A conversation with B.C. Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip

After 40 years fighting for Indigenous rights and Mother Nature, Stewart Phillip finds a new adversary in Kinder Morgan

Credit: Tanya Goehring

As the battle over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion rages on, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs president reflects on the future of resource development in B.C.

More than 40 years ago, Stewart Phillip first read Bobbi Lee Indian Rebel, an autobiography by Coast Salish writer Lee Maracle. Phillip, now president and grand chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), appreciated the insights contained in the book’s pages. But he was drawn to a photo of the author’s sister Joan.

Around that time, Phillip was invited to serve on the board of the Vancouver Indian Centre. He arrived a few minutes late to his first meeting, only to see the woman from the book staring across the table at him. Face flushed, Phillip took a seat and tried to regain his composure. The centre’s president handed him the meeting’s minutes and told him to read them. Phillip began reciting the document until the president interrupted: “To yourself, Phillip.” The room, including Joan, erupted in laughter.

Since then, Phillip has served the Indigenous community, sitting on the council of the Penticton Indian Band in his hometown before spending 14 years as band chief. First elected head of the UBCIC in 1998 and now in his eighth term, he’s been married to Joan for 34 years. The couple have six children and 15 grandchildren; in 2014, thoughts of the latter compelled Phillip to force the RCMP to arrest him at the Burnaby Mountain site of Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd.’s planned Trans Mountain Expansion Project. Although the oil pipeline has won federal and provincial approval, he insists that it will be stopped.

What are your objections to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion?
At the end of the day, it’s pretty much a battle of oil versus water. The deep concerns with respect to pipeline ruptures or tanker spills, and the impact that’ll have on delicate aquatic marine ecosystems. There are other values that are being overlooked or ignored in terms of the multibillion-dollar tourism industry that depends on a pristine environment, and commercial and recreational fisheries. It’s no mistake that the vast majority of British Columbians are opposed to heavy oil pipeline projects traversing the watersheds and river systems. This is not simply an Indigenous issue; the opposition is broad-based.

The push is coming from Alberta, and the feds have approved the project. So even if there is broad support in B.C., does that change the result?
Oh, absolutely. These are the very same questions that were posed during Enbridge’s Northern Gateway [application]. All the people who opposed Northern Gateway were branded as undesirable. There were further statements made, declaratory statements that said it was a done deal.

And yet at the same time, there was enormous opposition. It’s a well-established fact that there’s no world-class response to clean up a spill; that was ably demonstrated with the barge that went down up in Heiltsuk territory. It took them days and days and days and days, and when they did cobble together some form of recovery, it was completely blown apart by the first storm.

But more important, bitumen simply sinks to the bottom, and there is no way to recover it. It’s a risk that cannot be undertaken by all of the people in British Columbia who depend on the integrity of the environment. It’s all about risk and little or no benefit at all, so the answer is no.

What do you say to those who believe in the economic benefits of the pipeline expansion?
I think we’re turning the page in British Columbia and moving away from the archaic notion of the false economic model of boom-and-bust economies in major resource development. If you look at this debate that’s going on about the future and fate of the 2,000-odd workers in the Fort St. John area vis-à-vis Site C, what people are overlooking is that, by their very nature, these large-scale resource development projects feature a highly mobile and transient workforce that will come into a project and live in self-contained accommodation camps. They’re here for a very short time, and at the end of the construction phase, they’re gone. And we need to understand that 2,000 people are not going to be homesteading or sending their kids to school. They’re not going to be joining the local Rotary Club.

You’ve been outspoken about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Do you think he’s willingly broken his promises to the Indigenous community?
The short answer is yes. He promised that he would do a complete teardown of the Canadian environmental assessment process and the National Energy Board approval process. And then he completely reneged on that promise. I think they tacked on an additional four months of an already fundamentally flawed process and expected all of us to say, “Well that was great; really appreciate that consideration.” So those bridges have been crossed.

Do you have faith in the NDP-led provincial government?
We’re definitely moving in the right direction, and my sense is that it’s only because the Horgan government has been willing to engage. The tyranny of the status quo is what stands in the way, and that was totally exemplified and demonstrated by the previous Clark government. They weren’t willing to engage in any discussions at all. But again, you have the Horgan government saying, “What would this look like? How can we work together?” And I believe Mr. Horgan is going to surprise a lot of people in terms of protecting the interests of all British Columbians.

Have you ever considered running for political office?

Not once?
In this business, in terms of my own set of values, I’m not that person who gets out of bed one morning and decides that I’m going to run for a particular office. In all of my experience, I’ve only stood for office [on band councils] when I’ve been approached and people have asked me to run, and I’ve honoured that approach. I think this is my place here.
This interview has been edited


A registered B.C. marriage commissioner, Phillip has officiated more than 70 weddings