Tourism, Culture and the Arts Minister Bill Bennett has described a tourism operator in his constituency as having "bigoted" and "ignorant" opinions - accusing Steve Kuijt of writing a "vicious and mean-spirited" email about him, which "may well be libellous." This, according to emails exclusively obtained by Public Eye. But, in interview, Minister Bennett defended his words, saying, "I put myself out there. It's my personal style to put things in writing - to say what I think, to say what I stand for."
At issue: in an email dated January 16, Mr. Kuijt, the operations manager for Island Lake Lodge Group, stated he was "disappointed to hear" Minister Bennett, during a recent speech to the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, spent most of his time talking about coalbed methane development rather than tourism - the topic "he had agreed to." And when he did talk about tourism, "the vast majority of that was on the Olympics, not anything in our area."
Writing to fellow chamber of commerce directors, Mr. Kuijt acknowledged he initially "welcomed" the East Kootenay legislator's appointment as tourism minister. But he's been "severely disappointed" by Minister Bennett's "total support" for coalbed methane extraction in Fernie "without any consultation with the tourism industry in our area with respects to any potential negative impacts it might have and any mitigation measures that might be available."
Indeed, according to Mr. Kuijt, Minister Bennett "has little interest in supporting tourism in Fernie and gets his direction from Vitoria (sic) and the resource sector - both priorities from his time spent as Minister of Mines and nothing to do with Tourism in our area. Why is he the Minister of Tourism?"
In an email response, Minister Bennett stated, "having sent a few emails in my day I wish I hadn't, I am not going to talk to any lawyers and I do not have any intention of making Mr. Kuit pay for his indiscrete email, as I paid for mine" - a reference to a heated message he sent to the president of the Fernie Rod and Gun Club in November 2006 which resulted in his resignation as minister of state for mining.
Nevertheless, in his lengthy communication to chamber president Evelyn Cutts, Minister Bennett wrote Mr. Kuijt's remarks were "quite revealing" of his "intellectual level. I cannot even begin to understand his reasoning that as MLA for Kootenay East I must only be allowed to talk about tourism and no other issue."
Minister Bennett also stated Mr. Kuijt had a "short sighted and ignorant" view of the 2010 Winter Olympics, accusing him of authoring an "obvious, politically partisan attack" on behalf of Wildsight - an environmental group opposed to coalbed methane development which counts Mr. Kuijt as a past member.
In fact, Wildsight is the reason his speech to the chamber focused on such development rather than tourism. According to Minister Bennett, he "received a copy of an email from Wildsight indicating they were trying to stack your meeting and to protest and disrupt the meeting, with a focus on coal bed gas."
"Three different Chamber members from Fernie contacted me about the Wildsight strategy and strongly advised me to come to the meeting prepared to explain the government's position on coal bed gas. And when you think about it, what issue s most top of mind in Fernie these days? Coal bed was a natural choice of topic."
Minister Bennett then went on to encourage Ms. Cutts to invite energy company BP p.l.c. or the oil and gas commission to a chamber meeting, adding, "I certainly hope that a business organization, an organization whose very mandate is to support business growth in Fernie, does not share the narrow, bigoted views of Mr. Kruit and his friends in the Wildsight Party" - which "has decided to try to get an NDP MLA elected in this riding."
But, speaking with Public Eye, Minister Bennett made no apologies for his characterization of Mr. Kuijt because he attempted "to basically smear my reputation after not even attending the meeting himself."
"I'm a street fighter, I'm a pretty emotional guy," explained Minister Bennett, who cited a list of actions he's taken to support tourism in the Kootenays. "It's just who I am. And it's hard, I think, for the Lower Mainland media to accept that because that's not the way things are down here - you're much more gentile."
"It's not that people are any less vicious in politics. In fact, if anything, I think it's even more vicious. But it's not so sort of out in front and public - the way that I am...But my constituents - they like me to be out front like that and say what I think and to scrap for the things I believe in" - such as coalbed methane development.
"I've been hearing that Fernie's got all this potential. And I've been saying it myself for eight years as an MLA. And I've been hearing it for longer then that. The problem is, we're not seeing anything - it's just all talk."
And, according to Minister Bennett, that's because there's a "really well-organized group of people" who "scare the living bejezus out of the people of this little town. Every time somebody suggests well we should do a golf course development or we should do a coalbed gas or we should do this or do that, they scare the heck out of everybody. And I just think somebody has to stand up to them and that's what I'm doing."
