During the final debate of the 2021 BC Liberal leadership race, candidate Ellis Ross was asked how he, a politician from northern BC, could win support in the densely urbanized ridings of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
In response, Ross declared the rural-urban divide a political fiction, and said coming from outside Vancouver was no handicap for leading B.C. He cited Bill Bennett and John Horgan, premiers of B.C. past and present, from Kelowna and Langford respectively.
What the leader of B.C. most needs is to “truly care about British Columbia itself, care about the people, and, more importantly, build a future,” he said.
Building a future has been a fundamental philosophy throughout Ross’s tenure as an elected official.
A politician since 2003, Ross is one of seven candidates running for leadership of the BC Liberal Party. While Ross can present as the least typical lawmaker of the group, he’s been a politician longer than any of his competitors.
“Ellis Ross certainly comes off as less rehearsed and less polished than the other candidates,” said CHEK’s This is Vancolour podcast host Mo Amir. “Which is not to say he’s not prepared. He comes off as very genuine and down-to-earth, which seems to have more appeal than the overly slick-talking politician.”
Ross’s path from an uninspired student in an impoverished northern village to BC Liberal leadership candidate on a provincial stage, to possibly leader of the province one day, was unlikely. However, once on that journey, Ross worked to create unity and prosperity, developing a fierce commitment to the principles of elected democracy and governance.
“He’s thoughtful, he’s driven, he’s determined,” said Stu McNish, host of the online show Conversations that Matter. “I find it no real surprise that he put himself forward as the potential leader for the Liberal Party in BC.”
“I don’t talk unless I have something to say. I get a lot more insight listening than taking up all the speaking time.”
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
Ellis Benjamin Ross was born in 1965 in the town of Kitimat on the North Coast of B.C. The second youngest of five boys and two girls, he grew up on the nearby Haisla Nation reserve in Kitamaat Village, and still lives there today.
Ross recalled the house being stocked with the meat and fish they’d hunted or caught themselves. The house had electricity but running water was not always available.
“You were lucky if you got the Sears catalogue,” Ross said, recalling the lack of toilet paper.
His parents attended the Coqualeetza Residential School in the Fraser Valley, something Ross didn’t learn about it until he was 16 years-old, he said in a January interview.
His father, Russell Ross Sr., was sent away to school after his mother died because his family couldn’t afford to raise him. Ellis’s mother Frieda, went to the school because her mother wanted her to learn to be a homemaker.
“It took everything I could muster to get this information out of my parents.” Ross’s father spoke about playing sports and some typical teenage mischief he’d gotten into at school, but little else.
“When he found himself talking about some of the teachers, that’s when he realized ‘No, no, no, that’s enough, I’m not going to talk about this anymore’,” recalled Ellis. “My mom didn’t want to talk about it at all.”
“I can’t fix the past. I can’t do it. But it’s been proven, we can change the future.”
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
In those days, life was hard all around, with or without residential school, Ross said. When, later, he heard more stories of residential schools and read the Haisla Nation archives, he was filled with sorrow, anger and thoughts of revenge. After a difficult month of soul-searching, he came to the realization hate wouldn’t help anyone, least of all, his family or himself. It firmed a commitment in him.
“It’s important to understand your past, but it’s more important as well to build a future. That was my philosophy going forward,” he said.
Some of his detractors have tried to make his limited formal education a political issue.
During a November leadership debate, rival candidate Val Litwin asked what “formal or informal education” Ross had earned to justify calling himself “an expert” on climate change and economic development.
If it was a dig at his high school education, Ross didn’t shrink from it.
He’d read the environmental assessment laws and ensured resource development in his territory had exceeded standards and mitigated impacts. “Not only did I read it; I lived it,” he said.
Ross attended Mount Elizabeth Secondary School in Kitimat, and bands from his youth, like Prism and Van Halen, remain his favourites to this day. When their songs first reached his ears in the north, “it was the most exciting music I’d ever heard,” Ross said. “Rest in peace, Eddie Van Halen.”
He isn’t shy talking about his early teenage years as a music-loving stoner who stayed out late on school nights and snored through his math class.
Then one night in 1979 at age 14, he made a life-altering decision when he refused a joint being passed around outside the firehall.
