Joan Phillip, the second First Nations woman in the ‘B.C.’ cabinet, is patient but unrelenting

By  Kayla MacInnis, IndigiNews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In February of 2023, Melanie Mark stood before the “B.C.” legislature, visibly shaken, as she read out her resignation speech.

“This place felt like a torture chamber,” she said, holding an eagle feather and wearing her grandfather’s beaded moosehide fringe jacket.

A descendant of the Nisg̱a’a and Gitxsan people on her mom’s side and Cree, Ojibway, French, and Scottish on her father’s side, Mark was the first First Nations woman to serve on the cabinet of “British Columbia” from February 2016 until April 2023.

“I wanted to be an MLA so I could be a strong voice for my community and the people I grew up with and so I could be a champion for change. I wanted to disrupt the status quo. I wanted big systems to change,” she said.

While she made an impact during her time on the cabinet, Mark ultimately concluded that: “Institutions fundamentally resist change, they’re allergic to doing things differently, particularly colonial institutions like this legislative assembly and government at large.”

The colonial political arena has been a notoriously unkind place for the few Indigenous women who have been elected across the country. In 2019, Jody Wilson-Raybould (Puglaas) was expelled from the federal Liberal caucus after speaking out against attempted political interference.

But when Joan Phillip took over Mark’s former Vancouver-Mount Pleasant riding last year, she showed no signs of fear, picking up the proverbial baton where her predecessor left off and demonstrating that she was prepared for anything.

When asked how she would handle any mistreatment, Phillip reportedly joked that if anyone tried anything, she would whack them with her SIA stick (Saskatoon berry stick). Nearly a year into her role as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, Phillip is just as steadfast, quipping about her “big, huge” muscles. 

‘To be able to represent the territory I’m actually from’

Standing at the Cenotaph in Grandview Park, just off Commercial Drive, on a drizzling spring day, Phillip’s vibrant attire stood out against the dreary East “Vancouver” backdrop. 

She smiled from under her umbrella as she spoke of her connection to the area.

Phillip — who is səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and grew up around the waterfront on the unceded territory of her nation — reminisced about a childhood spent eating a 90 per cent marine protein diet from the Maplewood Mudflats.

This was before she moved to Commercial Drive, where she lived in various homes until she and her family moved to an old orchard in North Vancouver. There, she was a long-distance runner and often went through Lynn Valley Canyon.

She then returned to the Drive area when she had children. Her two sons went to Britannia Secondary School, where she was also a Youth counsellor. 

These connections to this land are just some of the reasons why Phillip said it was important for her to pursue her current role as a New Democrat Party MLA for the constituency of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant. The riding has long been an NDP stronghold.

On election day on June 24, 2023, Phillip waited for the news in a small room downstairs of the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre with her husband, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Premier David Eby and his team. 

“They were waiting for the count upstairs. I had my family — my family is the George family. Chief Dan George, Uncle Leonard George, Rueben and Gabe — they were just waiting,” she said.

“The moment we found out, Rueben and Gabe drummed us into the [Chief Simon Baker Room]. Everybody was there. My older sister wasn’t there — Lee Maracle, she passed away by then — but her two daughters were there, and everyone was so emotional. What an amazing feeling to be able to represent the territory I’m actually from.” 

When her nephew Rueben George first introduced her to the room, he said, “I can’t really welcome you to the territory. You’re from here.”

Having a second Indigenous woman step into the riding was celebrated by many, with the First Nations Leadership Council calling it “another pivotal milestone in our ongoing fight for representation of First Nations voices in the highest echelons of governance.”

“While Melanie left immense shoes to fill,” said Cheryl Casimer of the First Nations Summit, “we have no doubt that Joan is up to the task.”

Now, nearly one year into her role, Phillip is proud of some of the successes she’s been part of. 

“We’ve been able to pass laws in terms of not just laws but policies around building affordable homes,” she said. “And the Child Protection Act. It protects our laws, which criminalize predators online who are targeting children. If you target someone like a child, then you’re going to go to jail. There are consequences to that.” 

Under the NDP government’s housing strategy, there have been efforts to increase funding for affordable housing projects, including those serving Indigenous communities.

“There’s a lot of other wins like our partnerships with Lu’ma Native Housing Society or Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House.”

This funding can support these organizations in constructing new housing units, renovating existing properties, and providing supportive services for residents. The Lu’ma Native Housing Society is specifically a step toward reconciliation through culturally appropriate housing designs, community-driven planning processes, and partnerships with Indigenous organizations.

