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Grand Chief Stewart Phillip on Bill C-38: It's time to 'take this to the streets'

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Grand Chief Stewart Phillip at a Taseko mine rally. Photo by David P. Ball

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This week, the Conservative government passed its sprawling – and controversial – omnibus budget implementation bill, which brings dramatic changes to environmental protection, employment insurance, industry regulation, pensions and many other facets of Canadian life.

On Wednesday, as MPs prepared for a 24-hour filibuster voting marathon, protestors rallied outside more than 80 Conservative MPs' offices in opposition to Bill C-38. I reported on the protests over at the Tyee. But less widely reported are the many Indigenous communities' particular concerns about the budget bill.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), has been one such outspoken critic of Bill C-38. The UBCIC blacked out its website, alongside more than 500 other organizations, earlier this month, and has issued press releases and spoken at rallies calling for the need to fight this legislation.

rabble.ca editor Derrick O'Keefe and I interviewed Grand Chief Phillip for W2 Radio this morning, on Vancouver Co-op Radio.

DAVID BALL: As our listeners have heard in the headlines this week, the Opposition MPs forced the Tories into a 24-hour non-stop overnight voting marathon over the bill. They got their pajamas out and warned (Bill C-38) is undemocratic, environmentally dangerous, and devastating to human rights. Chief Stewart, you've called this bill an “unrelenting assault against Aboriginal title, rights and treaty rights.” Could you say a little more about that, please?

STEWART PHILLIP: Without question, Bill C-38 is going to impact Indigenous peoples to a greater degree than ordinary Canadians. The reason for that being, of course, that here in B.C. the entire province is subject to unextinguished Aboriginal title. To date, we've relied on the Canadian environmental assessment process to safeguard the integrity of the environment, with respect to mega-project schemes such as Taseko's Prosperity Mine (now the New Prosperity Mine), the Enbridge pipeline, and projects like the Site C Dam up in the Peace River area – not to mention the industrialized tourism projects such as the Jumbo ski resort. Now, Bill C-38 has effectively gutted the environmental assessment process, and more alarmingly, has taken all protection out of the Fisheries Act for habitat protection. It's going to impact us in a profound way, and it's certainly going to provoke a reaction in terms of us being hard-pressed to protect the integrity of the environment of our territories.

DERRICK O'KEEFE: You've compared Bill C-38 to the 1960s White Paper, which was actually written, or devised, by then-Indian Affairs minister Jean Chretien, who of course later became Prime Minister. You've called it an effort to continue to assimilate Indigenous people. Could you explain the comparison to the infamous White Paper?

SP: Well, the White Paper was brought forward by Jean Chretien when he was Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) and Prime Minister Trudeau – who had swept to power with what was described as a sense of “Trudeau-mania” in 1968. Needless to say, Mr. Trudeau held great sway in the political reality of Canada at the time. Under the guise of promoting equality for Aboriginal people in this county, they crafted the White Paper, which sought to repeal the Indian Act, dissolve the Indian reservation system, and forcibly assimilate Aboriginal people into mainstream society overnight.

We all know that was an absolute failure. It gave rise to an organizational effort right across this country – from sea to sea to sea. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs was born out of that threat to (us) being recognized as unique Indigenous people with a whole collection of rights. The UBCIC was formed after a four-day emergency meeting in Kamloops, as were most provincial and territorial organizations rights across the country, which sprang up overnight.

Bill C-38 represents a similar threat. It is going to, in our view, provoke a Gold Rush mentality into large-scale resource development projects within our territories. Obviously, the Harper government is very much in bed, so to speak, with the big oil industry. The whole purpose of the bill is to strip away environmental protection, and to facilitate the large-scale development of projects like the Enbridge pipeline, the Prosperity Mine, and those sorts of projects – which will meet with resistance from the Indigenous people in whose territory these projects are slated to go forward.

DB: Now, many people are asking what is even being gained by gutting environmental protection, axing scientists, or scaling back industry monitoring. It doesn't seem to be saving a lot of money. Is this just a front for industry interests? What is behind these actual changes?

