The People's Chief - Stewart Phillip

Travis Lupick

Part one - Stewart Phillip reflects on his roots and the fight ahead

May 14, 2018 - A crowd of hundreds had come together in downtown Vancouver very quickly.

Late in the afternoon of June 17, 2014, politicians in Ottawa gave conditional approval for the construction of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project, which was planned to traverse the Great Bear Rainforest from north of Edmonton, Alberta, to Kitimat, B.C.

The former Conservative government hadn’t signalled that its decision would come that day, so there was no demonstration planned in advance. But in just a few hours, hundreds of Vancouver residents gathered downtown in a spontaneous protest against the approval.

The crowd was boisterous and energized by the momentum of an event coming together so quickly. At the intersection of Georgia and Hamilton streets, it grew to more than one thousand strong.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip was driving home to Penticton when he heard the news. He pulled over to an orchard at Spirit Ridge, near Osoyoos, and took a moment to think. Then he turned his trusted Chevy Tahoe around and began the drive back to Vancouver.

Four hours later, he stood before the crowd at Georgia and Hamilton.

“I could sense the energy, and it was way up at the top of the Richter scale,” Phillip tells the Georgia Straight almost four years later.

“It’s official: the war is on!” he cried, to which the crowd responded with a thunderous roar.

Interviewed at his office in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the long-time president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) smiled as he recounted that day. “I had no idea I was going to say that,” Phillip recalls. “I never use speaking notes.”

His battle cry breathed power into the demonstration over and above the momentum it already possessed.

“I’ve been around for a long time and I could sense that this crowd was not simply going to hear the speakers and then politely applaud and go home,” Phillip continues. “And then it took off down the street.”

Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipelines were never built.

They were added to a long list of industrial projects that Phillip has had a hand in defeating during almost half a century of his life as an activist. An expansion of the Apex ski resort south of Kelowna, Taseko Mines’ New Prosperity project southwest of Williams Lake, and Pacific NorthWest LNG’s export facility that was planned for Lelu Island near Kitimat, are just three examples of many.

Today Phillip stands in the way of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline-expansion project. For years, the Texas company’s Canadian subsidiary, Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd., has wanted to twin a pipeline that runs from Edmonton—where it receives diluted bitumen from the Alberta tarsands—to a port in Burnaby. Upon completion, it would triple the amount of bitumen transported to the Lower Mainland, increasing the number of oil tankers that sail past Vancouver through Burrard Inlet from some 60 ships per year to more than 400.

Phillip and a majority of B.C.’s Indigenous people, led by members of the local Tsleil-Waututh Nation, have vowed to prevent the project from going ahead.

Sustained protests have continued for years now, and Indigenous people’s allies have steadily grown in numbers. On March 10, thousands of people marched to Kinder Morgan’s gates on Burnaby Mountain. More than 200 people were arrested that day and at various demonstrations throughout the month.

On April 8, Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd. issued a lengthy statement declaring that it was “suspending all non-essential activities and related spending on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project”. For the first time, the company issued a deadline for progress.

“If we cannot reach agreement by May 31st, it is difficult to conceive of any scenario in which we would proceed with the Project,” the statement reads.

Growing up in isolation

Stewart Michael Phillip was born in Penticton, B.C., on November 17, 1949. But he didn’t stay in the Okanagan Valley for long. Less than a year after his birth, Phillip’s parents fell victim to a wave of tuberculosis that was sweeping through B.C. Both of them, members of the Penticton Indian Band, were sent to the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital, a sanatorium in Sardis, B.C., that operated until 1969. For a short time, one of Phillip’s older sisters tried to care for him. But she was only nine years old. As soon as authorities became aware that the children were alone, Phillip was sent to live with a white woman who lived an hour’s drive west, in Hedley.

Phillip had a relatively uneventful upbringing there. His foster mother was single when she took Phillip in but met a man a few years later. They married and Phillip remembers they took care of him well. He was never beaten, never went hungry, and always had a warm bed to sleep in.

“It was a small little bungalow,” he says of their home in Hedley. “We had a lawn….We had the white picket fence and little trellises for roses. She grew raspberries.”

