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From star candidate to albatross

The first big story of BC’s early pandemic election is that internal equity rules, like confidence and supply agreements, can be cast aside for a better offer.
Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Art Babych/

One of the NDP’s star candidates this election is Nathan Cullen, a former NDP MP and federal leadership candidate. But Cullen and the party have an albatross – they broke their own rules to get him.

In the brief interregnum before the writ was dropped but after incumbent Doug Donaldson said he wouldn’t run again, Cullen released a slick video announcing his intention to seek the NDP candidacy. Most assumed it was a done deal – and a get for the provincial party.

Polished and well spoken, Cullen is a heavyweight in NDP circles. The one problem: he’s a straight, white, cisgender male, trying to replace another straight, white, cisgender male. The NDP’s rules explicitly forbid this, except in extraordinary circumstances, and if there’s literally nobody else.

Enter Annita McPhee.

A three-term president of the Tahltan Central Government, McPhee is the platonic ideal of the kind of candidate the NDP would like to court – and ironically, the equity mandate is supposed to ensure gets a fair shake.

McPhee also wants the NDP nomination in Stikine. It quickly became apparent NDP headquarters wanted Cullen, come hell, high water, or their own rules.

Things got messy.

The party said it approached “members of equity-seeking groups” about running, but they all said no – but McPhee wasn’t among them. And then it was because she said some unspecified negative things about the federal NDP last year. And then it was because she hadn’t applied in time, and there were problems with the signatures she had collected – which the party would have helped resolve, of course, but for the lack of time. Rotten luck.

It’s the kind of thing that happens when you force an election one year early and have a different candidate in mind.

What’s worse, McPhee wasn’t even given the courtesy of being told she was disqualified – she learned on Twitter. From a reporter.

The NDP’s equity mandate isn’t new, and has caused them headaches in almost every election. And while absolutes and quotas are blunt instruments, the stated goal is ensure underrepresented people like McPhee have a chance. If you’re just going to ignore it for a shiny former MP, what’s the point?

McPhee isn’t making it easy for the NDP. Not only does she refuse to go away – even threatening legal action – she keeps saying all the right things about the Horgan government, and Cullen himself (“a really excellent leader”). The NDP understands and can deal with heretics. But it’s much more difficult when said heresy is politely pointing to their rules while still saying “yay team.” And exponentially more difficult when the heretic in question is an Indigenous woman.

This misstep hasn’t slipped along unnoticed. It has been publicly condemned by Indigenous leaders of various political stripes, including former NDP MP Romeo Saganash, former BC Liberal advisor Wade Grant, and Squamish Nation councillor Khelisilem.

What’s baffling is the NDP are inflicting this wound on themselves in Stikine, a held and fairly safe riding; Donaldson won the last three elections by 12, 11, and 6 points, respectively.

The adjacent riding of Skeena is more uncertain – and probably, would have been a better target for someone like Cullen. Since 1986, it’s been won by Social Credit, NDP, and BC Liberal candidates. With no NDP incumbent, the party’s equity mandate wouldn’t apply, and Cullen would be in the clear. Still better, the incumbent is a sitting BC Liberal - former Haisla chief councillor Ellis Ross.

Given truth serum, and asked if they could defeat any one opposing MLA, no questions asked, many in the NDP would pick Ross, a calm, narrative-busting Indigenous leader difficult to shout down. Cullen’s name recognition would have been useful in Skeena.

It’s too late for that now – Cullen is locked and loaded, and the party clearly thinks he’s worth the short- and long-term hit. But their treatment of a female Indigenous leader won’t go unnoticed.

For an election that started with questions about honesty and motives, the NDP ignoring its own equity policy is a self-inflicted wound that's likely to fester.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca


  • Maclean Kay checked in yesterday with some quick-hit thoughts on Day One of BC's early pandemic election.
  • Waaaaaaay back on September 15 (back when CASA was a thing) Nathan Cullen's candidacy looked like it might create a problem for the NDP's equity mandate.
  • BC's travel and tourism sector have taken a savage beating from the pandemic. Jock Finlayson and Ken Peacock survey the damage, and ideas to help.