’s a big problem.”
NC: They are both sides of the border. So large, now multi-national forestry companies can play a trade dispute against itself to their benefit. It’s a big problem. Because obviously that was big forest sitting down and urging Canada to work hard and spend some capital, was the Canfors and the big companies on this side. I don’t get any sense of urgency from them right now, and they’re just expecting a 30 per cent hit across the board. They’re just anticipating a 30 per cent loss in sales across the U.S. border.
DV: Not to mention AAC cuts too, right?
NC: Yeah, combine that with some pine beetle issues that we’re now really feeling the big hit on.
DV: So looking ahead, how high of a priority is all of that combined?
NC: For the government, I can’t tell. They haven’t made it a priority yet.
DV: Or for you at least anyway?
“It’s the sleeping giant that’s just about to wake up and hit some communities that have been hit hard already.”
NC: Me, it’s huge. It’s the sleeping giant that’s just about to wake up and hit some communities that have been hit hard already. I’m thinking of the Burns Lakes, the Terraces, the Smithers, Houston even, places that have either lost a mill or have taken a hit on the mills that they have. Looking at available fibre being a problem, and looking at a border that’s about to thicken if not close – just getting really expensive, I should put it that way. That’s a perfect storm. And especially if your majors now are not beating the drum, putting pressure on the politicians to settle, to get a good deal. If they’re saying, ‘well our Alabama operations or Mississippi mills, we have an insurance policy now.’ It’s fine for them, I’m not saying that was for their own self interest the wrong thing to do, but in terms of a Canadian perspective, it’s taken a big interest not off the table, but lessened.
DV: What else is a top priority moving into 2017 for the area?
“I think getting Petronas to move over will give me more confidence that some LNG can happen.”
NC: For the area, similar to the country, our job growth numbers have been very anemic. We had a bit of a surge through ’14, ’15, ’16, there was speculative LNG. I think getting Petronas to move over will give me more confidence that some LNG can happen. I think the LNG is going to go back on the burner. Prices have started to move and capital will be flowing back into these companies. Every company’s different, but a lot of companies their cashflow is very much connected to the price of oil. I’m not sure where oil is today, but the expectations have changed.
DV: It was inching up a little bit.
NC: Yeah, the Saudis and others have actually shown some determination to limit the supply. Anyways, it’s oil stuff. The question is, do all the alternative oil fields come back online. Some of them are turnkey operations, some of them are not. Anyways, just in terms of LNG, some of those connected companies – the Shells of the world – rely on oil being north of $50, $60 before they start to put projects back off the shelf. If Petronas moves just a little bit – 400 yards or so – that’ll show a certain amount of determination or understanding on their part to get something done.
DV: Any chance to make that happen?
NC: Yes. I mean, there’s a lot of skeptics that say why would a company do this, and I’d say self interest. Why do companies ever do anything? It’s self interest. This is the thing – I feel like I’ve said this to you guys – the thing I don’t get financially, economically speaking, is the project as they’ve designed where they’ve designed it cost them an extra somewhere near $1.7 billion, for this extra train and trellis they’ve got to build out further past the Flora Banks … I mean we throw these numbers around just casually, but imagine you’re the manager trying to push this project and you gotta put this little budget line in. ‘Oh, by the way, $1.7 billion for the bridge. Unless we move it a stone’s throw away, then I can save us $2 billion, or some amount of money.’
CG: You had mentioned this before but the manager would probably say, ‘well we don’t own that land.’ That’s the main problem, it’s owned by other people.
NC: Yeah, but would other people be willing to give it up?
CG: For $1.7 billion maybe.
NC: No, no.
CG: But they’ve got to sell it. And they’ve also got to say that if we’re selling it, our LNG project’s dead.
NC: Yeah, but there’s been changes since. When people staked all those claims to where we are now, there’s been dramatic changes. BG’s been taken over for example. Other companies have just publicly said this is not a priority. All these changes in the environment should change your strategy. Bad strategy is when you just say, ‘here’s our plan. It doesn’t matter if all the circumstances change, this is our plan.’ Good strategy means pay attention.
