Richard Cannings admits he wasn’t sure what to expect when he was elected to federal parliament last year.
Cannings ran for the NDP in the 2015 federal election, and was successful in his bid to become the first minister of parliament for the new South Okanagan West Kootenay riding. A year into his term, he said he’s learned a lot.
“It’s a job that is pretty amazing and it is a real privilege and an honour. But because not many people get to do it, it’s hard to know what to expect; you don’t get a lot of chatter from your friends about what it is like to be an MP,” said Cannings.
Cannings said he understood what he was getting into working in the riding: helping people, meeting groups, finding out what makes this region run. But working in the capital was a different story.
“The life in Ottawa is a bit of a black box, so that has been a huge learning experience,” said Cannings. “I didn’t really know what kind of influence, what kind of opportunity I would have to speak to issues about my riding or about my other concerns.”
Cannings, a biologist and an environmentalist, was named vice-chair of the Natural Resources Committee, giving him just that chance to speak to issues.
“That is a huge opportunity for me to learn and for me to have input into some of the big issues facing the country,” said Cannings. “I’ve also sat in on other committees when they feel my expertise is needed.”
At home, Cannings said he has experienced staff to help him with the riding work and people that come into his offices looking for help, which he said is a key part of the job.
“That work falls mainly to my staff. It takes a real knowledge of how to negotiate the arcane alleyways of Ottawa,” said Cannings. “One of the surprises, and a disappointment for me in a way, is how much easier it is for an MP to get action in Ottawa than it is for a citizen.”
Things move slowly in Ottawa, Cannings said, adding that his experience on provincial and national boards, like the Nature Conservancy, has aided him.
“There are issues I have been concerned about, local issues like the Columbia River treaty; these are things that take years,” said Cannings.
Most of the MPs, he said, have similar backgrounds, some coming through municipal politics, others through service groups, and other informed backgrounds.
“They are all very competent people and are working hard. That what makes it so energizing for me,” said Cannings. “There is no boredom involved. Every hour is different. Overall, I very much enjoy it. It is a real privilege to do this and I don’t forget that.”
But it can be difficult to make progress, like in discussing renewable energy, one of the items the Natural Resources Committee was mandated to work on.
“I can’t seem to get our committee going on it. It’s a big part of our mandate,” said Cannings. “It’s a committee dominated by Liberals and they don’t seem to be interested. So instead, we’ve been studying how to help the oil and gas industry.
“I’m not one to say we don’t need an oil and gas industry. But I don’t think it was what Canadians were expecting us to do.”
The issue of a national park for the Similkameen is one Cannings said he continues to follow, though he said the ball is in B.C.’s court right now.
“I’m still hopeful something will happen in that regard. It probably won’t be as big a park as most people want. The government is trying to make sure the ranching industry is taken care of and I fully support that,” said Cannings, adding that he has met with HNZ Helicopters, a local business that will be affected by changes.
“Once the province comes out with some sort of a plan on that I would be happy to get involved as seriously as I can.”
Cannings said there is a range of issues he is working on: renewable energy, softwood lumber, pipelines and others. But one of the biggest issues, he said, is the Liberal’s promise of electoral reform, which appears to be stalled.
“This is one of the most important things that this parliament will do, if they do it,” said Cannings. “If they don’t do it, it will be important in that they just squandered a huge opportunity to fix our electoral system.
“I think that is the most important at thing that is going to happen over the next year. “