Ask anyone on Parliament Hill to describe NDP MP Nathan Cullen, and the first word they utter would probably not be “shy.”
Cullen has earned a reputation for thunderous, scathing critiques of the governing Liberals in question period, and for even more biting sound-bites given to reporters in the foyer outside. His peers have twice handed him the “Best Orator” prize in Maclean’s magazine’s annual Parliamentarians of the Year awards.
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For a time, the affable MP for Skeena—Bulkley Valley was pegged as the obvious choice to replace former NDP leader Tom Mulcair. But Cullen, who does indeed describe himself as shy and “a bit private,” had different ideas.
“I really gave it my full heart and mind,” he said of mulling over a possible leadership run, which he eventually decided against.
“I was not able to get myself there, to believing this was the right thing for me to do.”
Cullen, who with 13 years experience in Parliament now finds himself one of the elder statesmen in the NDP caucus, sat down recently for breakfast with The West Block‘s Vassy Kapelos.
He acknowledged that a future leadership run is not out of the question for him and his still-young family, but for now, he’s focused on supporting Jagmeet Singh and rebuilding the party’s strength ahead of the next federal election.
Cullen was 31 when he was first elected in 2004, and up until then had been doing development work and building a consulting business in British Columbia. He was virtually unknown in political circles, and the seat he was vying for wasn’t considered an easy win.
“It was a bit, in hindsight, a bit audacious,” he recalled of that first campaign. “I’ve never regretted it for a moment.”
Cullen had, in his early youth, viewed the political sphere as a collection of “old white guys yelling at each other” (which he argues it still is, to a large extent), but a brush with death in the mid-1990s helped change his mind.
He rarely speaks of the incident, which involved him and several employees of a small NGO being kidnapped by an armed gang in Ecuador.
“We were, I guess, disturbing the balance of power in that region,” Cullen explained, adding that his work at the time involved helping a community that had become overly reliant on the forestry industry.
The country’s vice-president at the time was, he recalled, threatened by this “and he hired a gang, as best as we could tell, from Colombia, to kidnap us and wreck the operation.”
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What followed were 15 harrowing hours of being held captive deep in the jungle, until eventually Cullen was released and the kidnappers settled for holding the NGO’s director for an additional three months.
“I’ve never felt that totally powerless before. I mean, they did mock rapes, they did all sorts of Russian roulette … They were not nice people,” Cullen told Kapelos.
When the gang’s ties to the government were revealed, Cullen explained, it made him realize how profoundly decisions made at a high level can affect people on the ground — for good and for ill.
“It made me feel more empowered when I could see myself in the Parliament, and see how representing people could have an effect on their lives and the course of some policy, some decisions.”
Today, Cullen said, he still doesn’t agree with many of the decisions being made by the Canadian government.
“We say words like reconciliation [with First Nations] and these things, but I’m not really sure if the government has any idea of what they mean,” he explained. “And those things matter to me.”
Still, he added, he’s doesn’t like to conflate the political with the personal — especially when it comes to the country’s prime minister.
“I think [Justin Trudeau] has made bad decisions from time to time, or can’t fully see an issue just from, I don’t know, his upbringing or whatever. He misses things. But I don’t think he’s a bad person at all. I didn’t think Stephen Harper was a bad person either, or Paul Martin,” he said.
“I have nothing but respect, even when I’m disagreeing with them.”
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