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

This article is part one in a series. Read part two: "The People's Chief: How a life of activism led Stewart Phillip to stand before Kinder Morgan".

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) smiles as he recounts 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

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

“When you get apprehended, you go alone,” he explains. “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.
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 reconnected with his birth family until he was more than 20 years old. “I felt, literally, caught between two worlds,” he says. “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 1 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.

This article is part one in a series. Read part two: "The People's Chief: How a life of activism led Stewart Phillip to stand before Kinder Morgan".