Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 135: Land Defense and the Climate Emergency — with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip

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Paige Smith  0:03
Hello, I’m Paige Smith with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.You’re listening to Climate Justice & Inequality, a Below the Radar series looking to highlight  the systemic forces that try to undermine climate justice movements, while forging towards a greener and more equitable world.For the fifth and final instalment of this series, our host Am Johal is joined by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, talking about Indigenous land claims and intergenerational land defense. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:51 
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week, we're continuing with our Climate Change and Inequality series. And we're very fortunate to have Grand Chief Stewart Phillip with us this afternoon. We're recording this at the time that the federal election is going on, and this will be coming out shortly afterwards. And we'll get around to talking about that, as well. But Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, thank you so much for joining us.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  1:17 
Thank you.

Am Johal  1:18
I'm wondering if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  1:22
Wai xast skelhalt ipsi nuxsil. Echa es quist Ascasiwt. In our nsyilxcən language that simply "Good day, my dear friends and relatives. My traditional name is ʔaʔsiwɬ (Ascasiwt)." I want to begin by expressing my appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity to have this important conversation. I have been involved in Indigenous issues for the better part of my adult life. I began right about the time of Wounded Knee, down in the Dakotas. And the Cache Creek blockade—it was an armed blockade. And Anicinabe Park was happening in Kenora, Ontario, which was also an armed blockade of Indigenous land defenders and human rights activists. So I've had a long history of political involvement. I had the incredible good fortune of meeting my wife, Joan, 43 years ago, we've been married for 36 now. We had six adult children. Unfortunately, we lost Kenny to a carfentanil overdose three years ago. Was on his 43rd—or 42nd birthday rather. And we have 15 of the most beautiful grandchildren in the universe. 

Am Johal  2:52 
Thank you, Grand Chief, I've met one of your grandkids. We were driving from the Slocan I think to drop her off at I think it was the Sandman Inn because she was in town for a concert. Wondering, you mentioned a little bit historically how you got involved in in political life, in organizing and in frontline demonstration. And in that period, you know, in the 60s, the civil rights movement, important movements like the American Indian Movement happening at that time—wondering if you can speak a little bit to that time period of organizing and how it formed and shaped your own long engagement with political struggle.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  3:32 
Well, to put it into historical context, Wounded Knee was '73. And the Union of BC Indian Chiefs was formed in 1969. Those were politically volatile times. We had the anti-Vietnam War movement we had in the civil rights movement in the United States. There was the peace movement, the anti-nuclear movement. That was a time when the general population, and particularly young people, were politically active. The music of the time, the lyrics of the song spoke to the need to achieve freedom, political freedom, and to fight tyranny and imperialism, and all of the capitalism, all of the Dark Forces that are absolutely devastating and, in too many cases, lethal to the human rights of Indigenous peoples throughout the world. As the American Indian Movement at the time was a very powerful force, they were the ones that defended the people at Wounded Knee, and other actions in the US. And we had the president of the American Indian Movement here in Canada and British Columbia. And of course, being a young man at the time with long hair, red head band, sunglasses, I got swept up into that Red Power movement. My wife, Joan, was also far more politically active than myself. She goes back to the Native Alliance for Red Power, which predates the American Indian Movement. And she was Frank's Landing facing off with the National Guard, and in Washington State over fishing rights. And that activism culminated in the bold decision, whereby native people down there were awarded 50% of the salmon in the Columbia River system. So again, it was incredibly politically active. Young people on university campuses got caught up in the social rights movement. And it was an exciting time back in those days, and there was a sense of hope. And, and so on and so forth. Black Panthers were a powerful force in the US and, yeah, it was... You know, I listen to music. I still listen to music from those times, because the lyrics were political. And you know, not what we have today.

Am Johal  6:28
Interesting. Glen Coulthard, who teaches at UBC is doing some writing on NARP, including the visit they did to China, which I think included Joan at that time in the 70s. It's a fascinating story. And I think they're archiving some documents from China with just the notes that they took on that side of that trip. And I think they're getting some translations done. And recently in a class that I was teaching, we use George Manuel's book, The Fourth World, which has just recently been re-released. And it's such an important leader in terms of also connecting the Indigenous struggles here with the global struggles. And I'm wondering if you can speak to some of the leaders who you met at that time in the 70s, as the issues with, you know, Chrétien's White Paper to other issues that were coming to the forefront?

