After meetings with federal ministers, Chief Stewart Phillip urges British Columbians to take to the street

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After two meetings this month with top federal ministers that convinced him Harper is preparing to declare Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines in “the national interest,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, is urging British Columbians to take to the streets.

“My message to those who have been very diligent in their efforts to bring their concerns forward about the possibilities of catastrophic oil spills and oil line ruptures, ‘Now is the time to bring these issues into the street, to be visible and vocal while these federal officials are in BC.

“‘They need to see and hear from BC the types of things we were seeing last fall and winter when there were many many marches and rallies that were giving public expression to the collective opposition to pipeline proposals. We need to see evidence of that immediately.”

Last week was strangely quiet, I thought, after a flurry of media about the “parade of federal ministers” descending on British Columbia this week to win over pipeline opponents. It as almost as if the ministers hadn’t really come, or if they had, they hadn’t been talking to the media about what they were doing. Strange.

I caught up with Chief Phillip yesterday and he confirmed my suspicion that while things have indeed been strange, they haven’t really been quiet.

“Now is the time, something must be done”
I met Chief Phillip at the 2013 Healing March in Fort McMurray, where I talked with him at length about the impact of the Alberta oil sands on First Nations.

His words echoed what he had said standing in the boreal forest in a park outside the city. “Now is the time, something must be done.” He indicated that First Nations opposing pipeline projects wouldn’t just roll over if the government were to push the pipelines through. He was confident that no matter how remote the location of blockades or protests were, thanks to social media, the story would get out and resistance would prove effective. He said that British Columbia wasn’t for sale.

Yesterday, he told me two Federal ministers had requested different meetings with him this month and there will be a third meeting on September 24. After being “ignored for months”, it’s been overwhelming, he said, to suddenly receive so many requests for meetings.

First, “out of the blue,” with “short, abrupt notice,” Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, himself contacted Stewart requesting a meeting with him and the Vice President of the BC Union of Chiefs, Bob Chamberlain. It was the same Joe Oliver who had “branded”, as Steward calls it, the opponents to the Enbridge pipeline “radicals” and “enemies of the state.” Now here they were sitting in an office together face to face.

“It was somewhat of a strange exchange, given the fact Minister Oliver sat there and repeated by rote, speaking points reflective of the government of Canada’s position on the pipeline issue. We took the opportunity to continue to express our ongoing concerns with respect to these pipeline proposals. My point is there wasn’t any engagement, or dialogue in terms of Minister Oliver saying ‘what will it take? What are your recommendations? There was nothing of that nature. He just sat there and repeated his talking points.”

Phillip went on to say that, “We were surprised they were seeking a meeting because they have been very adversarial about our position and branded us as radicals and enemies of Canada for even challenging the government’s position on these issues and quite suddenly he wants to meet.”

“It was curious, because we’ve heard these same speaking points ad nauseum through the media the last couple of years.”

I asked Chief Stewart what he was thinking as he listened to Minister Oliver repeat the points he’d heard hundreds of times and if he was thinking that he was delivering a message that came straight from the Prime Minister.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “Then we learn days later that there’s a whole host of federal officials coming to BC. I should further inform you that we’ve been told through sources that this group of federal officials going go Prince George and we’ve been informed they’re coming back later in the fall. So obviously this is a major political offensive on the part of the Harper government. I have a very unsettling feeling that the PM is poised to declare these projects in the national interest, and firstly, he’s gathering information that he hopes to use as to buttress the rationale that will be brought forward when those decisions are made public in terms of green-lighting these projects.

“Secondly, I believe that concurrently they are ensuring that they have a very robust record of consultations that they would hope to rely on when these matters go to the court, in the event that the Harper government simply ignores the JRP findings and declares these projects in the national interest.

“That’s my gut feeling. It’s a very uneasy feeling about this whole affairs,” Phillip said.

Then just as unexpectedly this week, there was a meeting with Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt.

“We’re somewhat mystified, given the fact that we’ve been pretty much ignored for the last couple of years and suddenly in the 11th hour, given the fact that the JRP report is due at the end of December, we are all of the sudden overwhelmed with this flurry of meeting requests from federal government ministries.

Phillip said he listened in disbelief as Oliver told him the government was interested in “responsible resource development and increasing pipeline safety delivery systems.”

And when Oliver began to talk about the Government of Canada’s “interest in strengthening environment regulation, “I sat there in amazement reflecting on bills C38 and C45, which gutted environmental regulation. C38 completely gutted the Canadian environmental assessment process and removed habitat protection from the fisheries act. Bill C45 removed federal responsibility for 95% of the lakes, rivers and stream throughout the entire country.

“For him to sit there and say that the government of Canada is interested in strengthening environmental protection when through a very heavy handed omnibus legislative assault they completely devastated environmental protections…was truly astonishing.”

Just as ludicrous, to Phillip, was Oliver’s claim that the Government of Canada is interested in strengthening relations with First Nations.

Phillip told Oliver that “the government of Canada has embarked on a very unilateralist legislative agenda when it comes to First Nations and Aboriginal issues ever since they took power. There was no consultation on those bills that they moved through parliament as a result of their majority. To sit there and say they want to strengthen relations with First Nations when the relationship with the Aboriginal people has been very adversarial…” Phillip left the sentence hanging.

Was there no real conversation, I asked? Anything resembling dialogue. Phillip said there hadn’t been. “There was nothing along those lines,” he said, “otherwise they would have said, ‘What is it going to take, what do we need to do to get to yes?’ They didn’t go anywhere near to saying that.”

In terms of the “parade of ministers” that came this week, Phiillip said he met with Bernard Velcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs this week, “again totally unprecedented.”

The meeting had an uncanny resemblance to the meeting with Oliver, Phillip said. “Again there wasn’t any focussed discussion on the energy file. There was just a lot of rhetoric about not dwelling on the past, looking towards the future, and realizing the benefits of the vast natural resource wealth that this country has been blessed with. Pretty much a Canadian Apple Pie lecture.”

Vital issues were completely ignored. “We’ve been pressuring two successive Ministries of Fisheries and Oceans to sign on to an MOU for the purpose of having an ongoing dialogue with a lot of the issues here in BC. For example, the Coehn commission came forward with 60 odd recommendations and there’s been no movement on it whatsoever.

“We’ve been pressuring Fisheries and Oceans to move forward in signing off on the MOU and they pretty much stonewalled that and, then, out of the blue phoned up and said we’re gonna sign off on the MOU on Tuesday which is right after the meeting with the deputy ministers. One has to think what are we doing here, is this a photo opp?

“You can understand my unsettled feeling. I’m disturbed by this. All of this just dropped out of the sky.”