Saturday, October 17, 2020

Jennifer Rice/Nathan Cullen introduce the ghosts of Watson Island into 2020 provincial election campaign

It's Back!!!  BC NDP summon the ghosts of Watson Island
for the 2020 election campaign

Like the theme of the classic movie the Godfather, we all may be like Michael Corleone it seems, in our case trying to get away from Watson Island ...  

But somehow that haunted landscape keeps dragging us back in!

Saturday morning, two Northwest BC NDP candidates channelled the ghosts of Watson Island, or the days of SunWave at Watson Island to be precise; as they looked to tie current BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson to the tumultuous times of litigation of much of Prince Rupert's recent history.

North Coast NDP candidate Jennifer Rice, Stikine NDP candidate Nathan Cullen and former Prince Rupert City Councillor and labour organizer Joy Thorkelson spoke in a Saturday  morning Facebook Live event.  The trio recounting some of the days of horror for Prince Rupert tied into the end of times for Watson Island and Sun Wave.

The opening to their media event however began with what seems to be the new theme for politicians of late. 

That of apologizing for past commentary, in this case Mr. Cullen spoke to some comments he has made about BC Liberal candidate Roy Jones Junior, offering up his apology to Mr. Jones and the Haida Nation.

"A story recently surfaced about some comments I made just prior to an all candidates debate here in Smithers about Roy Jones Junior, at which I unreservedly apologize for, they were inappropriate. I've since spoken with Roy and apologized to him and spoken with other Haida leadership. So I just wanted to get that off the top, it was wrong what I said, I take it back entirely and I apologize for the harm that I've caused Roy" -- Stikine NDP candidate Nathan Cullen, with an apology for BC Liberal North Coast candidate Roy Jones Jr.

From that unusual opening act, the main focus for their announcement session was tackled with Ms. Rice providing the opening notes, introducing Mr. Cullen and Joy Thorkelon who served on City Council from 2005-2013.

The theme for the trio "how Andrew Wilkinson hurt our community', with Ms. Rice observing that "the experience that Prince Rupert had with Mr. Wilkinson is a lesson for all British Columbians".

Towards the main focus of her introduction, Ms. Rice spoke to the days of Sun Wave and it's impact on Prince Rupert and the financial strain that the long and protracted court case had on the community and the role of Andrew Wilkinson during that period.

The opening presentation of the NDP's relay of talking points towards their allegations against the Liberal leader fell to Mr. Cullen however, who reviewed much of the history of the Sun Wave days, the city of Prince Rupert's legal work on the file and the career arc for the now Liberal leader Mr. Wilkinson. 

Mr. Cullen laid out the roadmap for the NDP view of events following the career of Mr.  Wilkinson first as a Deputy Minister in the Liberal government of the day and later as a lawyer for Sun Wave Forest Products.

"Andrew Wilkinson was the top government official in the Ministry of Economic Development at the time, and in his capacity as Deputy Minister in 2005, he helped facilitate the sale of the mill to Sun Wave Forest Products. 

He corresponded directly with the company, including a five page written letter to Sun Wave on a variety of issues, things like property taxes, forestry, Immigration and environmental matters ... the sale of the company to SunWave came with the promise that the mill would reopen and people would be able to return to work. And that never happened." 

In his overview, Mr. Cullen makes note that the City of Prince Rupert took action in 2008, taking the mill back in hopes of finding a new buyer. 

And as Prince Rupert residents past and current may remember, it was that moment of our recent times, which served as the launching point for our last ten years plus of Watson themes that have weighed down upon successive municipal governments.

"By 2008 officials in Prince Rupert decided that they needed to cut their losses, they took the mill back with the hope of getting  another buyer who was actually going to reopen the mill and use the site. SunWave fought them every step of the way in court, they sued the City of Prince Rupert attempting to delay the city from taking over the land. 

As part of that process they hired a high priced corporate lawyer that filed a claim on equipment sales on the site, that lawyer was that same Andrew Wilkinson. 

He had left government and was now practising corporate law. Let's be clear, companies have a right to legal counsel, but Andrew Wilkinson made a choice, he had worked directly on this issue in government, he helped put the deal together and he had intimate knowledge of the issue. 

He was supposed to be working for the interest of British Columbians, but when that company reneged on the deal he didn't help British Columbians or the people in Prince Rupert. He cashed in on his experience with SunWave and worked against our interests.  He should have walked away given his prior involvement,  but he decided to help SunWave and hurt us and that was wrong"

Ms. Thorkelson picked up the trail from there,  serving as our History professor for the session taking everyone even further back into the story. 

The councillor recounted some selected chapters of the tortured history of Skeena Cellulose, noting at one point it was operated by an NDP government, went through a number of other owners after that until SunWave arrived on the scene assisted by the Provincial government.  

"We were all hopeful in the City of Prince Rupert that that pulp mill was going to operate and in fact all that happened is that the owner of the pulp mill started stripping some of the valuable assets and selling them off and showed no indication at all of trying  to run a pulp mill. 

The people of Prince Rupert were really hopeful, City Council was really hopeful that this pulp mill was going to operate, and so it was devastating when we really saw them selling off bits and pieces of the pulp mill, the most valuable parts  of the pulp mill instead of producing pulp" -- Joy Thorkelson on the days of  Prince Rupert's Watson Island woes

To bring the story back to the Wilkinson connection, Ms. Thorkelson moved forward to 2007-2009 when the City had taken on the Pulp Mill for sale and from that came the days of endless court cases against the city, with Andrew Wilkinson representing one of the plaintiffs of the time.