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  7:16 
Yes, as you mentioned, there was a Native Peoples Delegation to the People's Republic of China in the early 70s. And I'm proud to say Joan was a spokesperson of that group that went to China for a couple of weeks. China wasn't open to the West at that time. And it was, you know, an amazing trip. I believe there were 15 Indigenous peoples that were part of that tour. Joan was also in Chiapas, in the immediate aftermath of the Zapatista uprising. And she was gone for 10 days, and for many of those days, we lost communication with her. And they were in the jungles in the mountains down there, and it was pretty scary for her to be there. And but Joan is... you know, she's so deeply committed to social justice matters, and there was just no keeping her from going down there as dangerous as it was.

Am Johal  8:24
So Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, there's been, I think, you know, obviously long standing challenges around resource extraction, economic development on Indigenous lands at a time when government policies and processes remained colonial, going back to the development of Whistler and ski hills, all the way to the present day. And before I bring up some of the more recent issues, but wondering if you can talk about the period of the 70s to the 80s, from ski hills to other places that were the sites of protest and pushing back against development that wasn't inclusive.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  9:03 
Well, those were the times of.... along the Fraser Canyon and up in Stl'atl'imx territory. There were what was described as The Fish Wars that took place where people were standing up for their constitutionally protected Indigenous rights to fish. And Canada came down in a very heavy handed manner with choppers, RCMP assault teams. There were, there was a lot of brutal suppression and brutal assaults of the fishermen that were continuing to stand up for their fishing rights. The White Paper came in in 1969. That was Trudeau Sr. and Jean Chrétien who were the authors of that document. And it was clearly designed to subjugate and domesticate the Indigenous peoples and oppose any notion of ours that we were still a sovereign people with inherent Indigenous rights, and rights to land, rights through resources, rights to hunting fish. And there were landmark court cases during that time. There was the Calder decision that Pierre Elliott Trudeau who was Prime Minister said, "Just because a bunch of political might-have-beens assert that they have rights doesn't necessarily make it so." And when the Nisga'a people won the Calder decision, he was approached by the press and asked, "What do you think now?" And he said, "Well, obviously they had more rights than we originally thought." And, you know, that was the battleground back in the early 70s, it was very clear in regard to the issues, it wasn't till over the space of time that the government became more devious and more insidious in terms of co-opting leadership and essentially buying people off, buying Indigenous people off with, you know, just a minimalist approach to offering money for Indigenous people to engage in energy projects such as pipelines and things of that nature, hydroelectric dams... And it's been a very long, protracted struggle. On the one hand Indigenous people, through the Declaration on the Indigenous Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was embraced by the United Nations, the legislation both federally and provincially that acknowledges the declaration and what it represents. And on the other side, you have the oil and gas corporations and mining corporations. working hand in glove with governments to usurp the rights of Indigenous people and, and to criminalize our involvement in defending our lands and waters and our way of life. And, and that's a struggle we have. We've had many Supreme Court decisions come down in our favor, such as the Tsilhqot'in decision, which actually acknowledge title on the ground. And we have an interesting phenomenon now where once again, similar to the 1970s, the young people are standing up. And they're different than we were. The young people of today are brilliant, they're articulate, they're well educated, and they're fearless. They don't carry the baggage of the residential schools. They're not afraid of all of us getting in trouble if we, you know, if we're bad, so to speak. So it's so inspirational. I remember about a year or so ago when they locked down the Legislature. Young Indigenous peoples from not only throughout BC but from across Canada converge on the BC Legislature. And literally blocked all the doorways. The MLAs had to sneak into the Legislature through underground passageways, you know, to be able to get into the Legislature and conduct business. And meanwhile, hundreds of Indigenous people were outside drumming, and, you know, there was all kinds of lockdown going on and whatnot. So it could be heard inside. So I remember Premier Horgan was just absolutely outraged that there was nothing they could do about it. There were just too many people and their allies and supporters outside. And that went on for about 10, 12 days. So I have, you know, I have hope. I'm a grandfather, as I indicated earlier, and when I look behind, when I look over my shoulder, I see those legions of young people coming into their own. And many of them carry the drum, they know their own songs, they know their own history, their traditions and customs. And so there is reason to hope when you consider the resurgence of the young people's voice, the strength of Indigenous women who have been in the front ranks of fighting, or fighting against violence against Indigenous women and girls. Our elders continue to support us. And we ourselves now have legions of lawyers. So it's, you know, it's gonna continue to be a long protracted struggle, but just being around my own grandchildren that are, I believe, from about 7 to 23, or thereabouts, the span. They're, they're just so wonderful to witness their free spirits, and their ability to challenge authority and know and understand who they are and what their responsibilities to the land are.

