First elected in 2004 as the New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for Skeena-Bulkley Valley and returned with increasing margins of victory in 2006, 2008 and 2011, Nathan Cullen enters the 2015 federal election as one of the more experienced veterans of his party’s candidates.
And just 43, Cullen’s national status has risen thanks to his third-place finishing in the party’s 2012 leadership race, won by current NDP leader Tom Mulcair, to replace the late Jack Layton.
With those kinds of credentials and the possibility of a NDP national victory Oct. 19 Cullen, provided he’s re-elected, could reasonably expect a seat, and even a senior one, at the cabinet table.
But he doesn’t hesitate when asked if he considers himself a professional politician.
“Oh, no. Not at all,” says Cullen, adding he was first thinking of running for a Smithers municipal council seat in 2003 before someone told him to set his sights higher.
“I was told it was a good idea and that I would win and that’s why I should go federal. I thought that was pretty audacious.”
Audacious or not, Cullen with a good old-fashioned grassroots campaign, gathered 13,706 votes compared to incumbent Conservative Andy Burton’s 12,434 in 2004.
Cullen does acknowledge there is the possibility of getting drawn into the political life to the point it is considered a career or a job.
“I feel you should be called to it,” he said.
“I see some people in politics who become very attached to their position and feel important and that’s dangerous.”
“[Politics] is a vehicle to get things done. [But] I see good people, though, over time, drifting away.”
There’s also the chance of rationalizing tiny transgressions to the point taking part in larger ones becomes accepted, said Cullen.
Born in Toronto, the oldest of two sons to immigrants from Ireland, Cullen was educated at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario and at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
He then worked in Africa and South America for non-profit groups who had the goal of creating value-added industries instead of relying on the export of raw resources.
In many ways, Cullen says what he did on those two continents mirrors what’s happening in the northwest, something that became apparent when he moved to Smithers in the late 1990s to first run the volunteer Katimavik program in that community and then to become a consultant.
“If you only export raw resources, you’re always beholden to whatever the market calls,” he said.
It’s a theme people of all political persuasions will bring up in conversation, Cullen continues.
“They want to know why we’re sending out everything raw now,” he said.
It’s a message Cullen has also used in becoming one of the key figures opposing Enbridge’s plan to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, a project that would ship diluted crude oil from Alberta to a marine export terminal at Kitimat for refining overseas.
While Cullen has concentrated on the potential for environmental damage from a leak or break in the planned $6.5 billion pipeline which would run 1,177 kilometres across Alberta and B.C. and of the potential for ocean-going crude-carrying tankers spilling their loads, he’s also spoken about refining crude in Canada.
Building a facility would add value to a raw resource and provide jobs, he says.
But if pressed, Cullen’s less comfortable about speaking where he thinks any kind of crude oil refining facility should be placed.
He’s more at home concerning the prospects for liquefied natural gas (LNG), a value-added industry widely perceived as being less of an environmental threat than a crude-oil-carrying pipeline and crude-carrying tankers.
There’s been a greater acceptance for LNG within the general population of the northwest than there has been for Northern Gateway.
And, crucially for any industry to gain a foothold in B.C., there’s been more approval within First Nations to the point growing numbers of the latter are signing direct economic benefits deals with pipeline companies and LNG plant proponents.
“The devil is in the details,” said Cullen of the billions involved in building pipelines that would feed the super-cooling plants. “It’s how you do it.”
And when there is opposition to any kind of pipeline construction, which is the case for the Wet’suwet’en Unist’ot’en clan which has blocked access across traditional territory near Houston, Cullen advocates a long- term approach.
The challenge, he says, is to have First Nations reach the stage where aboriginal people can make a decision and for aboriginal people to accept that decision even if they don’t agree with it.
“We may trust the process but First Nations may not have a process or they don’t respect the process or the governing structure,” said Cullen.
“What’s needed is a coherent political process with legal, scientific and all the components you want to have. They’re still building capacity,” he said of First Nations decision-making.
Cullen said he understands the positions taken by companies who ask who they need a ‘yes’ from in order to undertake a project.
“What this leads to is a greater urgency to making treaties,” he said.
Given the right electoral outcomes, Cullen could very well soon have the chance to advance that agenda through Parliament.
This is the first in a series of profiles of the candidates running in the Skeena – Bulkley Valley riding in the 2015 federal election.