NDP Rising Star Nathan Cullen on How Republican Tactics are Infecting Canadian Politics, and More

The rising star of the socialist-leaning New Democratic Party discusses how Canadian Conservatives are learning from their neighbors to the south.

Joel Bleifuss

Nathan Cullen, MP for Canada's New Democratic Party, is cautiously optimistic about his party's future. (Matt Jiggins / Flickr)

For several weeks in August and September, opinion polls indicated that on October 19, Canadians would elect their first Parliament controlled by the socialist-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). Though the race has tightened in the past cuple weeks, there is still a chance that the NDP could win. Should that happen, Tom Mulcair, an attorney from Quebec, will become prime minister of Canada. And in a Mulcair government, it is a sure bet that NDP rising star Nathan Cullen will be named to head a key ministry. A former strategic planning and conflict resolution consultant who lives in Smithers, a British Columbia town of 5,000, Cullen represents a district the size of Norway with a population of about 90,000 in the northwest corner of the province. He has served in Parliament since 2004, when, at the age of 31, he beat the Conservative incumbent.

[The Conservatives] took a lesson out of the Republican playbook of our southern neighbor: If you can’t win fair, cheat.

Cullen won the hearts of environmentalists across Canada for spearheading opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is set to run from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat, a small port city in his district. In 2012, he mounted a dark-horse challenge to Mulcair for leadership of the NDP, coming in a surprising third at the NDP convention. His stellar performance during the party debates thrust him into the national spotlight.

In Maclean’s Magazine’s 2014 Parliamentarian of the Year Awards, Cullen’s fellow MPs voted him Most Knowledgeable MP,” giving him more votes than Conservative MP and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The NDP was established in 1961, when the Canadian Labour Congress (the equivalent of the AFL-CIO) affiliated with a democratic socialist party called Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (Farmer-Labour-Socialist).”

In early September, Cullen took a break from the campaign trail to speak with In These Times.

How do you explain the NDP’s sudden ascendance?

It’s an overnight sensation — one 54 years in the making. As a progressive party, we have offered ourselves up in ways that are supported by values that Canadians share, like respect for the environment, a more fair economy and reconciliation with First Nations people. Plus, an almost decade-long trial with neoliberal policies has not produced results. Canada is in a recession. There’s a sense of fatigue, if not outright hostility, toward the Conservative government’s approach.

We sometimes pick up the mood and tendencies of our southern neighbor in thinking that there are only two choices and proceeding down that path. But we have many parties under our parliamentary system in Canada, not just two, and people have options. For the first time in our country’s history, it seems to be shaping up as a three-party race. 

How is the NDP addressing people’s concerns about the economy?

On the pocketbook level, we plan to make life more affordable. In addition to a $15-per-hour minimum wage, we’ve introduced a $15-a-day national child-care program, where a family would pay $15 for a full day of child care. On the macroeconomic side, we focus on giving small businesses more support. They are the poor cousin at the table. The large corporations have gotten all of the attention and all of the breaks under the Conservatives. We’ve put forward a plan to kick-start manufacturing. We’ve lost just shy of half a million manufacturing jobs in the last eight years to Mexico, to China, to a whole bunch of different places. The Conservatives have no industrial strategy. We need to invest in infrastructure to kickstart an economy that is sputtering. 

What is your opinion of Canada’s new Fair Elections Act?

The Conservatives have a strange sense of irony. They name these laws to be the exact opposite of what their effect is. This law disenfranchises a whole swathe of the Canadian electorate. They took a lesson out of the Republican playbook of our southern neighbor: If you can’t win fair, cheat. In every one of the last three elections this Conservative government has won, they’ve been found by the courts to have cheated: robocalls, sending people to the wrong polling stations and other fraudulent activities. They’re now trying to make sure that certain voices — the young, the poor, the First Nations — will find it hard to vote, all under the fraudulent specter of electoral fraud.” In one version of the Act, it prohibited our chief of elections from encouraging people to vote! You get to a point where you’re like, Alright, I understand: You need to rig this system in order to have a chance at being the government.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s critics say he has borrowed tactics from U.S. politics. What do they mean?

Well, it’s big money, waging wars, refusing to debate in public forums, disenfranchising voters that are unhelpful to your political party, attempting to gerrymander boundaries — everything they can get away with and always a little bit more. They introduced a bill late last year that would legalize the government’s ability to spy on any Canadian they see fit without a judge being involved. It’s ironic that the head of the National Firearms Association in Canada, who’s obviously a deep conservative, is now running as an independent solely for the reason of trying to scrap this anti-democratic bill.

What’s the NDP’s position on Keystone?

We are opposed to the project as it stands simply because it’s a raw export project that takes bitumen, dilutes it and then sends it away for value to be added elsewhere. The NDP is not anti- development, we’re just anti-stupid.

How important will the vote from the First Nations be in this election?

There are 338 seats in the Canadian Parliament, and in about 50 of them First Nations hold the balance of power. If they exercise their vote, they are able to swing the Parliament. Mobilizing that vote will be challenging because of the new laws, but increasingly we’re seeing First Nations leadership from the very top right through to the local chiefs encouraging people to get engaged. I represent northwestern British Columbia, next to the Yukon-Alaska border, and probably 35 percent or so of this constituency is First Nations people who live in 49 different communities. Increasingly the chiefs say, Our voices are going to be heard at the ballot box.” In the past it hasn’t mattered — Tweedledum or dumber. The NDP’s got a long history with First Nations. We’ve fought for their enfranchisement and have been good allies through many of the struggles that we’ve had over the years.

One conservative commentator has said that the NDP under the leadership of Tom Mulcair has thrown much of the party’s past under its campaign bus.” What was he referring to?

Maybe he’s expressing some disappointment that we aren’t using 1950s jargon. But it’s 2015. We’ve modernized our language and ability to communicate. Maybe he’s referring to the fact that for much of our past the NDP wasn’t able to win. But today, we want to be the ones making the change, not the ones standing on the outside wishing it were different. We represent Main Street, not Bay Street — our Wall Street.

How has language evolved from the 1950s to the present?

There’s an evolution in our ability to talk about things in ways that people can understand. The idea of wanting to debate Marx is gone. We live with the realities of people and want to reflect back progressive values and programs that people can appreciate and support. We understand how a 15-dollar-a-day child-care program speaks to a wide swathe of voters, not exclusively progressive ones. Yet it’s a progressive policy. So it’s marrying things that are progressive to programs and initiatives that a large group of people can accept. There used to be some notion, back in the day, when I talk to some of our more senior members, that it was a choice between power or principles, that you couldn’t have both. I disagree. The NDP candidates I am running with want to effect change while maintaining our principles. That’s what we’re trying to do in this election.

Are you optimistic about the NDP’s future?

Cautiously so. I’m a progressive, right? We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory a couple of times. There’s only one poll that counts, and that’s the one on the day of the election. The Conservatives and Liberals are well-financed and vicious. So I am not surprised by their desperate tactics.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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