When Phillip was five or six, the Hedley mill shut down and his new father lost his job. The family relocated six hours’ north, to Quesnel, and that’s where Phillip attended school.

In Grade 8, Phillip looked across the classroom and caught the eyes of a girl. As soon as they were old enough, there was a wedding. “I was 19, but emotionally I was 12,” Phillip says. They had two baby girls, but before long, it was clear a divorce was imminent.

When he was working construction at age 23, his boss called him to the phone. His wife was on the line, Phillip was told, which was strange. She never called him at work.

“I picked up the phone and she said: ‘I’m calling because your dad’s here. You better get home right away,’ ” Phillip recalls.

Sensing his confusion, she clarified: “Your real dad.”

The job site was 40 minutes’ drive from the house where they lived in Quesnel, and Phillip broke the speed limit the entire way.

“I was speeding because I thought my ex-wife was in harm’s way,” he says. “I had been taught that Indigenous people, First Nations people, were dangerous….I was thinking there was this drunken man in our home, shabbily dressed, lurching after my ex-wife.”

Phillip’s emotions fluctuated out of control. “Wow, I have a father,” he thought farther down the road. “I felt a sense of pride come up.”

When he pulled into his driveway, there was a new Ford Fairlane waiting for him, robin-egg blue with a white vinyl top.

“And I went into the house and I met him for the first time,” Phillip says. “He had these big, enormous Popeye arms. He had a brush cut and his hair was a kind of white, silver hair. He was a real imposing figure….And that’s when I asked him, ‘What kind of Indian am I?’ ”

For the first time, Phillip learned that he belonged to the Penticton Indian Band.

“We spent about six hours at the kitchen table,” Phillip continues. “And he left and I knew, at that moment, I had been lied to. I was told by my foster parents that my parents were really bad people, that Native people were dangerous. But my dad was an incredible person.”

Shortly after, Phillip and his former wife visited Penticton together and spent the weekend with Phillip’s father. He remembers it was a wonderful family reunion. On the drive back to Quesnel, Phillip knew he had already started down a new path.

“When you and I break up,” he remembers thinking then, “I know where I’m going.

“And that’s pretty much what happened,” Phillip continues. “I went home [to Penticton]. And that’s when my life began.”

Stewart Phillip in 1974. “Red Power was sweeping through our communities,” he remembers of those years.
Stewart Phillip in 1974. “Red Power was sweeping through our communities,” he remembers of those years.

Today Phillip remains angry and sad about what happened to him as an infant.

“When you get apprehended, you go alone,” he explained. “You are completely isolated, alienated from your family, your community, in terms of language, songs, and all of that. I grew up in Quesnel not having any sense of who I was.”

From the 1950s to the late 1980s, tens of thousands of children like Phillip were forcibly taken from their Indigenous parents and placed with white families across Canada.

A stated objective of Canada’s residential schools was to ““kill the Indian in the child”, Phillip notes.

“Apprehension had the same goal,” he says. “It was to assimilate our people into so-called mainstream Canadian society. That was another mechanism, another strategy to accomplish that goal….To kill the Indian within the child.”

A radical woman

Today Phillip wears his hair short, perfectly combed with an off-centre part. His shoes are clean, his pants are pleated, and he wears button-up shirts and beautiful ties that often incorporate Indigenous artwork. In the 1970s, Phillip had hair down to his shoulders, wore a red headband and sunglasses, and often sported military fatigues and combat boots. He was still finding himself as an activist, and was growing increasingly militant.

“I was very angry,” he remembers. “Without realizing it, the origin of that anger was that I had been apprehended. And the more I learned about our people, the more I resented the fact that I had missed out on that part of my life.”

Living with his birth family in Penticton, Phillip immersed himself in the Indigenous culture from which the government had taken him when he was just 10 months old. He went to work in one of B.C.’s new band offices there and was active in the community. But Phillip didn’t become the man he is today until he met the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

Without Joan Phillip, there is no Stewart. That comes through in every story the grand chief shares over hours of interviews that cover events spanning more than half a century.