“Now we can actually put things into law, lifting everybody up. Put into law protecting workers’ rights. Put into law protecting the sexual exploitation of children and youth. Protecting the LGBTQ+ community. Protecting our title and rights and recognizing that we also have a place at the table,” she said. 

Phillip has also advocated for the inclusion of six more local childcare facilities in the region, slated to transition into $10-a-Day ChildCareBC sites in March and April 2024.

“I always tell people when we do well, everybody wants to, so we want to lift everybody up together.”

Vancouver-Mount Pleasant is a socio-economically diverse area that has seen many changes in recent decades. 

The riding includes the Downtown Eastside, which has been the epicentre of the addiction and unhoused crises in the province for decades. This area continues to grapple with the ongoing displacement of numerous unhoused individuals residing in homeless encampments.

In April 2016, the province declared it a public health emergency. As the opioid crisis shifted and spread since then, there have been at least 13,000 lives lost to toxic, unregulated drugs, including Phillip’s son, Kenny Phillip, who died of a carfentanyl overdose the day after his 42nd birthday, she shared. 

The riding is also home to Chinatown, where the impact of gentrification and rising property values are causing financial strain on long-term family-run businesses and pushing them out of the area. Alongside that, there have been concerns about the community’s future, as vandalism, crime rates and COVID-19 have left it deteriorating. Mount Pleasant has faced gentrification and soaring property values since the 1990s. 

Phillip splits her time between “Vancouver” and “Penticton,” but since stepping into the MLA role, she has primarily remained in Mount Pleasant, as well as “Victoria.”

Because her husband has served as president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs since 1998, which is based in “Vancouver,” they’ve always had an apartment in the area. The two have maintained this connection with their family and this land over time despite mainly living in “Penticton” for the last 26 years. 

“The press was saying I was imported. I kept thinking, how can you import someone who is already from here?” she laughed. 

A typical day for Phillip starts as early as 8 a.m., sometimes even earlier. First,  she dives into breakfast meetings alongside constituents, groups, or organizations, something Phillip says is the fun part of the job. 

By 10 a.m., her focus shifts to the legislature, where her party typically works to overcome internal disputes.

In the afternoon, the government holds question periods, where debates about various laws take place. For instance, just before Christmas, MLAs were in the House for 12-hour days. 

However, community work, which she finds the most enjoyable, typically occurs in the early morning, around noon, or evening. She enjoys taking walks around local neighbourhoods, she said, interacting with locals and visiting businesses. 

As lifetime activists, Joan Phillip and her husband Stewart Phillip have dedicated their lives to justice, human rights, and the environment. Stewart said their children, too, have spent most of their lives at blockades fighting against industrial projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline, Site C dam, Ajax open-pit copper mine, and salmon farm industry, to name a few.

When Stewart first saw Joan (then Carter), he was reading Lee Maracle’s (Joan’s sister) first book, Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel

The book is an autobiographical exploration of an Indigenous woman’s life, from the səlilwətaɬ mudflats to Tkaronto — the Mohawk word for Toronto — in the ’60s and ’70s. It touches on Indigenous activism and how to work against racism and colonialism.

“Colonialism stole everything,” wrote Maracle.

He recalls being captivated by Joan, a member of the Native Alliance for Red Power, a social movement led by Indigenous youth demanding self-determination. 

“Back in the day during Red Power, you had to read it if you were in the movement. So, of course, I got the book, but I never got any further than Joan’s photo,” Stewart shared. 

Joan was also an ally of the Black Panthers — a group that fought for civil rights and against racism in the “United States” — and the Palestine Liberation Organization — a group that was formed to fight for the rights of Palestinian people and create an independent Palestinian state where Palestinians could live freely.

“Joan has been engaged in political activism pretty much since she was 16. She crawled out her bedroom window down a tree to go to Frank’s landing during the Columbia River fishing dispute, and the National Guard was there,” he shared on the phone while driving home from “Kelowna.”

“She was also the spokesperson for the Native Peoples Delegation to the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s and went there for a few weeks. During the Zapatista uprising, she went to Chiapas, Mexico, and was our band spokesperson for the Oka Crisis.”

Eventually, Stewart was invited to sit on the board of the Vancouver Indian Centre Society — which is now called the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society — where Joan was already on the board. 

“I was sitting at the end of the table, looking down and thinking, ‘Oh, there she is!’” he shared. 

That evening, they were at King’s Head pub in Kitsilano, where they started talking and have been together ever since. 

“It was the movement that brought us together. It was the movement that sustained our relationship,” said Stewart. 

Stewart describes Joan as a bright light, saying she is gregarious and a lot of fun. He loves that she speaks her mind and is a better shot than he is when it comes to hunting. 

