Meet the Mi’kmaw who wants to paint western Newfoundland Green

In the face of economic and ecological crises, and with a revival of Mi’kmaq identity and culture on the Island’s west coast, one man thinks the time is right for Western Newfoundland to usher in a new era of political representation in Ottawa.

If residents of the Island’s west coast want meaningful change at home, they need representation in Ottawa that none of the three main political parties are offering this federal election, says a Mi’kmaw man who has thrown his name in the hat as a Green Party candidate for the newly formed Long Range Mountains district.

Terry Cormier, a retired federal civil servant who lives along the Humber River just outside Little Rapids, says based on conversations he’s had with people at community events and in going door-to-door in towns like Burgeo and Tompkins, western Newfoundlanders are tired of the way federal politics is being done and want a Member of Parliament who more aptly represents their values and principles.

In a recent phone interview the 62-year-old husband and father told The Independent he decided to run for the Greens in the Oct. 19 election after spending time in British Columbia, where he met party leader Elizabeth May. He said the way May—a lawyer from Cape Breton—engages with the people of her Saanich—Gulf Islands riding, and the way she does politics, opened his eyes to what’s possible for federal politics in Canada.

On the policy front, he believes the party’s prioritization of democratic reform, Indigenous rights and the environment, and its ideas for invigorating local economies, make the Greens a natural fit for the people of Long Range Mountains, who he said are fed up with status-quo representation by the Liberals and are looking for more than the Conservatives or NDP are presently offering.

When he entered the race, Cormier said he signed a pledge that if elected he will prioritize his constituents’ wishes over the party leader’s. The Greens are the only federal party that doesn’t whip votes, meaning Green MPs aren’t forced to vote in the House of Commons against their own or their constituents’ wishes.

“At the present time the way we do politics, a Liberal MP cannot represent the Long Range Mountains — a Liberal MP can only represent Justin [Trudeau] back to you,” Cormier told The Independent.

“That’s the way they do it — it’s the whole political messaging and approach and process, and they’re all whipped. Every time there’s a vote in the House of Commons, the three main parties whip their votes, which means you have to vote the way the party tells you to vote.”

Cormier said the pledge he signed “reflects the principle that you’re being elected to represent your constituents, and not the other way around — not to explain stuff to people but to actually represent them.”

He pointed to Bill C-51 as a case in point of how MPs forced to toe the party line can stifle the democratic process and effect legislation the majority of their constituents—and in the case of C-51, the majority of Canadians—don’t support.

The controversial legislation, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, came into force earlier this year with the support of the Trudeau Liberals, who said they opposed parts of the bill but vowed to amend it once elected to government, a move that lost the party a significant amount of support from members and voters.

Cormier is no stranger to the threat of terrorism and the need to protect civil liberties while maintaining adequate national security measures.

From 1999-2004 he served as the Director of the International Crime and Terrorism Division at the Department of Foreign Affairs and was a member of the team that developed and implemented Canada’s agenda on international terrorism before, during, and immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

He called the Harper Government’s enacting of C-51 “reckless” and said it was “deeply offensive to me as a Canadian in terms of the way Mr. Harper portrays the terrorist threat in Canada for political gain.”

Cormier said the new legislation, which among other things allows 17 government departments and agencies to share personal information about Canadians and gives Canada’s spy agencies police-like powers without any oversight, is “a massive assault on our civil liberties by a government that has demonstrated that it really likes to control almost everything.”

He praised May and the Greens for almost immediately opposing the bill, just days after it was introduced in the legislature, and said May demonstrated strong and timely leadership at a moment when no other leader did.

“Elizabeth May read the bill when it came out—she’s a lawyer trained at Dalhousie [University]—and she immediately understood the very serious consequences of the bill and stood up in the House of Commons [and said] it would create a police state. And it took the NDP a couple of weeks to read the polling and come to the conclusion that they should come out against this.”

