What it's like to campaign amidst a wildfire: Joan Phillip

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A truck drives through a wildfire. Image: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash

Joan Phillip won't forget what it was like driving through the smoke on the high altitude Coquihalla highway in B.C.'s interior. Fire ravaged the mountain across from her as she made her way home. This, just one of the challenges of being a candidate in the 2021 federal election campaign.

"I believe there's such an enormous urgency attached to the climate crisis. We've had wildfires, drought, crop failures, the pandemic, the opioid crisis, in the South Okanagan and racism is on the rise."

These are some of the reasons Phillip is running as the NDP candidate in the sprawling riding of Central Okanagan -- Similkameen -- Nicola.

"We need strong leadership in Ottawa," she said in an interview, and she intends to deliver just that.

Phillip is no stranger to stepping up and taking leadership. Both she and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip -- her husband of 36 years -- have a long history of political activism in B.C. and Canada. They have stood up for Indigenous rights, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, and the environmental movement.

"We've been involved in all of those battles. Battles that have gone on for a long time," Phillip said.

For twenty years she has been lands manager for the Penticton Indian Band; the largest reserve land base in B.C. She knows what it's like to represent communities in-need and how to act efficiently and rapidly. In the current wildfire crisis she has provided mapping for the community so that firefighters and first responders can get to the right location with water bombers and helicopters.

"We're all in this together. We breathe the same smoke, we watch the same mountains burn," she said.

Many of the constituents in her community lost their homes and worldly possessions to the forest fires. For Phillip, it's not easy to see people struggling to support themselves and their families.

And then the Liberals called an election when these people are still grieving their loss. You can hear the angst in her voice.

"It makes it very hard for people to focus on an election when you're talking about daily survival." Phillip's campaign is focussed on reaching out to engage people -- particularly students heading back to school -- and helping them figure out where to vote and how, during the pandemic.

She adds that housing is becoming a big challenge in many of the communities in the riding, including Kelowna, Peachland, Summerland, Keremos, and Merritt.

"There's many people that can't live where they work, they have to live on the fringe. We have speculators flipping houses and prices are going up and up."

(A candidate for the Liberal Party in Vancouver Granville -- Taleeb Noormohamed -- has been accused of house-flipping, a practice which is named in the Liberal's housing platform as being a cause of rising housing prices.)

She adds that many small businesses are having difficulty attracting young people to work for them because of lack of housing. She's hoping that the NDP track record and platform on housing will help get people motivated to vote.

"We've had a 154 years of Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa -- and the only thing that's happened is they've gotten wealthier and everyone else is left behind," she said.

Phillip remembers when federal transfers were cut to provinces under Paul Martin and single people were thrown off welfare.

"And now you have elders making decisions about whether to buy their medications or pay their rent."

She believes national pharmacare and dental care are critical and long overdue.

Phillip is undaunted by challenges; she has a rich history of being tenacious and resilient. She is the granddaughter of the legendary Chief Dan George and a member of the Tsleil-Waututh nation.

Her years of community advocacy, wisdom, and leadership tell her that people don't trust either the Conservatives or Liberals this time around. Similar to other federal ridings in B.C., it's a tight three-way race.

Phillip is running against the Conservative incumbent Dan Albas and the Liberals' Sarah Eves.

"I'm proud to be a candidate for the New Democratic Party."

Libby Davies was a member of Parliament for 18 years (1997-2015) and became House Leader for the federal NDP party (2003-2011) and Deputy Leader (2007-2015). In 2016 Davies received the Order of Canada and in 2019 published Outside In: A Political Memoir.

Image: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash

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