Am Johal  15:43 
Grant Chief, wondering if you could speak a little bit to the, sort of, as governments, as you said, their processes have become a bit more insidious in how they engage with Indigenous communities and nations. And in some ways, the modern-day treaty process, both from the provincial and federal governments, although some nations have engaged in that process, others have decided to go the route of the courts or more frontline struggle. And I'm wondering if you can share sort of your critique of the treaty process that's ongoing in this context, in terms of what works with it, and what is flawed inherently with the structure of that process?

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  16:25 
Well, in many ways, the treaty process was completely eclipsed with the Delgamuukw decision, which describe the full nature of our Indigenous title and rights. And subsequent court decisions have further eclipsed the treaty process, whereby now it's not only possible, it's happening, where Indigenous groups can achieve greater progress and end results through negotiations directly with the federal government and the provincial government. In terms of resource management, we're moving to an area where, in the not too distant future, our jurisdiction—or Indigenous jurisdiction, our inherent Indigenous jurisdiction, will be fully acknowledge through legislation by both levels of government. That will give us the ability to have more than a significant influence in land management decisions. By way of example, the fire storms, the wildfires. Indigenous peoples are saying, "If our jurisdiction was acknowledged, we wouldn't have wildfires." We had customs and traditions in regard to fuel management hundreds of years ago to ensure that, you know, our villages didn't burn to the ground. And we don't have that. We've had a complete mismanagement of the forest resource, by successive provincial governments, there has not been an inventory done in 30 or 40 years. The provincial government, in spite of all our rhetoric about working with Indigenous peoples, continue to issue permits to clear cut the landscape, and including riparian areas, Fairy Creek as a prime example. My heart goes out to the courageous land defenders Fairy Creek, and I'm absolutely outraged at the police brutality that's taking place on the front lines for elders and seniors. And women are being brutally assaulted by the RCMP officers present there, and there's been 800 arrests. We're not that far back from the Clayoquot Sound issue a number of years ago. And, again, the general public is realizing that governments, through their notion of amassing capital, have absolutely devastated the environment through pipelines and mining and clear cutting and the rampant pollution that goes forward unchecked. I think people are beginning to realize that we are in this together. And the future of our grandchildren is at stake here and the future of the land itself. I live in Penticton, and there's been forest fires all around this all summer. And when I go outside, and I smell the smoke, the strong smell of smoke, it's the smell of absolute colossal neglect on the part of our governments to caretake the forest lands. So once our jurisdiction is recognized, that won't be happening anymore. Our policy towards natural resource management is based on stewardship. It's a universal value that Indigenous peoples are given the responsibility to caretake the land and to defend Mother Earth.