May unveils Green platform

Last week May became the first federal leader to announce their party’s full platform for the Oct. 19 election, vowing to fight climate change by putting a price on carbon, cutting subsidies to the oil, gas and coal industries and ending fossil fuel consumption by 2050.

She also promised to eliminate post-secondary tuition by 2020, introduce pharmacare, develop national housing and seniors’ strategies, repeal Bill C-51, partner with First Nations to develop resources in a way that respects their treaty rights and “move to repeal the Indian Act should that be the consensus of First Nations,” introduce a guaranteed livable income to help eliminate poverty, restore and increase annual funding to the CBC/Radio-Canada, reopen Veterans Affairs offices across the country and repair Canada’s global reputation by refocusing defense policy on peacekeeping.

The platform is largely based on the principles and priorities determined by its grassroots membership, activists and experts and compiled in its policy book, Vision Green.

Similarily, the NDP’s membership determines its party’s policy book through resolutions passed at conventions, but last month the 29-page document was removed from the NDP website before the announcement of any platform and amid a series of pronouncements and actions by party leader Tom Mulcair that directly contradict the party’s core beliefs, including his past praise for Margaret Thatcher, free trade and deregulated capitalism.

Cormier said on key issues like the environment and climate change, the Liberals and NDP are not doing nearly enough and that he believes the Green Party is “the one taking the most principled position.

“It’s a pragmatic one, it’s not a crazy one,” he said. “It’s one that understands there are lots of jobs in renewable energy that we should be going after instead of continuing to subsidize and single-mindedly support high-carbon sources of energy when we’ve got lots of alternatives.”

He said that although many Newfoundlanders earn their paychecks working in the oil industry, they’re doing it because there are few alternatives, and that if given the choice people in Long Range Mountains wouldn’t willingly participate in extractive industries that are wreaking havok on the environment and the climate.

Protecting the environment, creating jobs in clean energy

With low oil prices forcing both the federal and provincial governments into recessions, and given the need for urgent action on climate change, Cormier said the time to begin transitioning to clean technology and renewable energy industries like wind and solar is now.

“It’s a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador that we are so heavily dependent on [oil],” he said. “And that reality points to the need to follow economic principles that are sustainable, which means diversity. And it means government showing the way by [developing] policies that look to the future and not to the past. There’s lots of ways to do that, and lots of parts of the world where it’s being done all the time.”

Cormier also pointed out the Greens are the only party pushing for a nationwide ban on fracking. The controversial industry has been trying to make its way into Newfoundland and Labrador and is currently under review by a government-appointed panel, a process that was initiated after residents from the west coast led a grassroots movement against it.

Cormier praised the community groups that have resisted fracking and said it “won’t happen” in Newfoundland “because people won’t let it happen.”

“The Green Party is the only party that is categorically opposed to hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “The others all dance around it and are being undoubtedly influenced by interests that certainly don’t reflect caring for the Earth and the water and the air that we want to leave to our kids.”

The Greens are also the only party calling for a moratorium on oil and gas development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a timely topic given Corridor Resources’ application to drill at Old Harry—currently under review by the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board—and the abandoned oil wells presently leaking crude oil into Port au Port Bay at Shoal Point.

May and the Greens have joined Mi’kmaq leaders, scientists and grassroots organizations in demanding that the Gulf—and the coastal communities of the five provinces bordering it, whose economies are heavily dependent on the fisheries and tourism—not be put at risk by offshore oil development.

“One of our objectives is to defend the west coast against this threat to the water, the sea and the air and the land,” Cormier said, vowing to protect the western coastline with the same vehemence May has defended the B.C. coastline.

On the environment more broadly, Cormier said the damage the Harper Government has done in silencing federal scientists and weakening or outright eliminating environmental protections threatens the health and well-being of important ecosystems country-wide, fish, wildlife and future generations of Canadians, and needs to be reversed immediately.

He said he was one of the first Canadians to get an inside look at how Harper would begin dismantling environmental protections to auction off Canada’s natural resources to wealthy corporations and foreign investors no matter the cost to the environment and local populations, especially First Nations.