CG: And they would have to go through the environmental review process again.
NC: Not entirely.
CG: How so?
“… certainly common sense would say you don’t have to review again the 95 per cent of the project.”
NC: We’re doing some research out of the library to say – well particularly if this 90 to 95 per cent of the project is to here, and then the last five per cent change – certainly common sense would say you don’t have to review again the 95 per cent of the project. And we’re looking at CEAA (Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency) right now to say what precedence do we have – I just have a document in from the Library of Parliament I received in my email this morning – of anybody essentially being advanced in the process with a change that is broadly recognized as positive for the environment, and we think there’s some precedence to do that. There’s some law, which is what this relies on, ultimately. Because you could see where a bad actor would get all the way through, get their papers; they do this in mining all the time, where if you only mine so much ore the intensity of your assessment – there’s stages, right, of how big your assessment is – so they’ll go in like one per cent below tipping into the next level of assessment. They get the paper, get approved.
DV: Kind of like income and taxes?
NC: Yeah, a little, you move up a stage. So they get approved and when the mine opens up they say, ‘oh, we’ve found this other ore body. We’re actually going to mine 30 per cent.’ Now they’re way above that threshold but they’ve got papers. So that gets challenged all the time, actually unsuccessfully, which is interesting – people lose those challenges. We’re into details today.
CG: Yeah, I did not know about that.
NC: The precedence on a company saying, by altering the project this way, we significantly diminish the environmental impact. We think there’s precedence that CEAA would look at that and say, yeah there’s some credit you get for doing that.
DV: So that would pertain particularly to Lelu Island. It could, if you were to mosve it.
NC: Well the Flora Banks, in particular.
CG: Because the dream is to move it to Ridley, I think is the main target?
NC: Yeah. There’s lots on Ridley; there’s other lots that companies have. The further you get away, it starts to alter, like big alterations in the pipeline route. But I’ve been reading up on how you cross water, when LNG goes under water, what do you do. It’s kind of interesting because the stuff’s super cold. Once you’ve processed then liquified the gas, what they do is they double case the pipe, which is normal. So you’ve got your internal pipe and everything, and then you’ve got the secondary pipe. One engineer told me that if you ran an LNG pipe and it cracked underwater, which is the single casing, you’d freeze that section of ocean.
CG: Yeah, it’s cold.
NC: It’s super cold. It would draw so much heat out as it tried to come to temperature, you would solid freeze whatever section of ocean you were going under. And apparently it’s happened. It’s very rare that they move LNG underwater, they usually trelis overtop.
DV: This could save the ice caps!
NC: Because you burn gas – normally you burn gas to freeze the gas. That would be an amazingly expensive way to bring back the polar icecap, but yes, in theory, you could.
So is it possible? It’s not easy.
DV: Is this what the NDP are proposing?
NC: I’ve been proposing it for more than a year.
CG: I’m kind of curious, you say you have the documents on you now to show that there’s precedence, there’s law, etc.
NC: We’re looking at it. We’ve got an early indication that yes. Library of Parliament research, they’re very cautious about whenever saying this is the authority of Parliament, saying this is true. It’s research they do for me, so then I have to stand behind it. It’s a legal thing with the Library. You can’t ever submit it and use it as a legal text, etc. They are PhDs that work for Mps in the Library. They help us out.
CG: And they’re helping you out, you have those documents. Who are you going to be showing those documents to?
“But I would be showing them to interested parties like Lax Kw’alaams, to the company. This is something I committed to the company and the local First Nations, that I would do.”
NC: I want to read through them first. But I would be showing them to interested parties like Lax Kw’alaams, to the company. This is something I committed to the company and the local First Nations, that I would do.
DV: So it’s information that furthers the argument that moving, or that a project could –
NC: It’s close to like seeing what’s a legal opinion, right? Because some people say well you have to start CEAA right from the beginning. So I said, is that true? Is it true when you alter a small percentage of the project, is it true when you alter the project to known and obvious environmental benefit? Does the law to CEAA as it’s written right now require that, and whose authority is it that can change that. Can the Minister issue – because we’ve seen this before, where the Minister can issue something. Harper used to do it in bad ways, where there’d be a Friday afternoon the Minister would issue something on the Canadian Gazette and boom, a whole bunch of law just got undermined, and if it was too much it would get challenged. This would be interesting if someone would want to challenge it because – maybe someone would, who knows. That’s not my world.
