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

This article is part two in a series. Read part one: “The People's Chief: Stewart Phillip reflects on his roots and the fight ahead”.

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 RCMP 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.
Yolande Cole

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 RCMP 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 it's 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 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 tarsands 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.
Travis Lupick

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 in 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, has 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 is halfway across the field, Indigenous people and allies manning the camp spot him, wave, and greet 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 frontlines, including the Squamish Nation and Coldwater band.

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

It keeps him involved. 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.”
Bob Chamberlain

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.”

This article is part two in a series. Read part one: “The People's Chief: Stewart Phillip reflects on his roots and the fight ahead”.