Former MLA Don Phillips remembered as the man who built Tumbler Ridge

Don Phillips passed away at his home in Australia earlier this month

To hear Blaine Nicholson tell it, it’s hard to overstate the impact former MLA Don Phillips had on the Peace Region.

During his nearly 20 years in the B.C. legislature, the bombastic member for the South Peace bridged rivers, had the ear of the premier and almost single-handedly created the town of Tumbler Ridge.

But don’t get him wrong: the two weren’t the best of friends.

“It might sound like I liked Don Phillips: I didn’t like Don Phillips,” said Nicholson, a real estate agent and former member of the Social Credit party.

“He was that in-your-face, push, push type of person. You either liked him or you didn’t, and a lot of people didn’t like him. But they’d vote for him, because they knew he’d do what was best for this area.”

On Oct. 5, Phillips passed away at his home near Brisbane, Australia, where he lived with his wife. He was 87.

The Social Credit MLA, known as “leather lungs” for his booming voice, revived the Social Credit party after its 1972 loss to the B.C. NDP and championed the Northeast Coal strategy that saw the creation of highways and railheads to extract coal from around what would become Tumbler Ridge.

Phillips, a car dealer in Dawson Creek, was first elected to the legislature in 1966 under Premier W.A.C. Bennett. He would serve until 1986, briefly out of office between 1969 and 1972 following the election of another Social Credit MLA who jumped to the Progressive Conservatives.

Phillips was soon on track for a cabinet post. As the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer tells it, Phillips was blunt with the premier about his temperament: “if you give me labour, there will be a strike. If you give me education there will be a strike. If you give me health there will be a strike.”

He was given the post of economic development and trade minister, and his eye turned to the rich, untapped coal deposits in the south of his riding. That meant trade missions to Japan, which became an early buyer of Tumbler Ridge’s steel-making coal.

He was successful, perhaps in spite of himself.

“You think of a bombastic character like Don Phillips dealing with the Japanese, with all the bowing and protocol, that he would be the exact wrong person,” said Nicholson. “But the Japanese loved him because he really did say and do whatever he darn well pleased.”

Mike Caisley, a town councillor who served as Tumbler Ridge’s first mayor when it was incorporated in 1981, said Philips was “instrumental” in Northeast Coal. At the time, it was an economic development project on par with the current government’s liquefied natural gas strategy.

“The Northeast Coal project was the biggest thing that happened in the province of B.C. for many, many years up to that point in time, and he was very much instrumental in making that happen,” Caisley said.  

Nicholson recalled spirited exchanges with the MLA during his days as president of the Dawson Creek and District Chamber of Commerce.

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MLA Don Phillips - South Peace Historical Society

“He came to us and basically said ‘you’re coming at us with too many issues. You have to narrow it down to three, and I’ll fight for those three.’”

One of those was replacing the Peace River ferry at Clayhurst with a bridge. The crossing now bears his name, though few people know it.  

Nicholson also remembered Phillips’ Social Credit revival tour with Bill Bennett, son of the former premier.  

“He introduced him to everyone in Dawson Creek—the power brokers, the politicians, the businessmen.” Bennett would, among other things, be the first premier to consider building the Site C dam.  

Despite his influence, long-time Tumbler Ridge resident Karen Connelly said Phillips isn’t well remembered in the town.

In addition to being one of the first people hired at the Quintette mine, as a receptionist, Connelly babysat Phillips’ children when she lived in Dawson Creek.

“I think it would only be the people like Mike Caisley and myself who have been there from Day 1 that would appreciate the involvement Don Phillips had,” said Connelly. “The younger generation, they don’t know who he is.”

“He had faith that this town would go,” she added. “And we did. We did go. And I have faith this town will come back. We’re down on the coal thing now, but I’m sure we will come back. You’ve just got to make the best of it.

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