CG: You’re showing Lax Kw’alaams and you’re showing the company, are you showing the federal Minister as well?
“Why would you choose the garbage?”
NC: Probably, yeah. And I’ve said to the Minister, look, whenever the government’s trying to do a better thing or the right thing, I’ll be in support. I’ll try to help them do things. I thought how they went about Petronas was wrong. I thought encouraging the company, facilitating the change before you issue the papers would have been the proper way of doing things. And not relying on really bad science. The science the Minister made her decision on was deplorable, was obviously bad and had been challenged. And the science we had, which was peer reviewed in I think it was Nature, was science they ignored. And it was like, OK, you’ve got company-sponsored science that every scientist looking at this says is junk, and you have this internationally-recognized, credible stuff. Why would you choose the garbage?
CG: Who are these scientists that are willing to make junk science? I’m kind of curious, who’s the company hiring, do you know?
NC: I’d have to find the name of the company. I don’t think they were Prince Rupert based, I think they were Vancouver. It’d be easy to find though. The stuff that was submitted, it was submitted by the company to CEAA.
CG: Yeah, but I didn’t see any scientist’s name.
NC: It would be the contractor. I forget which one it was, but normally they attach the person who did the research, though. Maybe not, but usually.
CG: I’ll have to dig deeper. I’m just kind of curious because are they involved in a lot of projects? Do you know of this company? Why do you say their scientists, why their science is such junk science? Besides the example of the bad fishing net.
NC: Well, it was predicated on that. Also the company then went back into the water to find out how far the pilings would have to be driven, and it’s three times deeper than their original report suggested.
DV: For stability.
NC: Yeah. It’s unusual – I don’t know if you’ve looked, I think you have – but that little spot, the Flora Bank is fascinating.
DV: It’s a phenomenon of a spot.
NC: It is not what I thought it was, which is just a bunch of eel grass and some silt that comes down the river.
DV: It’s actually where these fish go, yeah.
NC: Well aside from where they go, because that’s what eel grass does in most places.
DV: It’s where they mature, right?
NC: Yeah, but it’s the geology actually. It’s a glacial deposit. If you knocked it out, it doesn’t just reform next door, it’s gone-gone.
CG: It’s not made by currents or anything.
NC: No, because normally an estuary right at the end is just silt coming down and slowing down and just drops. This stuff is 8,000, 9,000 years old. It’s a glacial deposit drop. And for that reason, keeping it stable – this is where the science comes in and it says if you dredge here and here, and then it shluffs then it’s gone. You don’t get it back. And then the fish – this is where the worry comes, is all the smolts head out and then, what? They’ve got to find other places to be, they’ve got to find that – and then on the way back in, same thing. So there’s just no confidence that you could replace that, or that nature will replace it, or that you could plant some eel grass on the corners and there’d be enough. Where this is, where it sits, its protection from currents, is what the fish guys tell me is the reason the Skeena is so abundant. It’s because of that. It’s curious to me. I’m not a biologist – but I play one on TV – you’d say the Skeena has got a lot of fish because it’s got a lot of fish in it. Well, there’s lots of big rivers in the world in the northern hemisphere that are big and don’t have anything going on. What’s special about the north coast – and this goes true up to Alaska – is you get these interesting glacial things that happen at the last ice age that set up rearing, set up nurseries all up and down the coast. It’s fascinating. I don’t know, I get kind of jazzed on this stuff sometimes when you get into it.
CG: It is pretty fascinating, but then I remember that I think this is the second most abundant fish river in B.C., and the first one doesn’t have that. The first one – they also say that it’s going to be too loud, it’s going to be too bright – the other one goes through Vancouver.
NC: In terms of the Fraser?
CG: Yeah. I’m just kind of curious why so many examples of why this part –
NC: Is so special.