"By September 2009 the city actually owned the pulp mill, we tried, we put it up for tax sale, nobody would buy it at a price that would give us relief on taxes, we were owed seven million dollars in taxes at that time. 

So, what happened was when we put it up for sale there were a number of companies interested in it, but by 2010 there were a number of court cases  against the City's ownership of the pulp mill. One of the court cases was saying that we didn't have the right to sell it in a tax sale and was challenging our right and the actual city's ownership and the second one was a dispute on the sale of equipment on that site and those were the two court cases, one of which Mr. Wilkinson was involved in. And that inhibited the ability of the city of Prince Rupert to sell that property."

What followed was a lengthy review of recent Prince Rupert history, one which included a Halloween reference, which seems appropriate for the horrors of the Watson Island story and how the place still seems to haunt everyone to this day.

The former Councillor returning to those darkest of days by recounting the volume of lost jobs, bankrupt businesses, rising taxes and depressed residents.

"It was a terrible time for our city, all of those lawsuits just prolonged our agony because they weren't settled, because the lawsuits weren't actually settled until 2015-2017 just absolutely disastrous for us"

Ms. Rice then returned to the livestream, reviewing what she called the close relationship between SunWave and the BC Liberals and offering up a bit of a resume of political activity for former Liberal MLA Bill Belsey through that period of time and delivering her main political theme for the day.

"Andrew Wilkinson's questionable transition from government to SunWave was part of a pattern. SunWave and the BC Liberals had a very close relationship. SunWave and associated companies donated 15,000 dollars to BC Liberals, including 10,000 dollars to local BC Liberal MLA Bill Belsey's re-election in 2005. And when local Belsey lost in 2005, he went to work for SunWave, he was later found guilty of unregistered lobbying of the BC Liberal government and was  fined."

The North Coast NDP's candidate then moved to the political positioning part of her presentation, noting how she views the BC Liberal leader as someone who doesn't care about small communities.

"But the people of Prince Rupert learned a lot about the BC Liberals and Andrew Wilkinson in particular. We learned that we can't count on him when we're struggling that even when people need him, he'll side with the wealthy and the well connected. That he'll use his connections and his influence  for his own interest even when it hurts a small community and it's people. 

He knew how vulnerable our town was and he put himself and campaign donors first, and made the people of Prince Rupert pay for it. The people of Prince Rupert deserved better then and the people of British Columbia deserve better today"

You can review the full SunWave revelations presentation from the BC NDP Facebook page stream below (fast forward to the  3:30 mark unless you like NDP commercials):  

It's not really clear what actual impact, if any, that the Saturday morning presentation will have on the local contest on the North Coast, let alone whether it's themes will resonate at all with voters very far beyond the Port Edward turn off.

The danger for Ms. Rice it would seem is the appearance of requiring such extensive help on the campaign trail that she had Mr. Cullen and Ms. Thorkelson serve as co-prosecutors of sort for her Facebook trial.

Considering how she's been the MLA for over six years now, bringing in the help and high profiles of both Mr. Cullen and Ms. Thorkelson was a puzzling move for someone who may want to show her constituents that she is providing for her own strong leadership in the region.  

Even more fascinating was how the entire presentation was somewhat sideswiped by Mr. Cullen's opening apology to Ms. Rice's main competitor Mr. Jones.

If the former Skeena MP was trying to help out the Rice campaign, that certainly wasn't the best visual for the day and may in fact result in some lost votes for her on the 24th.

When it comes to the resuscitation of the days of Watson Island, the NDP's thumbnail sketch of Saturday  morning was one that more or less cherry picked some selective themes.

A rambling review which left unstated much of the history and actions of all the participants of the time, provincial, municipal and foreign.

Instead their focus was a singular pursuit of the current BC Liberal leader, that in a quest to tie all the troubles of Watson to him and that however seems just a wee bit of a stretch. 

In the end, the trio didn't really provide for any concrete presentation of malfeasance by the BC Liberal leader, and while it does put Wilkinson into the picture long before his days as BC Liberal leader; at worst it appears that mostly he appears to have been a fairly successful lawyer who acted  on the behalf of his client, much as we may have found some misery from the results of those efforts.

For those looking to return to the decades of controversy, some of our notes from our Watson Island archive of the day may help fill in some of the other elements not noted in today's presentation.

At this point we probably should make note of an observation from former Mayor Jack Mussallem a number of years ago, who opined on the endless trail of woe that the old pulp mill site seems to deliver.

Following his electoral defeat in November 2014 Mr. Mussallem with his years of experience on the Watson Island  file offered  some words of wisdom for the incoming council at that time.

"And now we have a new group that is going to realize, when local government legislation forces something upon you, what a hell hole that can be, and I'm talking Watson Island the thing just never ends"

Indeed, it's a helpful reminder from the recent past  and one which still seems like a timely message for these days.

For  more items of note on the 2020 provincial election campaign see our archive page.

1 comment:

  1. What a strange story. If the trio of revisionist historians check yesterday's news they'll see that Wilkinson is being criticized from within his own party. He's pretty much dead man walking.

    Attacking Wilkinson for what he worked on as a civil servant and later as a lawyer in private practice is not credible. The councils that Joy Thorkelson was on did not oppose Sunwave's purchase of the mill. And there is no record on the BC Law Society site of misconduct complaints against Wilkinson. The allegations are basically dog whistles that don't stand up to scrutiny.

    Why Jennifer in particular seems to feel the need to take this approach is a sad comment in itself. Her record during her second term has been quite good, particularly on housing and the covid response. Hopefully she will have the self-confidence to tell her own story about what she feels she has accomplished as MLA.