SP: I don't think there's any doubt that the Harper government is squarely in the camp of the big oil industry and business. That has been pretty evident from the outset. It's definitely, in my view, a watershed moment in this country – when Canadians, and certainly British Columbians, have to reexamine their values with respect to the integrity of the environment within B.C., which makes this one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Considering the lack of benefits, and the tremendous risk attached to these projects with respect to oil spills, tanker spills along the coast, the Taseko mine poisoning the river systems . . . many of these projects, if not all of them, jeopardize the wild salmon industry in British Columbia. British Columbians need to take a very hard look at what Bill C-38 represents, and to take a very public stand to continue expressing their vehement opposition to this type of legislative agenda being shamelessly promoted by the Harper government and his cronies. . .

DO: We know we're going to have to continue to rock the boat, and there's going to have to be a big peoples' resistance, especially now (with) provisions to gut environmental assessment... across B.C., which of course is unceded Indigenous territory. Grand Chief, I wanted to ask you in particular about the Save the Fraser Declaration, which is an important document opposing tar sands export pipelines across B.C. Talk a little bit about how the Save the Fraser Declaration is an example of Indigenous law making a declaration against the tar sands' expansion. How are we going to see this battle unfold between Indigenous law and the so-called law that they passed at the federal level today? 

SP: The Save the Fraser Declaration is a declaration of Indigenous First Nations that live along the Fraser River, and are impacted by the Fraser River watersheds. (They) have come together in an effort to oppose any and all projects – in particular of course the Enbridge pipeline project as well as Taseko's so-called New Prosperity Mine proposal – all proposals that would jeopardize the Fraser River and its ability to continue to sustain the wild salmon fishery.

But I believe it's indicative of a movement that's beginning to ripple out and bring all like-minded groups and organizations – whether they be environmental conservation, human rights, multi-faith groups – coming together for a common purpose: to defend and protect the integrity of what we describe as environmental values here in B.C. I'm encouraged to note this is a very broad-based coalition that's beginning to emerge, and certainly there's a very visible number of young people involved in this growing movement. I believe it's incumbent on all of us to continue to give public expression to our opposition to what Bill C-38 represents – and quite frankly to take this issue to the streets.

DB: Actually, on that note, Grand Chief, you've said on at least three occasions that I've heard, that people should expect a "hot summer" ahead. Could you say more about what you mean by that?

SP: What will happen after Bill C-38 has now been passed by Parliament? It's going to encourage the major industries and big oil to roll out their project proposals. We've heard the figure being kicked around that $5 billion worth of projects are waiting in the wings for this type of sponsorship from the government of Canada – from the Harper government. Now that they have that, we can expect a Gold Rush mentality, and there will be a need, certainly for the Indigenous people, to protect our territories.

We are bound and obligated by traditional law to do that – and rest assured, we will rise to the occasion! But I don't think we're going to be alone, because these projects threaten the livelihoods of many, many British Columbians that have worked hard for generations to create businesses that depend on a pristine environment. Now that's coming under threat.

As I've said continuously, I believe this represents a watershed moment in the history of this country. Quite frankly, I think Harper's over-reached himself. This is going to play out on the streets and at the barricades that will arise based on our efforts to protect our territories.

DB: You mentioned threats, and in fact since February this year – when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver called opponents of the (Enbridge) pipeline "foreign-funded" "extremists" and "radicals" – we've seen revelations the RCMP has been spying on the Yinka Dene Alliance and environmental groups. And recently, they launched an anti-terrorism task squad to defend, in particular, the oil sands and pipeline industries. Do you think that is going to deter people from speaking out and forming this historic coalition, as you've described it?

SP: Absolutely not. If anything, people are becoming more angry as these developments begin to unfold, and we begin to see the real face of the Harper government. All it's doing, quite frankly, is pissing people off and strengthening the resolve of a coalition of groups. It's certainly inspiring us to work harder at working together to push back on this Harper agenda, that poses a threat to not only Indigenous people but to Canadians. It's an absolute attack on democracy itself, and I think people are going to begin to wake up to the fact of what the Harper government represents in those terms.

DB: . . . For listeners who are interested in resisting this bill – in particular non-Aboriginal listeners – how can people get involved, and what solidarity is being looked for in terms of defending your territories?

SP: Without question, there's going to be a flurry of strategy meetings in the aftermath of the passage of Bill C-38. There's been a lot of dialogue between our groups on how to develop a national and province-wide strategy, and certainly on the internet there will be ample opportunities to sign on to various declarations and open letters. But the point here is, now, more than ever, we need to rise up and come together to defend the legacy that we will leave our children and grandchildren. The challenge has been brought down by the Harper government, and we need to respond.


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