From 2005 to 2009, he served as Deputy Permanent Representative at Canada’s Mission to the UN in Geneva, where he managed Canada’s relations with UN institutions dealing with issues such as environment, health and human rights.

He said shortly after Harper was elected in 2006 “something [happened] I’ve never before seen in my career.

“We got a visit by a senior official from Ottawa—nothing’s put in writing, very unusual—and the message was, ‘Downtool on the environment,’” he recounted. “The only purpose the guys came to Geneva was to tell us: ‘Stop doing the environment. Don’t go to meetings. Don’t report on anything.’

“They did not want to be engaged, and I was no longer able to report on stuff,” he continued. “If you put it in a cable you’d get a phone call saying, ‘You’re getting yourself in trouble,’ quite literally.

“So I’ve been at the frontlines of Mr. Harper’s attack on our environment since he came into power, and Bill C-38, the omnibus budget bill that devastated Canada’s environmental protections [was the result of] direct asks which came from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Their letter to PMO is out there [and] they wanted to change environmental laws to make oil development easier.”

Embracing Indigenous values

Cormier said the Green Party’s prioritization of the environment and sustainable economic practices best represent the principles cherished by people of the west coast, including tens of thousands of his fellow members of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.

“Newfoundlanders have always lived very sustainable lives on this Island,” he said, “not even in the past 500 years when Europeans started to show up, but in the thousands of years before that when people lived on this Island, and in Labrador.”

He said the full scope of Mi’kmaq influence on the values of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people living in west coast communities is only now beginning to be understood, but that it’s clear people have a strong connection to the natural environment, and to sustainable ways of living.

“The history of the district is very different from the history of the Avalon or other parts of the Island,” he said, “and the resurgence of the Mi’kmaq identity is really one of the most remarkable developments in our sociopolitical history in Newfoundland for sure.”

Cormier said as the Qalipu continue to rebuild their Nation, having a Mi’kmaw and Green representative in Ottawa would be hugely beneficial, given the party’s policies related to Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous rights.

“The Green Party certainly stands as a champion of our First Peoples, and almost every Green Party event that I’ve gone to begins by acknowledging that we are in the territory of people who came before us,” he said. “And that kind of acknowledgement of our ancestors is important to maintain the sense that we’re here for a short period time on this fragile place we call planet Earth, and we really do have to think about those who came before us, and we have to think about the seven generations that lie ahead.”

Cormier has adopted some key Indigenous principles into his campaign pledge — namely to “never take more than you need” in vowing not to keep his MP salary to himself since he already receives a pension. Instead, he would donate his earnings as an MP to projects in his riding, he explains on his campaign website.

Long Range Mountains electoral district. Elections Canada.
The new Long Range Mountains electoral district includes part of the old districts of Humber–St. Barbe–Baie Verte and Random–Burin–St. Georges. Elections Canada.

“I am thinking about all those who volunteer to make our lives better,” he wrote. “I benefited from many opportunities growing up in Corner Brook. Winning a Rotary Club speaking contest sent me on an ‘Adventure in Citizenship’ to Ottawa in 1968.  There are hundreds of people who organized the hockey and baseball teams, the Youth Parliaments, Boy Scout camps, music festivals and theater festivals in which thousands of us had the chance to participate. This is my way of giving back.”

If elected he said he will stand with the Qalipu against the federal government in its efforts to reduce the number of applicants eligible for Indian status.

Cormier also said he would support a land claim for the landless band, if and when the time comes.

“You’ve got at least 100,000 people who claim to be Indigenous but there’s no land. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We are one of the few, if not the only, landless bands in the whole country. This has not been handled well from the very beginning in terms of the way the government’s approached it.

“Qalipu is seeing a remarkable resurgence, and the whole concept of identity for First Peoples is attached to the land,” he continued. “Your identity is the land. And it’s more than just a physical kind of place — it’s also an understanding of a relationship with the Earth that comes from our ancestors in terms of how to care for it and respect it, and how it gives you what you need and how you don’t take too much from it.

