Busy times 
for Cullen:

🕔Dec 01, 2011

“This is as formal as it gets,” Nathan Cullen says, pulling up some lawn furniture in his Smithers backyard. On this fall morning, Nathan looks like anything but a politician, perched on the edge of his chaise lounge in a white button-down shirt and shorts.

It’s true—politics wasn’t something he aspired to as a child.

“I remember a Grade 2 teacher saying, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer or a politician,’ and I remember feeling very insulted,” he says about a time the principal and his mother had to be brought in to settle a spelling debate from which he refused to back down. “Summer—one M. C’mon, everybody knows that!”

Decades later, the 39-year-old is serving his third term as Skeena-Bulkley Valley’s NDP member of Parliament and focusing his debating skills on bringing northern BC’s concerns to the national stage. It’s a pivotal time for the Northwest, he points out, with a pipeline proposal bearing down on the region. It’s also a pivotal time for the NDP, which made unprecedented gains in May’s federal election, only to have its charismatic leader succumb to cancer just three months into the role as leader of the official opposition.

Most certainly, it’s a pivotal time for Cullen, with the recent birth of twin boys and loss of his good friend Jack Layton. On Sept. 30, Cullen announced his candidacy in the NDP leadership race. If successful, the move will draw attention not only to the politician himself but to the region as well.

Leading up to his decision, and to help him make up his mind, he made a lot of phone calls.

“You phone people you know, whose opinion you trust. You phone people with influence, whose opinions will matter. I talked to a lot of my caucus colleagues. I talked to people who have family and know how crazy it’s going to be,” he says, confirming: “It’s going to be crazy.”

Caught in the net
When Nathan first arrived in Smithers in the late 1990s, while working with the federal youth program Katimavik, it was out of a sense of Canadian duty to spend time in the North. He went on to start a small but successful business in strategic planning and conflict resolution.

“I’m one of those that got caught in the net. You swim by and think ‘I’ll stay for a bit,’ but then you find out culturally and lifestyle-wise, this place is amazing,” he says. “So many friends said, ‘Smithers. You’ll like it there.’ I wanted to resist that: ‘I’m not like that, those things you just said.’ Now, 10 or 12 years later, turns out I’m totally like that.”

Then, in 2004, he found himself running for Parliament and discovered that being MP isn’t so much a job as a vocation. In small communities of northern BC, your relationship to your constituents becomes much more intimate than in larger centres.

“People want to be able to tell me what they think,” he says. “You’re picking up some nails at the store and you think it’s a five-minute thing but it’s a 45-minute thing.”

Also challenging is the size and diversity of the Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding. It is the fourth largest riding in Canada and relatively well populated compared with larger ones. It faces some of the nation’s most pressing issues with regard to natural resources.

“Skeena sits right at the crossroads of our future: what kind of economy, what kind of environment are we going to have? How we’re trying to tackle big problems here is something the whole nation can hear about,” he says. “One of the things I like about the place is that people of polar opposite views can find common ground: love of the outdoors, love of their kids, love of the community.”

Although originally from Toronto, living in northern BC represents who the country is as a nation, he adds, noting, “Mountain Equipment Co-op has more members than all the political parties in the country combined.”

In some ways, Cullen is the anti-politician. He decries the antics he sees in the House of Commons. “What I don’t get is when I look across the aisle in Ottawa and I see meanness,” he says about the current Conservative government. “It’s weird to be up close to it. They’re still acting like they’re on the outside yelling at government, and they are the government.”

He describes Jack Layton as a different kind of leader, who viewed the other parties as opponents but not enemies.

“His success is going to create incredible expectations, unreal expectations really—the love people had and found for Jack, it’s become near mythic,” he says. “The amazing opportunity that Jack left us is also a great challenge.”

Sharing an easy manner and charismatic style, it’s easy to see why Layton and Cullen got along. Cullen hesitates to comment on the comparisons drawn between them—acknowledging only, perhaps, the similar lack of hair.

“My respect for him is too great to use our friendship for political gain,” he says. “But yeah—we liked each other a lot.”

When Cullen first arrived in Ottawa, he began taking French lessons—a logical thing in the country’s capital city, but misunderstood by other MPs. The move, seen as a bid for leadership, raised tensions with some party members. Over dinner with Layton, he explained to the leader that he wasn’t after his job.

“Jack’s advice was, ‘Don’t say that. Don’t say “not ever.”’”

Maintaining integrity
As Elliot toddles nearby, Cullen’s wife Diana comes outside carrying a sleepy Isaac, just up from a morning nap. The couple’s two children, twin boys, arrived just over a year ago. Diana not only spends much of her time looking after them while Nathan is in Ottawa, she plays a supporting role in representing him the Northwest.

The couple met through their work with Katimavik and had been dating for six months when Nathan decided to run for Parliament in 2004. Although supportive, she made one thing clear: she wasn’t interested in being a politician’s wife. Shortly after Cullen announced his candidacy, the couple attended a meeting between the Nisga’a and oil-and-gas representatives. Diana was outraged by the manipulation she saw industry using on the First Nation.

“From then on it wasn’t about my partner or me. It was about this place and what we want for it,” she says.

Declaring his candidacy for NDP leader has meant spending the past few months and the next three or four on the road, touring the country and building relationships, while balancing his responsibilities to constituents and, of course, his family. But the calm amidst the storm, his “touchstone,” is coming home to the Northwest and his community.

“I was interested in a different kind of politics, and if that didn’t work, that was fine. But I wasn’t going to lose my integrity,” he says, reflecting on his career. “The only way I can do politics, because it is a nefarious business, is if we try to leave communities better than we found them.”

Cullen is, indeed, a politician, but in the true sense of the word. What he likely didn’t know, when he sorely lost the argument with that prophetic Grade 2 teacher, is that the word politician derives from the Greek polis, meaning city—the bringing together of people in community. He just may have found the perfect vocation.