Skip to Content

B.C.'s new 'egghead senator' caught up in partisan spat

by October 28, 2016 General

OTTAWA — B.C.’s newest senator, who describes himself as a middle-of-the-road public policy “egghead,” found himself at the centre of a bitter partisan spat over ethnicity on Friday.

The conflict centred on a federal New Democratic Party MP’s reaction to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appointment of Yuen Pau Woo, former head of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, to the scandal-plagued upper chamber.

The NDP’s Nathan Cullen seized on the fact Woo has long supported closer Canada-China trade ties, and in particular the construction of pipelines to ship diluted Alberta bitumen through B.C. ports to Asian refineries.

Cullen is an strong opponent of the proposed $7.9-billion Northern Gateway that would go through his Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding.

The appointment would have only made sense if “it was the Chinese government that appointed him to the Canadian Senate, because he’s certainly very focused on looking out for Chinese interests,” Cullen said.


Some, including B.C. Liberal MLA John Yap, concluded that Cullen was targeting the senator-designate’s Chinese ethnicity.

“It’s disgusting to see the NDP label and judge someone based on their ethnicity,” Yap, who represents the Richmond-Steveston provincial riding, said in a statement Friday.

“Mr. Woo has dedicated his life in Canada to building a stronger British Columbia and these unfounded and scurrilous attacks need to be rejected.”

Cullen shot back that he wasn’t referring to Woo’s background.

“I had no idea if he was a 10th generation Canadian or a new first-generation immigrant like me,” Cullen, who was born in Canada to Irish and Russian parents, said in an interview. “So claims of racism are cheap and unfounded.”

“My concern is his policies, and that he somehow is meant to represent British Columbia in the unelected Senate, when his views on pipelines speak directly against British Columbia’s interests.”

Cullen then sent a letter to Woo congratulating him on his appointment, apologizing for his “inarticulate statement” to Postmedia News, and inviting him to the northern B.C. riding to meet with “First Nations, fishermen, outdoors enthusiasts, and everyday ordinary people” concerned about the proposed Northern Gateway  pipeline to Kitimat.

“As you prepare to take up this important calling to represent our provinces in Canada’s Parliament, I believe it will be most important for you to appreciate these perspectives firsthand.

Woo, 53, initially had the same reaction as Yan, calling Cullen’s comments “obnoxious” and intentionally directed at his background as an ethnic Chinese who was born in Malaysia, grew up in Singapore, emigrated to Canada in 1988, and became a citizen in 1991.

“I’m three generations removed from Mainland China,” said Woo, who first arrived in B.C. as a teenager to attend Pearson College on a scholarship.

“I have distant, distant connections to the People’s Republic of China. To the extent I do promote stronger relations with Asia and with China, it is in the interests of Canada.”

When told that Cullen was referring to his pubic policy statements and not his ethnicity, Woo withdrew his “obnoxious” charge. He later sent an email to Postmedia after receiving Cullen’s letter.

“I accept his apology unreservedly.I do look forward to working with him and all other B.C. parliamentarians in Ottawa.”

Woo, a North Vancouver resident with four adult children, calls himself an academic “egghead” who views the Senate as a logical step for someone who has studied public policy “mostly from the outside looking in” during his career, which included stints in Singapore as an economist, central banker and academic.

“Being a senator provides me the opportunity to continue working on public policy from a different vantage point, from the inside. For me that’s kind of a dream come true, to be closer to where policy is deliberated and crafted and ultimately enacted.”

He said he only applied for the Senate post because of Trudeau’s pledge to make the unelected upper chamber a less partisan and more independent chamber as it debates and votes on legislation that’s gone through the elected House of Commons.

Woo, who is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, said he’s truly independent, having supported candidates for all major political parties, and never being a member of any of them.

Yet Woo isn’t exactly shy in the public forum, nor has he sought to avoid controversial positions that might alienate members of the public.

In addition to his pro-pipeline stand, he wrote a Vancouver Sun opinion piece earlier this year saying that some critics of Chinese investment in Vancouver’s real estate market were “race baiting.”

In 2013, responding to a Vancouver Sun column about the large number of immigrants from Hong Kong who return to their place of birth after getting Canadian citizenship, he labelled those who object to Canadians “who go out into the world” as “small-minded.”

“I don’t go out of my way to offend anyone,” he said. “I probably lean on the side of being a consensus-seeker, but I’ve been known to speak out on issues.”

While Woo, who will earn $145,700 annually in a job that lasts until he turns 75, is expected to be a strong advocate of Trudeau’s effort to improve Canada-China relations.

But he noted that he has other interests. Among them is culture (he is chairman of the Vancouver Academy of Music), innovation, and health policy.

“I don’t want to be a one-trick pony.”