The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned emails.
From: Steve Kuijt
Sent: January-16-09 11:53 AM
To: Steve Kuijt; Scott Gilmet; Paula Ehmann; Krista Turcasso; Heather Lewis; Evelyn Cutts; Darren Milne; Darlene Mosiondz; Christine Grimble; Angela Etheridge; Carrie Meyer
I was vary disappointed to hear that Bill Bennett decided to talk about CBM for almost the entire meeting on January 15th as opposed to what the Chamber of Commerce had requested as a topic and he had agreed to. As a member of the C of C board of directors and a business manager in the Fernie area I see every day the impact of the current economic impact on tourism in our area. At the time of his appointment as Minister of Tourism I welcomed his appointment. I read his weekly input in the Free Press and have been following his progress on several topics. I am severely disappointed on two fronts, one is his total lack of interest in tourism support for our area exemplified by the recent Business Breakfast where he was given the opportunity to talk about tourism in our area (in fact it was the main purpose for his invitation) but spent less than five minutes on tourism and the vast majority of that was on the Olympics, not on anything in our area. The second disappointment is the total support of CBM extraction in Fernie (not even in his portfolio) with out any consultation with the tourism industry in our area with respects to any potential negative impacts it might have and any mitigation measures that might be available. Reading his input in the Free Press on a regular basis I can see I have been vary naÃ¯ve, he has little interest in supporting tourism in Fernie and gets his direction from Vitoria and the resource sector - both priorities from his time spent as Minister of Mines and nothing to do with Tourism in our area. Why is he the Minister of Tourism?
----- Original Message -----
From: Bennett, Bill TCA:EX
Cc: Bennett, Bill TCA:EX
Sent: Sunday, February 01, 2009 8:41 PM
Subject: Steve Kuit
I have seen the email from Mr. Kuit to you and some of your Chamber directors. This email may well be libelous. It is viscious and mean-spirited, not to mention the hypocrisy of someone who was not even in attendance to hear what I had to say. It is also quite revealing of Mr. Kuit's intellectual level. I cannot even begin to understand his reasoning that as MLA for Kootenay East, I must only be allowed to talk about tourism and no other issue.
However, having sent a few emails in my day I wish I hadn't, I am not going to talk to any lawyers and I do not have any intention of making Mr. Kuit pay for his indiscrete email, as I paid for mine. But to undo any harm done to my reputation, I am providing you with a reponse that I trust you will forward to all of your Chamber directors so that the record can be set straight. Please advise if you will not be forwarding this message to your directors. Thank you.
Here is my response.
My Cranbrook office notified me in the late fall that the Fernie Chamber was inviting me to speak. I value these invitations and frankly wish I had more such opportunities. If I have a choice between speaking at venues in my Riding or being a minister elsewhere, I will choose my Riding every time. Everyone in Victoria, including Premier Campbell, knows that about me. However, there are ocassions in my business where I do not have a choice and that happened in the fall. I had to cancel and look for an alternate date. That date was the meeting at which I spoke in January. Your comments to the attendees of that meeting that I am very difficult to get to a meeting and that I had cancelled this particular speaking engagement many times was incorrect. The attendees left that meeting under an incorrect and unfair impression. Several attendees expressed to me their dismay with your comments which they felt were ungracious.
I never spoke directly with your Chamber manager, but my staff reported to me that you wanted me to talk about tourism. I put together a speech on tourism and the Olympic games and prepred to give that speech. Two days before the date of the event, I received a copy of an email from Wildsight indicating they were trying to stack your meeting and to protest and disrupt the meeting, with a focus on coal bed gas. Three different Chamber members from Fernie contacted me about the Wildsight strategy and strongly advised me to come to the meeting prepared to explain the government's position on coal bed gas. And when you think about it, what issue is most top of mind in Fernie these days? Coal bed gas was a natural choice of topic.
