“Be different. Make a difference.” These were just five of the many powerful and wise words that Grand Chief Stewart Phillip emphasized at the annual BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) conference for youth. Grand Chief Phillip has served the Penticton Indian Band as Chief for almost 16 years. He addressed the crowded room on why we need to collectively advance Indigenous Title and Rights in BC. That room included Burnaby School District students, keen to understand the nuances of laws and human rights in Canada.
The fascinating life story that the Grand Chief relayed to students and teachers was a poignant narrative of a lost boy, unaware of his true identity, found by his birthfather and culture, a transformation at the late age of 28. This was a story of an indigenous child raised by a white family in smalltown British Columbia, who was taught and accepted the cruel stereotypes of First Nations people, and who was consciously kept completely separate from a deep philosophy and rich heritage he would find eventually in his birth culture. This was not a rags to riches story. This was, and still is, a story of a revolutionary awakening – a dramatic one for an individual and a band and quite possibly for a nation.
The Grand Chief lives his belief that “we have to challenge the status quo.” As BC’s First Nations leader, he declined to participate in a reconciliation ceremony in September with Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. “It is a matter of principle,” he stated. From the cultural genocide of the residential schools, to the poverty of First Nations communities and ongoing government negligence with child welfare and environmental policies, the Grand Chief is very political.
His frustration with the slow processes of government with First Nations in BC came through in some of his closing words… “All of those smirks on your faces will be quickly wiped off” when the challenges of the earth and the world become greater. Grand Chief Phillip is a proponent of students challenging authority and asking questions. Young people need to make change, much like the anti-Vietnam protestors he witnessed when he was young and the thousands of Vancouverites marching downtown recently against oil and pipelines.
Burnaby students noted the strong impact of Grand Chief Stewart Phillip’s presentation on their understandings and perspective of First Nations issues, taking his message with them to two more powerful workshops and an afternoon panel discussion.