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

Ministers' visit foreshadows Harper's plan to declare pipelines "in the national interest",  the head of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs told the Vancouver Observer.

 Defend Our Coast rally Victoria, British Columbia 2012, opposition to oil sands
Photos: Chief Stewart Phillip by Beth Hong, "Defend Our Coast" 2012 rally by Carrie Saxifrage

After two meetings this month with top federal ministers that convinced him Prime Minister Stephen 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 is, '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."

"Now is the time, something must be done"

I first 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 people. We were standing in the boreal forest in a park outside the city.  "Now is the time, something must be done," he said, indicating 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, thanks to social media the story would get out and resistance would prove effective.   He said that British Columbia wasn't for sale.

On Friday, he told me two federal ministers had requested different meetings with him this month and that there would 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 Chief Phillip, requesting a meeting with him and the Vice President of the UBIC, Bob Chamberlain.  It was the same Joe Oliver who had "branded", as Phillip 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 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."

Major offensive by Harper government

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 Phillip 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 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 are going to 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 prime minister 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. 

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