“What I have found is that the values that I attach to being Indigenous—things like respect for the Creator, respect for the Earth, [and] the qualities that are represented by the Circle, and that sense of equality—for me it nears what it means to be ‘green’, to have respect for the Earth, to have respect for our ancestors, to have respect for the generations to come. I’ve dedicated my campaign to the seven generations to come, to the future.”

Cormier said the growing embrace of Mi’kmaq values and principles among those living on the west coast means more people will be looking for political parties whose policies respect and promote a greener way of life. He says the party’s platform is a good indication of the long-term, sustainable thinking that defines the party’s vision for Canada, particularly for rural communities.

Being “Green” in 2015

His unofficial campaign slogan is “greener than you think,” a phrase Cormier came up with when he recognized the congruencies between the values of the Green Party and many of the people living on the west coast.

He has repeatedly said his challenge is to convince the people of western Newfoundland they’re greener than they think, but admitted the odds are not stacked in his favour as he’s campaigning for a party that has yet to make inroads in the province and in a district that has voted Liberal for a quarter century.

He’s also had no luck convincing community groups, municipalities or his fellow candidates to organize town hall discussions or all-candidates debates so voters can engage the MP hopefuls on their parties’ policies and on how they plan to represent the people of Long Range Mountains in Ottawa.

Team Cormier. Submitted photo.
Team Cormier. Submitted photo.

“MP is a very important job, and for what other important job do you hire somebody without there ever being an interview?” he said. “As far as I can determine, there’s a great deal of reluctance to engage in town hall meetings or in open discussion and debate, and frankly I’m very surprised…[that] there is a reluctance to discuss real issues.”

Cormier said the Liberals have little to show for their time representing western Newfoundland, and that with MP Gerry Byrne making the jump from federal to provincial politics there is a possibility enough people in the district are looking for something new.

He also recognizes the need to engage young voters, who he said are smart, progressive and hold the key to the province’s future but are largely disillusioned by Canadian politics. In 2011 Newfoundland and Labrador registered the lowest voter turnout among the 10 provinces for 18-24 year-olds, with 30 per cent of eligible voters in that age demographic making a trip to the polls.

Cormier doesn’t blame them.

“The House of Commons has degenerated—I watch question period far too often for my sanity—into a carnival sideshow of ridiculous proportions. There’s nothing serious that happens there. The heckling that goes on and the non-answers to serious questions is a reflection of the poor state of our democracy, and one of the things that’s motivating me to be involved,” he said.

If elected though, he promises to turn things around in western Newfoundland by doing politics differently and bringing a loud and honest voice to Parliament.

The fact the Greens don’t whip votes and allow their members to dissent from the party line means that, if elected, Cormier could still stand in the House of Commons and advocate on behalf of the seal hunt, a contentious issue many Newfoundlanders have with the Green Party, which supports traditional hunts but opposes the commercial hunt.

Cormier said he has always been a staunch defender of the seal hunt, and that he has no worries about May reacting as Mulcair did recently when the NDP leader purged candidates he discovered to have sympathized with Palestinians.

“I have no problem having that discussion with Elizabeth May,” he said, adding he will challenge the party’s position on what constitutes a traditional hunt, if elected.

“I don’t think the Green Party has ever had a voice that could give it an understanding of what goes on in Western Newfoundland.

“The harvesting of marine mammals along the coast of Newfoundland is a traditional practice that my ancestors have done for many generations, for thousands of years quite likely — and I consider that a traditional harvest.”

He said the seasonal fishery that non-Aboriginal sealers participate in is likewise traditional because it has been ongoing for hundreds of years and “sustains small communities that are in desperate need of the income that comes from this admittedly small harvest.”

