John Cummins has some pointers for the critics trying to oust him this Saturday as leader of the B.C. Conservatives.
"What I'd say to the fellows who are challenging the leadership is, 'Be substantive,'" Mr. Cummins, 70, said at the party's spartan Langley offices. "There's a bunch of unsubstantiated comments, but I don't think they have really got to the nut of the issue."
Since taking the helm of B.C.'s third party in May, 2011, Mr. Cummins has toured the province, trying to make the case to voters that the Conservatives are the true-blue alternative to the governing Liberals. But dissention in the ranks has led to a potential review of Mr. Cummins's leadership at the party's annual general meeting in Langley. If a simple majority of party members agree that such a review should occur, the Conservatives – who, like the B.C. Liberals, are not affiliated with their federal namesakes – would be plunged into chaos ahead of the 2013 election.
"I don't see any reason to get all upset by it," Mr. Cummins said. "I would expect that the number of people who are going to have found shortcomings in my leadership is probably going to have increased over the past year. That's just a fact of life."
The attack from within has been stealthy, articulated in leaked e-mails that refer to the party's $4,000-a-month allowance for the leader, as well as vague allegations about Mr. Cummins's leadership style. While supporters of Mr. Cummins have rallied around in a series of e-mails under the banner of the "Friends Of John Cummins," a forthright advocate for his removal has yet to appear. There is no declared, Paul-Martin-like successor waiting in the wings, and one prominent critic has jumped ship: John Martin, the former Conservative candidate in the 2012 Chilliwack-Hope by-election, defected to the Liberals on Friday, saying his former party hasn't performed up to expectations.
To his supporters, Mr. Cummins is a man of principle. "He is one of the straightest-shooting guys I've ever seen," said Erling Olsen, son of a fisherman and founding president of Leader Fishing Ltd. "He stands by his word."
But former federal Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl, who served in Parliament with Mr. Cummins, says there is a downside to that stubbornness.
"John came to the conclusion that life was too short to pussyfoot around," Mr. Strahl said. Political leaders, he added, have to compromise. "That's what John is going to have to show as a leader."
The trek west
The son of a stay-at-home mother and paper-mill engineer, Mr. Cummins grew up in a carless household near Georgetown, Ont. After earning a BA in geography and history at the University of Western Ontario, Mr. Cummins moved to Alberta to work in the oil patch. In 1968, he acted on the suggestions of a colleague and continued his trek westward to B.C., where he got a job as a deckhand on a troller out of the Lower Mainland. He was so ill-prepared he wore leather Hush Puppies shoes on deck.
"I had no idea what I was getting into, absolutely none," he said. In 1976, he bought his first boat, and fished off and on to 2006, in the process establishing his reputation as an outspoken fishermen's advocate.
In 2001, Mr. Cummins joined 47 other non-native fishermen who dropped their nets in the Fraser River during a native-only fishery, deliberately and openly breaking the law to make a point. He was subsequently fined $300.
Phil Eidsvik, a spokesman for the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition who has known Mr. Cummins for two decades, says the experience on the water profoundly shaped the B.C. Conservative Leader. "You don't really have time for BS out there. Once the fishery opens, you need to move, and I think that [independent streak] would be a definitive characteristic of a lot of fishermen."
Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser for the Sto:lo Nation, said Mr. Cummins "played his skepticism about native-only fisheries for political purposes" and he blamed him for unnecessarily raising racial tensions on the Fraser. But Mr. Crey said he respected Mr. Cummins for standing up for what he believed and was always approachable.
"He can be talked to. I talked to him and I've been the one out there fighting him [on the river]," Mr. Crey said. "He's a very determined man. He doesn't lift a finger up in the air to see which way the wind blows. He's stubborn … that augers well for someone who wants to be a leader."
Mr. Cummins's political awakening came in 1987, when he read about a political party that was holding a meeting in Vancouver. "They were talking about concerns that Western Canadians had," he recalled. "I thought, 'Jeez, that makes sense to me too.'" The Reform Party of Canada was looking for $20 donations. "I never responded to an ad like that, but I sent them $20."
Until then, Mr. Cummins said, he was not necessarily a conservative voter. "Before I got involved with Reform, I had voted NDP. I had voted Liberal. Probably even voted Conservative," he said. "I voted across the spectrum. I think common sense appeals to me."
THE UNLIKELY POLITICIAN
After the death of his first wife, Mr. Cummins – a father and grandfather now remarried – decided to run as a Reform candidate in Delta in the 1988 federal election. He came fourth out of a field of seven. But he was ultimately elected in the 1993 breakthrough election for Preston Manning's Reformers, winning 38 per cent of the vote.
"I never had it as a lifelong ambition to be an MP," he said. But the impact hit him one day after the 1993 election while he was in the House of Commons foyer. "It was sort of like that bolt out of the sky. 'What is this? I am just a stationary engineer's son from Georgetown.'"
After serving as an MP for Reform, the Canadian Alliance and Conservatives, Mr. Cummins crossed over into provincial politics in May, 2011, getting elected leader of the B.C. Conservatives with 97-per-cent support. He was the only candidate.
Mr. Cummins had been offering the provincial party advice for some time. He was courted by Conservative supporters, who showed him polling that suggested he would be "helpful" to the party. The Conservatives had no MLAs at the time and had last governed B.C. as part of a coalition with the Liberals in the 1950s. Until John van Dongen defected from the Liberals, the party had not had a seat since 1986.
Soon after assuming the leadership, Mr. Cummins ran into some troubles over remarks suggesting homosexuality is a choice, and questioning whether land should be given to first nations. He said he is learning that he is no longer speaking for himself, but for a movement.
"You learn it the hard way," he said. "You watch things happen and you watch how your words are reflected in the press. I've never blamed the press if I get something wrong. If I don't present my issue or story in a proper way, then I deserve to be burned."
The leadership vote on Saturday may not go his way. But Mr. Cummins is sanguine about his own future in the perenially fractious party. "It's not the fulfillment of any kind of a lifelong ambition or even the temporary one," he said. "I just see myself as a guy that's doing the job."