“She’s my kindred spirit,” Phillip says. “She’s the most incredible person you will ever want to meet.”

In the mid-1970s, Joan Carter, as she was known then, was a radical.

She was a member of the Native Alliance for Red Power, a militant group of Indigenous people that was established in Western Canada in the late 1960s. She was also an ally of the Black Panthers and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1975, Joan led a delegation of 18 Indigenous people from western B.C. to the People’s Republic of China. “Before the doors were opened to the West,” Joan remarks today.

“I’d been involved in politics since I was about 16 years old,” she adds.

Joan had never heard of Phillip, but Phillip knew of Joan.

“At that time in my life, there were certain books that any red-blooded activist was expected to read,” Phillip says. “Prison of Grass by Howard Adams, The Unjust Society by Harold Cardinal, Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria Jr.” And a book by Joan’s sister, Lee Maracle.

“Lee Maracle’s first book was Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, and it was a must-read. So I bought the book,” Phillip says. “And right when I opened it, there in the pictures, there was a headshot of Joan. And it was mesmerizing.”

In the mid-1970s, Phillip accepted a position with a group called the Vancouver Indian Centre Society.

“I go to my first board meeting and I’m looking at the board members, I look down the table, and there’s Joan sitting there,” Phillip remembers. Later that day, the meeting moved to the King’s Head pub in Kitsilano, and the two of them got to talking.

“Eventually, we came together,” Phillip says. “And we’ve been together ever since.”

Years before they met, Stewart Phillip was captivated by a photograph of Joan Carter (later Joan Phillip) that was included in a 1975 book by Joan’s sister, Lee Maracle.
Years before they met, Stewart Phillip was captivated by a photograph of Joan Carter (later Joan Phillip) that was included in a 1975 book by Joan’s sister, Lee Maracle.

Joan began to “educate” him, Phillip recalls.

“He was quite conservative,” Joan says. “He was more connected to the community itself, though. Which was a good thing….it was a good relationship that way.”

They’d found each other, but it was on again, off again for a while. Phillip had been drinking since he was 15 years old, and his alcoholism contributed to a rocky relationship with Joan.

“He wouldn’t stop at one, ever, ever in his life,” Joan says.

Phillip recounts the strain this placed on the period of their relationship that they spent in Vancouver. Both of them had young children from previous marriages, so it was important to have a car. And Phillip totalled two of them in quick succession.

“Those were the family vehicles, so we had to walk everywhere for months with little kids,” Phillip says. “So it was bad.”

He remembers he was very much still struggling with the conflicting identities he was left with after he was born Indigenous, taken from his parents and raised by a white family, then not reconnecting with his birth family until he was more than 20 years old. “I felt, literally, caught between two worlds,” he said. “It was traumatic.”

The drinking got worse.

“I started to think about killing myself,” Phillip says. “I’d be so sick and hungover, I would tell Joan: ‘Why don’t you take the kids and go for a drive?’ And while they were gone, I was going to shoot myself.

“What kept me alive was my son,” Phillip continues. “I thought he would have to grow up with that stigma. And then and only then, I began to think, ‘Maybe I’m going to have to quit.’ ”

One night in 1987, Phillip broke down.

“I did a crash and burn,” he says. “I was in a Chinese restaurant and I just started crying. And then I just started howling.”

It was after midnight when Joan heard the phone ring at their home in Penticton. “He was crying and he wanted me to pick him up,” she says.

Three years earlier, a close friend named Emery Gabriel had faced a series of impaired-driving charges. To beat the rap, he had agreed to enter treatment. Initially, it was only to stay out of prison. But Gabriel had remained sober ever since. Now, at one in the morning at the Bamboo Inn, Phillip asked Joan to drive him to Gabriel’s.

“I was praying that Emery was awake, up, and by himself,” Joan says. Thankfully, he was. “And we talked all night.”

Gabriel impressed on Phillip that getting sober could be a scary thing, and not something to be taken lightly. “Are you sure you want to go into treatment?” he repeatedly asked.

