'They were taking me away to be the main hostage for ransom': NDP MP Nathan Cullen

The beheading of John Ridsdel this week in the Philippines brings back disturbing memories for NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who was kidnapped at gunpoint while working with a small NGO in Ecuador more than 20 years ago.

MP recalls being hog-tied and dragged through the mud in kidnapping ordeal 20 years ago

B.C. NDP MP Nathan Cullen shares his story of being kidnapped in Ecuador in the 90s and discusses Canada's policy around hostage negotiations 10:11

The beheading of Canadian hostage John Ridsdel this week in the Philippines has brought back disturbing memories for one member of Parliament.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, was kidnapped at gunpoint while working with a small NGO in Ecuador more than 20 years ago.

He rarely speaks publicly about the events, but broke with personal convention to tell his story to Rosemary Barton, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

Cullen and his colleagues were helping the people of an isolated community develop alternatives to clear cut logging when the hostage-takers abducted him and others working with the NGO.

"They were trying to rattle (us), and find out if we had money there and then it progressed to what they would do next. and it was just awful things," recalled Cullen. 

"Yah, some terrible things...mock rapes of the women. Russian roulette, trying to mess people up enough to get answers to things that we just didn't have answers for," he said.

'He's got, he had kids'

Cullen described how he was hog-tied and dragged through the mud toward a canoe. "They were taking me away to be the main hostage for ransom," Cullen said. But before that could happen, the director of the NGO convinced the kidnappers to take him instead. 

"He said 'it would be a bad idea to take the Westerner, involve Interpol,'" Cullen said. "It was this long, protracted fight, and argument and negotiation and I can remember thinking — 'what's he doing?...he's got, he had kids.'" 

"I tried to talk (him) out of it, and say 'you know, not a good idea, you've got young kids,'" said Cullen. "He was the director so I think he felt that was his responsibility."

As a result Cullen said he only spent about 14 hours in captivity himself. The director was taken across the border and forced to endure being tied to a pole in the rainforest for three months. "He was pretty wrecked," Cullen said. "I don't think you come off that too well. It was an awful, awful experience."

'I still felt a debt to this guy'

Cullen said that several months later he learned that one of the ministers in the government had an interest in the logging company and had hired the kidnappers to drive off the NGO. "It was incredibly political in the worst way," he said. 

"You come home and it's like, well, what do you do with this, what do you do with this energy, what do you do with this responsibility, that I still felt a debt to this guy and all that he was working for," he said.

Cullen's colleague was released upon payment of a ransom, something Canada's prime minister has vowed never to do.  Another Canadian, Robert Hall, remains in captivity in the Philippines, held by kidnappers who have demanded millions for his release. 

Paying ransom

"I logically get it, that if we as a country pay then you encourage more kidnapping to take place," said Cullen. "Yet I can only try to place myself in the shoes of the families who are so desperate."

"I think this is an intractable problem. And increasing, as the terrorist networks around the world become more and more sophisticated."

Cullen speculated that if he had been taken to Colombia instead of his Ecuadorian colleague, the kidnappers might have sought a high price, on the assumption that families in wealthier developed nations could pay. 

Cullen said his ordeal nudged him in the direction of politics, because of the debt he felt he owed his kidnapped colleague, and the shock of seeing how environmentalists abroad risk their lives for the things they are trying to protect.

"The great thing about living in Canada is we don't usually have to, and so politics seemed to make more sense to me somehow."