Am Johal  20:23
Grant Chief, before I get into some more climate change related questions, one of the parts that you mentioned was around the relationship to the police. You've had a long history while being the leader of the union of BC Indian Chiefs on everything from the outfall of Gustafson Lake, all the way to pushing for an inquiry around the Frank Paul situation, also the treatment of protesters by the police. Wondering if you can speak to the kind of long relationship to the way governments have used policing towards Indigenous people.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  20:56 
Well, without question, the police community, so to speak, has deeply steeped in racist notions that somehow Indigenous peoples don't matter. There's been too many tragic cases where police agencies, RCMP, have shot and killed Indigenous peoples not only here in British Columbia, but right across the country. And they do it with impunity, there are no consequences. You know, they should lose their pensions the minute they squeeze the trigger, regardless whether they wound the individual or, you know, unfortunately kill them. But that doesn't happen. They get some kind of administrative sanction. The RCMP have this absolutely asinine, ridiculous code of conduct. And they tell us, "well it goes in their file and it's a very significant punishment," you know, which is absolute crap. These rogue officers simply get transferred to a different detachment where they continue on with their brutal racist tactics. It's absolutely appalling and we need to continue to speak out against police brutality. We have the so-called "wellness checks," and they just break into your home. And on the guise of seeing if you're okay, and they shoot people. You know, how do they describe that as a wellness check? And it's happened on a number of occasions. And they have another policy called the no-knock policy. And they just kick your door down and come in and you know, people get hurt, people get shot. And yet they get away with it. I remember in Seattle when John Thompson [Williams] was shot and killed by the Seattle Police officer. To begin with, they fired him the next day. And that doesn't happen here in Canada, it's absolutely outrageous. And I'm proud to say that women's groups, young people have been speaking out against police brutality. I heard something absolutely outrageous the other day, that the RCMP pension funds has an investment in... I can't remember what what it was, but it was oil and gas or forestry or, or something along those lines. And here are they are on the front line, protecting those corporate interests, rather than keeping the peace. This is not the police force that we had, you know, decades ago, where they understood their role is to keep the peace. Now they have the absolute lethal paramilitary equipment in their arsenal, and you know, that's the face of policing in this country. And the status quo governments, the Conservatives and the Liberals, they're okay with that, you know? That advances their own corporate interests in oil and gas and mining and, you know, the other activities that governments are too deeply ensnared in.

Am Johal  24:26 
Grand Chief, you've been, you know, very active as a spokesperson around everything, from Unist'ot'en, to the Trans Mountain pipeline, Fairy Creek, wherever there are these protracted situations and polarization where big industry has time to get regulatory approval. Indigenous nations are oftentimes on the frontlines with the resistance along with the environmental movement. Wondering if you could speak to what you see as the major concerns around resource extraction and development, both in terms of the federal government and the provincial government. What are your big issues that you're pushing with them, or the ones that they seem to be not handling the files in a particularly good way?

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  25:12 
Well, clearly, it's, you know, it's an issue of racism. It's an issue of colossal failure of leadership in that regard. Until that changes, you know, we're going to continue to seeing what we're seeing out there in terms of conflict on the land. We need a genuine, truly progressive government that understands that we are in the midst of a climate crisis. And it's having devastating impacts on our communities, on our people, and communities are burning to the ground. How many more communities have to be incinerated before governments will begin to move beyond good intentions and rhetoric? When will they start to make actual, significant investments in stewardship and protection, and so on and so forth. The violence of policing will continue to escalate. It's only a matter of time until someone gets killed. And you know, then we're going to see an abrupt escalation of the opposition to these projects. There's a lot of pent up anger and resentment out there. I think it's ironic that "Mr. Sunny Ways" Justin Trudeau now can't even have a rally. And he's being chased around by mobs of people, you know? And they finally come to the realization that any commitments he makes, any promises he makes are absolutely worthless. Because he's, you know, he's a pathological liar. He has no intention on carrying forward any of these commitments, and we've witnessed that over the last six years. The only choice in this federal election is Jagmeet Singh. There's no question about that. We've been electing the Liberals or the Conservatives for 150 years, and our country's in a mess. And we need progressive leadership, we need leadership that has dialogue in the support of the younger generations. We need more inclusive inclusivity in government in regard to resource management decisions. And that's not possible with the tyranny of the status quo with Mr. O'Toole or Mr. Trudeau, so I'm hoping that young people, particularly young people, who were always the vanguard of the revolution in years gone by, decades gone by, begin to stand up and find their voice, and begin to speak out. You know, their children, and their own grandchildren, their lives, and their future depends on what actions we're preparing to take. The people at Fairy Creek desperately need support. You know, we need to replicate what happened that Clayoquot Sound in terms of 1000s upon 1000s of people converging on Fairy Creek to defend old growth forests, otherwise, we're gonna lose old growth forests.

Am Johal  28:28 
Grand Chief, I want to ask you a question around this, sort of, the twin public health crises, both of the pandemic in terms of the impact and the government response and your thoughts on that. And secondly, you mentioned your son being affected by the contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl and carfentanil. And there's continues to be far too many deaths—it's almost triple, quadruple the deaths that were happening in the 90s around this. And if you could share your thoughts in terms of public health, both around the pandemic and around the continued devastating effects of the contamination of the drug supply?