Phillip finally was. “I was sick and tired of alcoholism, depression, the black hole,” he explains. “It’s such a bullshit lifestyle. Joan and I would argue about my drinking buddies, my friends. And then when I sobered up, not one person came to visit me. Because I wasn’t going to Cheers anymore. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not eternally grateful for not carrying that baggage anymore.”

The next week, Phillip entered the Nechako Centre in Prince George. He hasn’t had a drink in more than 30 years since.

“Now he had the energy and he had the time and he had the clarity of mind to do all these things,” Joan says.


Part two - How a life of activism led Stewart Phillip to stand before Kinder Morgan

May 17, 2018 - Among B.C. activists, grand chief Stewart Phillip and his wife are often referred to as a single unit. “It’s ‘Joan and Stewart’,” Phillip says proudly. “We’ve been in the trenches since the ’70s.”

At his office in downtown Vancouver, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) recounts one battle that left a mark—indeed, one that left a lasting memory in the minds of most Indigenous people across Canada. It occurred during the summer of 1990, Phillip begins.

On July 11 of that year, Jean Ouellette, the mayor of Oka, Quebec, requested that the province’s police force, the Sûreté du Québec, intervene in a dispute with the Mohawk people. The Mohawks had protested plans to expand a golf course onto their land. When the Sûreté du Québec became involved, officers responded to a road blockade with tear gas and concussion grenades. Gunfire followed, the standoff intensified, and the Mohawk demonstrators fortified their positions.

When news reached Penticton, Phillip was at his band office, reviewing a spreadsheet that detailed housing developments. The radio was on and a news reporter said something about the RCMP having arrested the chief of the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation, which was then known as the Pavilion Indian Band.

“What was that about?” Phillip asked.

“Some chief with Pavilion was arrested for blocking the road,” replied an elder who was in control of the radio. “I don’t know. Mohawk or something.”

In a show of solidarity with the Mohawk people in Quebec, Pavilion chief Butch Bob had erected a blockade on the highway that runs from Cache Creek to Lillooet. The RCMP had arrested him.

“We ran into the boardroom and we turned on the TV and that TV stayed on for the entire summer,” Phillip says.

In Penticton, a community meeting was convened on Saturday. “We don’t even know those people,” some said. “They’re way over there. What have they ever done for us? It’s not our fight.”

The meeting continued for a second day. “Sunday, we packed into the community hall and it was said, ‘We have no choice. It is our fight,’ ” Phillip says. “Monday, the barricades went up.”

From Penticton, Phillip and Joan travelled to Seton Portage, which is east of Lillooet.

“There was a decision to set up a rail blockade at Seton Portage,” Phillip says. “We had the rail line blockaded and they had to stop all trains. It took a couple of days for the RCMP to organize. And then they deployed. They came in by helicopter across the lake.

“They came across the lake in formation,” Phillip continues. “It looked like a scene right out of Vietnam. They flew right over the top of us, to intimidate us. Then they came marching up the road in a long column, deliberately stomping their one foot in a march.”

As the RCMP’s helicopters circled overhead, the blockade’s organizers decided that two of their members would refuse to leave the train tracks, positioning themselves for arrest. The St’át’imc First Nation selected one of their members and the Okanagan First Nation selected Joan.

“So Joan was sitting in the chair straddling the tracks and another lady was on the other side,” Phillip says. “And there was drummers, songs, the choppers flying over, the RCMP coming up that little road.”

As they got closer, Phillip and other members of the blockade joined Joan and the other woman on the tracks. Eventually, there were more than 15 of them waiting.

“And then the RCMP were there and took us away one by one,” Phillip says. “They took us down in riot straps and loaded us into helicopters.”

They were flown to Lillooet Airport, where more RMCP officers were waiting for them with old school buses that were painted grey and modified to transport prisoners. The group spent the rest of the day on those buses, left on the tarmac to bake in the B.C. Interior’s summer heat.

At one point, another contingent of RCMP officers returned via helicopter from the blockade at Seton Portage. From the buses, Phillip watched and listened to them celebrate.

“Did you see that big fucking Indian? Did you see him go down?” he remembers one shouting.

