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Rob Shaw: NDP to acclaim Indigenous leader and climate activist Joan Phillip to run in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant

She aims to replace Melanie Mark, who has resigned as an MLA
Joan Phillip will contest the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant riding for the BC NDP when a byelection is called.

The BC NDP have chosen Indigenous rights leader and longtime climate activist Joan Phillip to replace Melanie Mark in the riding of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant. 

Phillip was announced on stage by Mark during a farewell party Saturday night. She was the only person to apply for the nomination by the cutoff date of April 26. She’ll be formally acclaimed on May 24. 

“I’ve got a soft spot for the Downtown Eastside,” Phillip, 70, said in an interview. 

“My father was Tsleil-Waututh, and I grew up in North Vancouver and Vancouver, and particularly in the Downtown Eastside. My children went to school in Britannia, and I worked at the Vancouver Indian Centre and outreach alternate school, which is based out of the First United Church at Hastings and Gore. 

“So I still have a connection to this community. It seemed like a very good fit.” 

Phillip and her husband Stewart, who is grand chief with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, have been lifelong activists, particularly recently in the area of climate change. She is currently the land manager at the Penticton Indian Band, where her family lives, but she said she and Stewart have an apartment in the riding. 

Phillip ran twice for the federal NDP in Central Okanagan ridings, and was named one of seven candidates to watch by climate organization 350 Degrees Canada. She’s fought the Trans Mountain pipeline, Site C dam, Ajax open-pit copper mine and salmon farm industry. 

“What really motivates me is my 15 grandchildren and five children, but there’s also three touchstones: Affordability, housing and health,” she said. “And there’s a lot there I can contribute to making things better for people.” 

Vancouver-Mount Pleasant is B.C.’s poorest riding and the epicentre of the province’s overdose, homeless and addictions crises on the Downtown Eastside. It became vacant after Mark, who held the riding for three terms, resigned this month. 

Mark blasted the legislature during her initial resignation speech in February, saying as the first Indigenous woman elected and to serve in cabinet, she found the institution racist and colonial. She likened the experience of political life to “a torture chamber” and “character assassination.” 

In the wake of that speech, political leaders from all three parties promised to discuss reforms to make the institution function better for women and minority MLAs. To date, nothing has happened. 

Phillip said she has some “little big shoes to fill” to replace Mark, as both an admirer of her advocacy and also her elder by almost 20 years. But she said she’s not worried about the toxic culture of politics, suggesting she may simply elect to give any MLAs who are rude to her a good whack with her SIA stick, a Saskatoon berry stick. 

“Melanie was a very sweet and caring individual, and I really feel for the fact that she was ground down by all the abuse that took place within the legislature,” she said. 

“But I really approach things like a grandmother, and I’d have to get my little SIA stick out for those bits for those people who are misbehaving in the house.” 

The riding of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant is considered the safest riding in the province for the NDP.. Voters there have elected a New Democrat MLA every election since the riding was created in 1991 — usually by a very wide margin.  

“I always used to tell people that what we don’t accomplish now we will be passing the baton to the next generation,” said Phillip. 

“But also one of our elders always said 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. And I think that’s the real get of this. I don’t want to set the world on fire and make sure it’s changed overnight, but as long as we’re moving in the right direction, and I really believe we are, particularly under this government, we’ll get to where we need to be one step at a time.” 

Neither the BC Greens or BC United parties have picked candidates yet. Premier David Eby has yet to call the date of the byelection. He is likely to call the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant byelection concurrently with a byelection in Langford-Juan de Fuca, which was vacated this month by the resignation of former premier John Horgan. 

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]