“She’s a fanatical fisher. Sometimes, I tell her, no, you can’t bring your fishing gear, we have to get there. But she wants to stop at every river,” he laughed. 

Their dinner conversations are typically centred around their grandchildren, of which they have 15. They even have a couple of great-grandchildren — and are excited to have more. They do their best to ensure their descendants grow up knowing what’s happening worldwide, discussing current events, politics and environmentalism, he said.

“We’ve discovered that the secret of life is about holding each other up, respecting one another, and caring, not putting each other down,” he said.

“It’s about our commitment to our people and the environment. You know she’s an MLA, and I’m the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. That’s fine and all, but it’s about who you are, not what you do. It’s about living your life with purpose.”

Stewart says he’s had cancer four times and, about 26 years ago, came close to dying from it. Alongside losing his son to a carfentanyl overdose, he believes living so close to death has taught him and Joan to focus on what’s really important, and for them, that’s people. 

‘One slice at a time’

Joan Phillip’s undeniable toughness puts her in a good spot to make waves in “B.C.” politics, serving her home territories and stepping onto a trail that’s been blazed by her predecessor Melanie Mark.

“I really hope and pray that Joan doesn’t have to face the same things I did,” Mark said in an interview.

The fact that women are underrepresented in politics is a harsh reality made even worse by the scrutiny and personal attacks they face in the public sphere, often experiencing “backlash when they display the traits typically associated with strong leaders,” according to the Saje Journal article “Whiny, Fake, and I Don’t Like Her Hair’: Gendered Assessments of Mayoral Candidates.

Mark grew up in the Skeena projects in East “Vancouver” with a single mother and has always been passionate about social, environmental and economic justice. In her role, she helped create the first provincial tuition waiver program for youth from the foster care system and removed all fees for adults accessing Adult Basic Education.

Because of the trauma caused by residential schools and the foster care system, both of her parents lived with alcohol and substance addiction. Rarely do any Indigenous people’s experiences remain untouched by this history. 

“I am the product of the foster care system,” she said.

“Education is [important] to me, and it truly is the great equalizer,” she shared as the first person in her family to graduate high school and college. 

Mark helped launch the world’s first Indigenous Law program at the University of Victoria and secured investment in Indigenous language revitalization, Youth centres and more. 

Despite these successes, Mark admits that she wasn’t perfect, and though she made some mistakes, she had no regrets. 

As a mom, niece and daughter, her decision to resign came at a time when her family really needs her.

“This journey has been challenging and has come at a significant personal toll,” she shared in her resignation speech. 

While her priorities to spend more time with her family are clear, she also illuminated the problems within colonial institutions gripped by systemic racism that are deeply influenced by religious teachings and traditions.

In a candid manner, Mark said she was “exercising [her] self-determination” and denounced the current political system as “cutthroat,“ “dysfunctional,” and a “torture chamber.” The latter is a play on words referencing former Canadian Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould’s book Indian in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power. Wilson-Raybould was Canada’s first Indigenous Minister of Justice and Attorney General. She was only the third woman to hold the role. 

“Jody talks about how she tried to make decisions that were often interfered with by x, y and z. She’s a public face, and people don’t know that,” Mark shared.

“They don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes because they don’t understand politics. There’s a machinery behind all of these decisions.”

Women in politics and even other leadership positions tend to be thrown into this arena, where their characters are attacked. Mark was not exempt from this, with people sometimes chastising her for showing any form of emotion. 

“Women get it worse than men. That’s the bottom line,” Mark said in a press conference when she resigned.

It can be dehumanizing and demoralizing, she shared. Meanwhile, when it comes to men in politics, it isn’t that they don’t face hate, too, but theirs is usually focused on the work they do instead of who they are.

As Mark resigned, she called for reforms to foster better collaboration between elected officials. She believes that it goes beyond opposition and that the system as a whole comes into play here. These systems still hold on to dated customs, she says, forgetting how things have shifted and changed over the years. 

“This place can’t be all about votes, polling, and posturing. People need to know that their lives matter, their communities matter, their justice matters,” she said in a speech in the legislature. 

“People have no recourse but to sleep on the streets. That’s unacceptable and inhumane. While our government has done so much work to address these systemic issues, there’s so much more work to do.” 

In an interview with Glacier Media following her election, Phillip remarked that she didn’t expect to change the world overnight, but that — as an Elder taught her — it’s “like a pie.” 

“We had everything taken from us, including our authority, and we’re going to get it back slice at a time,” she said.

Top image credit: Melanie Mark and Joan Phillip stand on Commercial Drive near Grandview Park. – Photo: B.C. NDP

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