“They had marched right through the centre of the village and taken the barricades down by force,” Phillip says. “They had dogs. And it was just absolute violence. It was horrific….The RCMP were clubbing people; the dogs went crazy.”

Stewart Phillip was elected president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs in 1998.
Stewart Phillip was elected president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs in 1998.

The following morning, the group was transported to a jail in Vancouver and then made to appear in court.

“I said to everybody, ‘When we walk into that courtroom, I don’t want to see anybody with their head down. When we walk in there, we are going to walk in there with our heads’ up,’ ” Phillip recounts.

The judge found in their favour and everyone was released. “And we were just so happy to be free,” Phillip says. “Because when we were locked up, we had no idea what was going on back east. And we realized we were of no value sitting in a jail cell. And as soon as we were out, we went back to our summer-long campaign of supporting the Mohawk people.”

It was the first time that Phillip was arrested for an act of civil disobedience and a personal experience with police oppression and state power. Reflecting on that summer, Phillip says it also taught him strategy.

“In my early beginnings in activism, I hated the RMCP and I hated the military,” he says. “But I began to realize that I had to be completely and totally aware that they are agents of the state that oppresses our people. But it gets in the way, if you carry that emotion into it. And so you have to be more strategic.”

That doesn’t mean that you back down, Phillip continues. (B.C.’s grand chief says he has lost count of the number of times that police have removed him from a demonstration.) It means you weigh when an arrest is worth it, and, if inevitable, plan for it to happen on your terms.

“The number-one principle is Joan’s: we have to do the right thing. No matter what,” Phillip says. “No matter what the risk.”

Joan says that by 1990, she’d had hard feelings about police and Canadian authorities for a long time. But the Oka Crisis solidified the state’s position as an opponent and made that position clear for any Indigenous person who might have previously remained ambivalent.

“We learned not to trust the RCMP or police,” she says. “We learned not to trust governments.”

It also solidified Indigenous unity, and on a scale that hadn’t existed before.

“After the Mohawk crisis, we had a deep, deep, lifelong relationship with the St’át’imc people that will be there for generations to come,” Phillip says. “Because we went through the crisis together….That’s the nature of solidarity. Once you forge these friendships and alliances in the heat of battle, they are there forever.”

A struggle bigger than pipelines

For a decade now, B.C. Indigenous people’s hardest-fought battles have been over oil pipelines. On a drive out to Burnaby Mountain, Phillip lists them off.

There was Energy East, a pipeline that was proposed to carry diluted bitumen from the oil patch in Alberta more than 4,500 kilometres to terminals in New Brunswick. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project was similarly proposed to transport product from the oilsands, but west, through the Great Bear Rainforest, to Kitimat, B.C., and to carry carry LNG condensate east. And despite fierce resistance from Indigenous groups in both Canada and the United States, TransCanada Corporation continues to push for Keystone XL, an extension of the Keystone Pipeline System that would run from Alberta to refineries and ports on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

The Trans Mountain project, which is largely funded by Kinder Morgan Canada’s Texas-based parent company, Kinder Morgan Inc., involves twinning an oil pipeline that runs from Edmonton—where it receives diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands—to a port in Burnaby. Upon completion, it would triple the amount of bitumen transported to the Lower Mainland, increasing the number of oil tankers moving through Burrard Inlet from some 60 ships per year to more than 400.

Phillip’s specific target is not the pipeline expansion itself. He says the true goal is nothing less than to keep the tarsand’s bitumen where it is: in the ground.

“For Indigenous peoples, the lands, the waters, and all living things—it’s Mother Earth,” he explains. “That is universal throughout the entire world, for Indigenous people’s core beliefs and values, centred around an inherent responsibility to protect and defend Mother Earth. Now, a diametrically opposed worldview is the Euro-Canadian view, so to speak, that the lands and the waters are a collection of commodities that one takes to the market for profit.”

Stewart Phillip regularly visits the Watch House on Burnaby Mountain, a camp established by members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation as a physical protest against Kinder Morgan Canada.
Stewart Phillip regularly visits the Watch House on Burnaby Mountain, a camp established by members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation as a physical protest against Kinder Morgan Canada.

