Nathan Cullen as prospect

Cullen is very popular with voters who align themselves with an environment-and-society-first approach to resource development.

With federal MP Nathan Cullen announcing he has warmed to the idea of running for leader of the provincial NDP, it gives one pause to reflect on politics and policy in Northern B.C.

Cullen is very popular with voters who align themselves with an environment-and-society-first approach to resource development, which encompasses just about all current B.C. NDPers and more than just a few provincial Liberals.

For some, environmental caution trumps economic potential.  For many others, it’s more a balanced risk approach to navigating between economic development and the protection of fragile resources.

The second approach is the norm, especially in Northern B.C., or at least it has been. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the hot opposition to Enbridge Northern Gateway has caught its proponents, including the federal government, flat-footed.

This has worked favourably for Cullen. He’s been cast as the federal face of opposition to Enbridge, helping to raise his profile. Cullen isn’t defined by the Enbridge question, but time and place have made it the most current issue on which he’s regularly asked to speak.

The biggest issue facing the North is how we’re going to strike a balance in the future between resource development and social license to set up shop and drill for gold, so to speak.

A subtle vein of disingenuous rhetoric runs through a lot of conversation surrounding resource development. Northern B.C. is economically defined by forestry, and forestry runs on a de facto model of risk management to strike a balance between the environment, jobs now, and jobs in the future.

It’s difficult to be a harsh critic of active forestry in the way some are of pipelines, or to call for a moratorium on all forestry until we ‘know’ that we’ve got reforestation dialled in to ensure a healthy industry in 10 or 20 years.

The economy would come crashing down. The economy of Northern B.C. is not going to crash if Enbridge fails with its proposal, so its easy to take an entrenched position in opposition to the project.

Cullen sits squarely in the tradition of striking a balance between economy, jobs, resources and the environment. He’s anti-Enbridge because Enbridge has, in his view, failed to put the pieces of risk management and social engagement together in a complete or convincing way.

His position on resource development in general is nuanced with consideration for social license and addressing the hopes and fears of those who live where resource development is proposed. But his position is still very practical. Without resource development, the northern economy would collapse.

Voters need jobs.

Without jobs or industry, Northern B.C. is something completely other than it is now. That may be the vision for some, but it will never be the vision for the majority.

So Cullen as provincial leader of the NDP? I’d peg him for a provincial liberal before provincial NDP. But that might only be because the provincial liberals seem to define their stance on resource development a little closer to Cullen’s model.

Would Cullen be NDP enough for Vancouver NDPers? What about island NDPers? I’ve never been either, but my impression is that Cullen may be too practical-minded.

Exactly where Cullen would fit into the political spectrum in B.C. – and then in Northern B.C. if he decided to run in the north – isn’t clear. We’d have to hear a lot more about what he has to say on forestry, mining, and balancing First Nation prerogatives with resource extraction.

Answering those questions is polarizing, but necessary. Cullen would be a great addition to that conversation. As party leader, he’d probably no longer be in the north, and that would be a shame.


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