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  29:10
Well, that's a good question. The pandemic, I think, is represents the beginning. I believe that there will be other pandemics in regard to different types of more lethal viruses. And what the government of Canada did, in the face of the pandemic, is they simply threw money at it. And they spend billions and billions of dollars. And at the end of the day, we find out that there is a significant hardcore element, a regressive element in this country, that flat out refuses to be vaccinated. And, you know, we're seeing that in those massive mobs outside hospitals, it's absolute insanity. When I witnessed, you know, this stupidity, this irresponsible and reckless behavior on so many people, it makes me want to go out into my backyard and start building an ark. Because I believe we're must be pretty close to the end with this insanity going on. But governments are too wimpy, to pass legislation to make it truly mandatory. You know, for people to be properly and safely vaccinated. You know, that's the depth of that corruption, the moral corruption in government, they will do anything to regain power or to secure greater support from the public, no matter how regressive the public is. So, you know, Indigenous peoples were hit harder by the pandemic because of our atrocious housing conditions, overcrowding, lack of drinking water. You know, in spite of the Trudeau promises for ever dealing with that issue. So provincially, I think British Columbia, you know, has some success with the pandemic. But, you know, they succumb to the pressure from commerce and business. And that's always been the weakness of all of our governments. You know, that's why we have the massive clear cutting, and things of that nature. You know, in many ways, it's the corporations that make the final determination on social and political policy and legislation. You know, which is wrong. It's absolutely wrong. It's, you know, it's literally killing us. The opioid crisis, as I mentioned earlier, we lost our son, Kenny. 42nd birthday, we were sending them text messages. You know, wishing him a happy birthday. And little did we know he was laying on a hotel room floor, he was dead. The medical examiner said he was, he died before he hit the floor. And in Grande Prairie, which is the real hotbed for drug trade and contaminated drugs. There's been a lot of fatalities in Grande Prairie. So it's personal to us. We have 15 grandchildren, and many of them are teenagers, you know, and we're so terrified that they're going to go out and not come back through the door. And I know there's 1000s and millions of parents that go through the same nightmare. And there has to be greater focus on the opioid crisis from governments, and that just doesn't happen, you know? They haven't been motivated yet to do the right thing and in regard to these, and make the proper investments. Our medical system is collapsing around our ears. Medical professionals, frontline workers are burning out at an alarming rate. These mobs outside hospitals are proving to be, you know, the final straw. Many of them are resigning. And, you know, it's and governments stand idly by, twiddling their thumbs. And, you know, it's... We need a damn good revolution in this country is what we need. We need hundreds of 1000s of people in the streets to reclaim our country back. We can't depend on Trudeau or O'Tool to do that. 

Am Johal  33:29 
Grand Chief, the question I wanted to ask you was that for someone who has been involved for so long—five decades plus of organizing on the front lines, being a spokesperson, being at rallies, being so generous with your time with young people—I'm wondering, what keeps you excited and motivated as you look ahead, because you've spent your whole life doing this. What keeps you going? And what are you excited about? Around the corner here, given all of these crises that we're facing simultaneously?

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  34:00
It's a genuine sense of unconditional love for the land and for the people. And, you know, that has always been our focus, Joan and myself. And, you know, we know and understand we hold the future of our grandchildren in our own two hands. And that we need to achieve everything humanly possible. And what we do not achieve, we leave behind our grandchildren to take up the fight. So there isn't a day that goes by that we don't look at our grandchildren and hear their laughter and, you know, their sense of assertiveness and holding their hands up high and being proud of who they are. We both know we have to continue to do the right thing. We know there's a lot of amazing people out there that have similar views, similar values. And all we need is leadership. And I call on all people to stand up and claim the leadership within themselves, and to understand the day should not go by, without doing one thing to defend the land and the people in regard to these crises that are confronting us at this point in our history.

Am Johal  35:29 
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip  35:33 
Thank you. Thank you very much. 

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Paige Smith  35:39
This has been our conversation with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, and the final installment of our Climate Justice & Inequality series.  You can find links to the organizations that Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has been involved in as well as a transcript of the episode in the show notes below. Thanks for tuning in to our Climate Justice & Inequality Series. If you haven’t already, you can listen back to previous installments with Khelsilem, Anjali Appadurai, Marc Lee and Eugene Kung. Thanks again, and see you next time on Below the Radar!

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
September 28, 2021

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