The dispute is much bigger than any one pipeline or even the entire oilsands, Phillip continues. The conflict over Kinder Morgan is only a manifestation of a divide that runs through many intersections of Indigenous peoples and North America’s colonial societies.

“What most people don’t realize is, with residential schools it was about destroying our culture, our language, our customs, and traditions, but the real goal of residential school was to destroy our spiritual connection to the land. That was the real goal.”

A warrior ready to go to battle

On a crisp afternoon last April, Phillip walks across a field near Kinder Morgan Canada’s oil-storage facility at the foot of Burnaby Mountain. At the field’s far side, an Indigenous group called Protect the Inlet, which is primarily an initiative of Tsleil-Waututh members, established a camp to serve as a physical symbol of opposition to Kinder Morgan’s plans to expand its oil operations on Burrard Inlet. It’s called the Watch House.

“A Watch House, (‘Kwekwecnewtxw’ or ‘a place to watch from’ in the henqeminem language, used by members of the Coast Salish Peoples) is grounded in the culture and spirituality of the Coast Salish Peoples,” reads a description of the camp on Protect the Inlet’s website. “It is a traditional structure they have used for tens of thousands of years to watch for enemies on their territories and protect their communities from danger.”

Before Phillip was halfway across the field, Indigenous people and allies manning the camp spotted him and waved and greeted him with smiles. He visits regularly and it’s obvious how much his presence is appreciated.

“Uncle,” calls the camp leader, Swaysən Will George. The two sit down together over stew and bannock and discuss the latest developments related to Kinder Morgan. One week earlier, on April 8, the corporation announced it was “suspending all non-essential activities and related spending on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project” and setting a deadline for political progress.

“If we cannot reach agreement by May 31st, it is difficult to conceive of any scenario in which we would proceed with the Project,” the statement reads.

George remained skeptical. “I’m not going to cheer in any way until this is absolutely dead,” he says. Phillip nods in agreement.

Asked how he views his role in the movement to stop Kinder Morgan, Phillip emphasizes it is not one of leadership. In this fight, that responsibility rests with members of the Tsleil-Waututh, he explains, and others on the front lines, including the Squamish Nation and Coldwater band.

“We [UBCIC] play a supporting role and a role of political advocacy,” Phillip says.

It keeps him on the front lines. Phillip’s most recent arrest was in November 2014, not far from the Watch House.

“There was a lot of drumming and singing, there was prayers,” he recounts. “When I crossed the line, I said: ‘I’m doing this for all of our grandchildren.’ It was very emotional.”

“Ta’ah [Amy George]—who is one of the most respected elders in Tsleil-Waututh—and myself crossed the line,” Phillip continues. “There were about a dozen seniors from all parts of the province that had organized themselves to cross the line with us, and they were all arrested.”

Rueben George was there that day. He’s a manager of the Sacred Trust—another initiative of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation—and the son of Ta’ah Amy George.

“I put on some paint, some protection on them,” George tells the Straight. “At that moment, I could see the spirit was guiding him. And then I put the paint on him and he was very serious about that and about the action that he was about to take. It was a beautiful moment….A warrior ready to go to battle.”

Among B.C. activists, the Phillips are often referred to as a single unit. “It’s ‘Joan and Stewart’,” Phillip says proudly. “We’ve been in the trenches since the ’70s.”
Among B.C. activists, the Phillips are often referred to as a single unit. “It’s ‘Joan and Stewart’,” Phillip says proudly. “We’ve been in the trenches since the ’70s.”

Will B.C.’s Indigenous people ever step out of Kinder Morgan’s way? Is there anything in the world that could force Phillip to back down?

“We have 15 grandchildren, and that’s what drives us,” Phillip replies. “Joan always reminds us: what we don’t accomplish we leave for our grandchildren. So we have to undertake as much of this challenge as possible during our time here. So that’s what we do.”rt to - How a life Part two - How a life of activism ledPart two - How a life of activism led Stewart Phillp to stand before Kinder Morgan Stewart Phillip to stand before Kinder Morganof activism led Stewart Phillip to stand before Kinder Morgan