CG: Is so special and needs protecting, and then there’s the Fraser.
NC: I can’t speak to the Fraser at all. I don’t know where the salmon rear off the Fraser.
CG: The ocean? (Editor’s note: no.)
NC: No, you can’t rear smolt in the ocean because the transition of lungs, the protection from predation, all of those things require some sort of protective habitat. That’s just a standard salmon thing.
DV: No currents, getting battered by the ocean. Doesn’t work for them.
NC: Let me check about the Fraser. I don’t know why it does why it does. This is what they tell me about the Skeena. Maybe what you’re suggesting is there’s sort of a biased angle on this, looking at this as a special thing.
CG: Suggesting it.
NC: The challenge is, is it a risk you’re willing to take? Like if you’re right and it’s no big thing and the Fraser’s figured it out and there’s no eel grass situation on the Fraser, and the fish sort of figure it out and they make it and they live and they thrive, great, then everybody’s happy. If you’re wrong, do you look back in 10 years and go, man, remember when we used to fish the Skeena. And I’ve got a bunch of lodge owners on my door, and I’ve got a bunch of commercial fishermen and everything else saying, how did this happen, man? We had this $115-million fishery.
(Interview paused for Nathan Cullen to answer a call from his wife.)
CG: I wanted to ask this because it is a big deal for many in the valley: GMOs, what’s your position?
“I don’t feel confident with the science right now, and I don’t like how the companies operate.”
NC: Oh, well our national policy is for labelling. Anytime you want to put it onto the shelves of consumers, they should, the consumer should be informed. I don’t feel confident with the science right now, and I don’t like how the companies operate. They sue people a lot. So they don’t seem like good actors in the farming community. Terminator seeds – there’s been a bunch of things that Monsanto and others have done that don’t fill me with a lot of confidence that food security is at the top of their priorities.
DV: You’ve also heard the call from the regional district to having a ban across the regional district.
CG: The past board.
DV: And Smithers has declined to do that too, so is this something you’ve been in talks with –
NC: Well, there seems to be some kind of accidental process here, where somebody put some crops in.
CG: Not accidental. Speaking with the Ministry of Agriculture, which is why I talked about this, B.C. says it’s a federal responsibility, the feds say yup, it’s all up to Health Canada. Health Canada says farmers can whatever they want on their own land because it’s a legal product. So it’s not accidental, this guy moved here to grow crops. He’s growing corn, he’s testing some stuff with the Ministry … but he’s also grown canola, which is grown across the Prairies … Terminator seeds are a problem with a lot of farmers, absolutely, they agree this is ridiculous. Heavy pesticide use is a problem, but that’s a problem GMO or not. I think what a lot of people are worried about is you’re painting the pesticide brush – I’m using a horrible analogy – but you’re complaining about pesticides, but using the GMOs as the scapegoat, when GMOs – most scientific people would say – could have huge benefits, and do.
NC: I’ve got to get you an article, it was in the Times last month. It was this incredible study just looking at the two main promises of GMOs: One is higher food production, and the second is lower pesticide use. That you sort of bioengineer pests out and then you don’t need the pesticides. So there’s a longitudinal study done between Canada, U.S. and Europe, where you had oranges to oranges, to use a bad metaphor as well. It sort of invalidated both extremes actually, but the promises of higher crop yield haven’t been proven out, nor have the promises of lower pesticide use over a 30-year period now. So a pretty healthy length of time …
(Editors note: Cullen was speaking of this New York Times October article: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/business/gmo-promise-falls-short.html
Here is publication from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published earlier this year that goes into many of the same details and more: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/23395/genetically-engineered-crops-experiences-and-prospects)
NC: Regardless, there seems to be amongst the farming community but I would also say in terms of the food security community, concerns and a lack of confidence with Health Canada in particular, where research either seems to be scant or only company-sponsored, which again, gives people some sense of concern – conflict of interest – if the company is doing its own research on its own product which it’s promoting …
And we saw it with the BGH and some other things that Health Canada had signed off on, and then Health Canada scientists were blowing whistles, or blew the whistle as to whether studies were credible, and then were fir