I did not get to deliver the portion of my speech on tourism, although I did cover a few items. I warned the crowd that tourism was going to be tough the next year or two and that we have a plan to help. Frankly, with no disrespect intended, your comment after I spoke that tourism in Fernie is doing fine is puzzling, since tourism numbers are down all over the Kootenays, including Fernie. Business people from Fernie I talk to are very concerned about the economy and its impact on tourism locally. I also explained how fortunate BC is to have the 2010 Games. Every nation on earth wishes they had an Olympic Games during this recession. Your members may not be aware, but we have already had high quality video shot in Fernie that will be shared with the 10,000 media attending the 2010 Games and in fact NBC already has the video. I certainly hope that Mr. Kuit does not speak for the Fernie Chamber with his short sighted and ignorant comments about the Olympics. Opportunity comes to those who recognize it and are prepared to work at it. If the Fernie Chamber needs any information on how all of BC will benefit from the 2010 Games, I would be happy to provide it. Or invite me back and I will give you 30 minutes on nothing but tourism and the Olympics.
As for the substance of Mr. Kuit's email, or lack of substance, it is concerning that he does not seem to believe that the people of Fernie deserve to know the facts around coal bed gas exploration. What is he afraid of? Perhaps he and his allies fear that the truth will show there is nothing to fear and that there are very strict rules in place that will ensure protection of the environment. Perhaps he is worried the people of the community will start to realize, as they did in Hudson Hope, that coal bed gas cold be an economic godsend for their community (after considerable fear in the beginning). You may recall that I asked the audience at various junctures during my speech, if they were aware of certain facts"¦at no time were there more than 3 or 4 people who were aware of very basic facts on coal bed gas. As a business organization, why not invite BP in to talk about their plans and if you want, someone from the Oil and Gas Commission to talk about the rules. Again, I certainly hope that a business organization, an organization whose very mandate is to support business growth in Fernie, does not share the narrow, bigoted views of Mr. Kuit and his friends in the Wildsight Party (because it is a political party even it doesn't call itself one).
Evelyn, Fernie has missed many opportunities over the past 8 years. It is my perspective from listening, being part of the community and watching for 8 years that the debate about development of any kind is framed by Wildsight in stark terms of "either/or""¦either development proceeds and Fernie and the surrounding land loses its environmental and community integrity; or development does not proceed and the community stays the same as does the natural environment. Surely experience in life shows us that a balance between these two extremes is possible. Here is a quote from the speech I gave:
"In a way that (tourism and cbg) is a good way to structure my remarks today because I have always believed it is not a question of either or"¦either resource jobs or tourism jobs"¦it is a question of finding a way to balance it so that people have good jobs, communities have amenities, municipal governments have tax revenues and we all have wild, clean places to enjoy when we aren't working."
And does anyone really believe things ever stay the same? Fernie is losing people, not just opportunities. Although there has been much talk over the last eight years about "growth" and "development", not much has actually gone ahead. The fear that has stopped a balanced approach to new jobs and new business for your members must be fought. It must be stood up to. Mr. Brennan and Wildsight, despite our government's leadership on climate change and other environmental matters and despite my commitment to prevent mining in the Flathead, has decided to try to get an NDP MLA elected in this Riding. That is his business and is part of the democratic process. Let him take his best shot. But for the community of Fernie, is it not time that we ask what Wildsight supports. What project? What development? What new jobs? They are not for balanced economic growth. They are for no economic growth, no new jobs and the slow deterioration and strangulation of the small business community of Fernie. Tell me it isn't so, Evelyn. You know in your heart what I say is true. Mr. Kuit, the author of such an obvious, politically partisan attack against me, speaks for Wildsight.
Finally, Evelyn, your directors and your members, all being supportive of economic development, new jobs and keeping existing jobs, should know my record. I was a chamber President for two years in Cranbrook. I grew up in a small business family and owned a small business myself - a wilderness lodge. As MLA, I have played key roles in the following:
The expanded Canadian Rockies International Airport;
A $34 million expansion of our regional hospital and 35 new specialists;
A $16 million expansion of College of the Rockies;
The fix of the deadly Steamboat Hill;
Hundreds of thousand$ into eco system restoration of our natural grasslands;
The best invasive plant prevention program in BC;
The East Kootenay Angling Management Plan;
The Southern Rocky Mountain Management Plan;
My private member's bill, "the Heritage Right to Hunt and Fish";
Rennovations to the Fernie Arena;
Millions in infrastructure for Fernie, Sparwood and Elkford;
New high school in Sparwood.
Additional funding for Kootenay Rockies Tourism;
Fernie's Resort Municipality status;
To name a few things.
To close, Eveyln, I have known you for many years and I think we respect each other. If you need more information on coal bed gas, BP, tourism, or any other issue, you have my personal email and my cell phone number. I am at your disposal.
MLA, East Kootenay
Minister Tourism, Culture & Arts