 If the Long Range Mountains elected a Green MP, I can assure you that would get an awful lot of attention in Ottawa, and it’s probably the only way to get any attention in Ottawa because they’ve shown they really don’t care about what goes on out here. — Terry Cormier

Cormier said he will hold town hall meetings in communities across the district at least twice a year in order to engage constituents at a grassroots level so they can help shape party policy and so he can bring their messages to Ottawa.

“If the Long Range Mountains elected a Green MP, I can assure you that would get an awful lot of attention in Ottawa, and it’s probably the only way to get any attention in Ottawa because they’ve shown they really don’t care about what goes on out here,” he said.

“I want people to know that a Green candidate promotes open discussion and debate about the issues. A Green Member of Parliament, as a working method, gets his or her advice from the communities that they serve.”

Though May has admitted she’s not expecting to be voted the next prime minister of Canada, she pointed out the increasing likelihood of a minority government and said she would play the role of mediator in trying to broker a deal between the NDP and Liberals to form a coalition government in the event of a Conservative minority.

Trudeau, Mulcair and May have all said ousting Harper from office is a top priority, though Trudeau has so far opposed the idea of a coalition with the NDP.

May told CBC last week she thinks her party could realistically win 12-15 seats on Oct. 19 and that she would love to sit in opposition to a Liberal-NDP coalition government.

In 2011 May became the first ever Green Party MP to win a seat in the House of Commons, and in late 2013 was joined by Thunder Bay–Superior North MP Bruce Hyer after Hyer left the NDP to sit as an independent.

Cormier echoed May’s recent comments, saying next month’s election will likely result in a minority government, in which case “having more Green voices in Ottawa will make a difference in terms of how we do public policy.

“The Green Party seeks out different points of view, it believes in diversity, and it generates discussion with more stakeholders, and you end up with better public policy as a result,” he said.

Despite their size and short time in Ottawa, Cormier argued the Greens have already had a positive impact on Canadian politics.

“Elizabeth May was the first MP to publish on her website every office expense that she makes, and we need a lot more openness in government than we’re getting, or that we’re even capable of getting from the three other parties,” he said.

The Greens, Liberals and NDP have all said they would do away with Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, with the Greens and NDP promising to replace it with proportional representation and the Liberals vowing to study the options before making a decision.

“There’s a pretty good chance this might be the last election in Canada where we are in the first-past-the-post system,” Cormier said, “so if 10 per cent of the country voted Green [next election] there would be a significant contingent of Greens in a federal parliament.”

In 2008, against the wishes of Harper and late NDP leader Jack Layton, and after significant public outcry, the Greens were invited to leadership debates for the first time. They failed to win any seats in the election but May’s performance in the debates helped earn the party an all-time high 6.8 per cent of the popular vote with just under a million Canadians voting Green.

Amid controversy and in the face of public outrage and polls indicating the majority of Canadians wanted May included, the Green Party leader was excluded from the 2011 leadership debates but managed to win her riding, becoming the first-ever Green Party MP elected to the House of Commons.

With the exception of last month’s Maclean’s leaders’ debate—and with two sitting Green MPs and a March EKOS poll indicating upward of 68 per cent of Canadians want her included—May has been denied participation in key leadership debates, including this Thursday’s Globe & Mail debate on the economy.

Online petitions are circulating in an effort to have May included in the debates she has not been invited to.

In the event he can’t find someone to host an all-candidates’ town hall or debate for the Long Range Mountains district, Cormier wants the people of western Newfoundland to know his “main pitch” to vote Green this election is “governance, it’s democracy, it’s how we do it,” he said.

“I have two objectives, beyond being the Green Party representative for western Newfoundland: to increase the voter participation rate, which especially for young people is really low…and to open debate and discussion about the issues.”

He said elections and politics more broadly have become “all about money [and] not about issues,” and that the future would look brighter for western Newfoundland if politics were done differently, beginning on Oct. 19.

“I don’t think our politics should be held hostage to who has the deepest pockets and can shake down the most people for contributions. Unfortunately, that’s kind of the way the main three political parties think and operate and make their decisions.”

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