Cullen on the NDP’s future, LNG and the Bulkley Valley

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen's year-end interview on the year past and what he sees as the future for his NDP and the Northwest.

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen gave a year-end interview on the year past and what he sees as the future for his NDP party, the LNG industry, relations with First Nations, and changes in the Bulkley Valley.


Chris Gareau: What do you see as your biggest accomplishments this year?

Nathan Cullen: Considering the outcome of the last federal election for he party, my reelection up here and the team that we built was, I feel very — satisfied isn’t the right word, but extremely grateful … We held off a bit of a red wave that was the trend.

Although, I don’t know, it feels strange to point to a reelection as the greatest accomplishment. I think not having Stephen Harper as our Prime Minister, I don’t take credit for it but I certainly feel better about the future and some things that matter to me.

CG: With the big disappointment of returning to third-party status after being in the lead in the polls at the beginning of the election campaign — it was quite the drop especially in the last bit — will there be a shake-up in leadership or policy for the NDP in 2016?

NC: That will be up to our members. We have a convention in April in Edmonton, and part of our constitution is we do a leadership review. We’d be doing one if we won the election, so we’re doing one, and that will be up to people there to decide whether they want a change or continue on with Tom.

I suspect the general feeling is that Tom is secure in his leadership, certainly within the caucus. There is the obvious disappointment but I don’t see people making a direct connection to anything in particular he did or didn’t do during the campaign …

Policy side of things, if I reflect on it now, I think our message was a bit contradictory in the end. We had these bold, national, sweeping type initiatives: childcare, pharmacare. Yet it ended up being strongly in the frame of balanced budget, and those might have been what we call in politics counter narrative: where there’s ambition and then, it’s not austerity, it’s discipline. Those two things don’t come across as cohesive. So in an election where change was the ultimate question, our contrast wasn’t strong enough.

I mean, these things are hard to pull apart at the end. I certainly don’t feel like I have the definitive answer: if we had done X then we would have won it … because I’m so B.C.-focused, and in B.C., we bucked the trend a little bit, at least, where we picked up seats here and felt really good about our positioning in the public.

I mean, explain Atlantic Canada. You’re losing people who those communities loved, right? MPs like Megan Leslie, Jack Harris — Jack won with [71 per cent] of the vote last time … and then to walk around St. John’s and say ‘what do you think of Jack Harris,’ they say ‘love him, great guy, great MP, did his job.’

So I guess we’ve been the beneficiary of waves before, in Quebec, Alberta, and now we were on the other side of it, and that happens.

CG: Turning back to B.C., the province and some businesses who are looking to invest in the North still see LNG as the economic driver for the next couple decades. Do you, and can that be balanced with the need to combat climate change?

NC: Well it’s interesting because I was just in Paris trying to play a helpful role with the new government because the new Minister is a rookie Minister and has never been to one of these things before, and I’ve been to several. Canada has just made some huge commitments in terms of reducing our carbon emissions, and that runs a bit counter to Premier Clark’s ambition to grow carbon emissions in B.C. How you square the circle? That’ll happen in the next couple of months in a meeting between the premiers and the Prime Minister.

LNG, first of all, the emissions coming out of it if you want to talk the carbon piece, you can’t imagine another atmosphere; you can’t exclude them. They are what they are; they add to the province’s output and that’s reality, otherwise you’re just dreaming in technicolour.

In terms of the economic side of your question, I think LNG is not a silver bullet. It cannot and will not answer the economic challenges that the province faces. The job numbers just aren’t there. I think the promises made — was it 100,000 jobs — it was just fanciful and not believable.

So if you look at the specifics, break it right down to what’s happening on the ground, I think PETRONAS, that project is in some significant trouble. And it’s always boiled to the same thing: location. I think they were strongly directed by Harper and Clark to pick that site. We changed federal law to enable that to go ahead, and I think they were sold a raw deal, actually. They’ve been trying to modify it, you’ve been seeing their very expensive changes. They’re adding this and they’ve added that; they’re trying to get around what has always been a problematic location. Problematic for salmon, for First Nations environmentally. If you were to do it again, I don’t think they would have picked that spot, but the feds and the province pushed them pretty hard.

I’ve had meetings with them just recently and they’re still hopeful but understand the challenges. And I’ve had meetings with the new Environment Minister, who wants a full understanding because she’s the next one — the EA [environmental assessment] is now sitting on her desk, and I think she has until February.

So that one’s challenging. Shell [LNG Canada’s planned Kitimat terminal, fed by Coastal GasLink that runs south of the Bulkley Valley], a lot more optimistic; just because they’ve got First Nations buy in, the location isn’t as problematic, the pipeline doesn’t seem to be as problematic either.

CG: There are lots on the drawing board though, not just Shell and PETRONAS.

NC: That’s true; those are the two that have been getting the most attention because they’re the most advanced. So those will be the tests, in a sense, for what follows. I don’t know, does one lead to the other? This is the test; this is the test for the Premier’s whole economic plan, [it] rests particularly on PETRONAS, and that was always a high risk proposition.

And for Trudeau, if I could finish that circle, he’s made some strong commitments to First Nations: new relationship, new understanding, new way to work together. Both on Enbridge and PETRONAS, I think that’s going to be hard for his government to square.

CG: A big barrier to LNG development are literal barriers put up by Unist’ot’en, Madii Lii – I’m sure there are others outside my coverage area – and they want to build another near Unist’ot’en’s. My question is, how much input should clans and house groups have when the government is looking at approving projects, and should they have veto power when a hereditary chief says no pipelines ever?

NC: That is the – you name your price, $64 billion – it’s a huge question. It’s been ignored and the courts have made some ruling on this, but I think ultimately it’s going to come down to the government. This is the role the government shouldn’t just leave to the courts. I think this is the question: It’s about how you get from A to B; how you make decisions in Canada, and I don’t have an easy answer for you. Because some of this is very internal within the First Nation. You’ve got a lot of internal politics going on.

In the past, the government just uses divide and conquer as a strategy. They’ll find one elected band councillor, or they’ll find one house group leader to say yes and they’ll say ‘well, that’s all we need.’ But it creates more conflict. My feeling is, if you show respect across the board, a lot of these individual challenges start to go away. If you had a government that truly recognized rights and title, and that means for missing and murdered women, education, and a way to make decisions on the land base generally, individual house groups, leaders would feel more comfortable sitting at the negotiating table rather than blockades.

But it’s been an across-the-board refusal to deal with First Nations, and so someone very smart once said resistance is an unmet need. And I think that basic need of nation to nation respect, that’s the elephant in the room: is that you’ve had successive governments that have failed to meet respectfully with First Nations, and so their frustrations manifest in sometimes the only way they can, which is in blockades or protests.

CG: By the end of your term, what is the Bulkley Valley going to look like. What changes do you expect?

NC: I think we’re going to continue to diversify, both people and the economy. I think we’ll have deeper and better working relationships with the Wet’suwet’en …

More and more people will choose to live in the Bulkley Valley because of the incredible quality of life here, and that means you bring in talent and skills and the ability to have a strong community. It’s a treasure. The radio station I was just talking to in Ontario said ‘phoning is Mr. Cullen from God’s country.’ Why do you bother coming to Ottawa was his first question; why would you ever leave this incredible place you live? And I think we need to be continuing to promote it. I feel really optimistic about this community. Everything from the way it looks, the efforts that are put into making the place interesting: Bovill and all these small but important things – that ping pong table, I mean how could you knock that?

The more diverse we are, the less susceptible we are to what we were talking about earlier, the markets going up and down, the commodities; having all our eggs in one basket is always dangerous way to live in a place.