“A bolt of lightning never came down and struck me,” said Ross. “One night I just decided I can’t do this. I’m going nowhere.”
He decided to become a basketball player. He trained hard nearly every day. He played in high school, as an adult, and later in the masters league, eventually winning most valuable player in the 2004 All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert and getting inducted into the tournament’s hall of fame.
“That’s what saved me from a life of drugs,” he said.
Ultimately, he answered a different calling, becoming a politician instead.
From College Dropout to Taxi Man
About two decades before he became a Haisla councillor, Ross left Kitamaat Village to attend college in Abbotsford. Ross’s future wife, Tracey, soon joined him and they became a couple, having known each other since high school. Ross stayed at college for a year. He and his wife have stayed together ever since.
“With two kids and two grandkids, it’s been quite the journey for both of us,” said Ross with a smile.
The only other time he lived away from Kitimaat Village was in 1989, when he and his wife moved to Prince George so Tracey could attend hairdressing school. Ross went on unemployment insurance and looked for a job, before returning early to Kitimaat to work as a labourer.
“For quite a few months, all I did was dig ditches and drainage, and level basements with a shovel,” Ross said.
He eventually got promoted to carpenter’s apprentice, but the 1990s were hard times for B.C.’s industrial towns. Construction slowed and finding work was a continuing challenge. The few openings at the Kitimat plants and factories, including its aluminum smelter and pulp mill, garnered an onslaught of applicants.
Ross took what he could get. He worked on and off in construction; he counted salmon for the Department of Fisheries; and he logged and beachcombed with his father and brothers. The latter two jobs ingrained in Ross both a work ethic, and his father’s advice.
Ross recalls his father’s advice: “You’ve got to get an education, succeed in your own right, and not go out and get welfare or ask for money.”
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
“Being around a guy like my dad who imparted so much knowledge to me, that was probably the most important job I’ve ever had,” recalled Ross. “This is a guy who went to residential school and understood you’ve got to be able to survive in the 20th century. You’ve got to get an education, succeed in your own right, and not go out and get welfare or ask for money.”
Ross eventually got hired as skipper of a water-taxi service in Kitimat, where he worked long hours with few days off, for 11 years. Outfitted with little more than a VHF radio, he mainly transported forestry and other resource workers through sometimes treacherous ocean waters, into bays and inlets, including back-and-forth between Kitimat and the hydroelectric power station in Kemano. He credited the water-taxi service with revealing to him how large, beautiful, and dangerous the province is.
“It showed me a lot of what was really out there. You don’t see many people experiencing that way of life anymore,” said Ross, sounding wistful. “I think my generation is the last one to actually go out there and work and fish and hunt.
Ross still enjoys hunting and fishing, which he learned from his father. But people in Kitamaat Village don’t need those skills to keep the fridge full anymore. At the turn of the 21st century, Ross was an integral player in the Kitimat region’s transformation from a rural, rustic backwater into an energized economic hub of the province’s vast northern coast.
The Politician and Leader
Between raising a family and running a water-taxi service, politics were off Ross’s radar in the 1990s. That changed in the new millennium.
In 2003, someone suggested he run for band councillor. He initially did it in the hopes it would help him get funding for the high school basketball teams he coached. He also wanted to shut down industry and press for remediation of past environmental impacts in the region.
Back then, he opposed forestry, mining, aluminum smelting, and even liquified natural gas. Then a fellow councillor prompted Ross to challenge those views by considering the social consequences of economic development.
“When I saw the stats, prison rates, children care, welfare lists, and suicides – I know a lot of it was inflicted by Indian Act policies and government policies, but I was trying to figure out a way, ‘Okay, how do I get out of this? How do I get our people to another place?’”
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
He read voraciously about Aboriginal rights and title, treaties, the Indian Act, and the world around him.
“Everything we had tried to that point had failed. I finally decided to see what a job would do to a person,” Ross said. “When I saw that positive turnaround in that person and saw them talking about ‘Oh I’m thinking about buying a car. I’m trying to save money.’ I thought yeah, there’s something there.”
Something clicked when he understood the connection between the economy, a job, a family, and a community. “I decided that’s how I fix communities,” Ross said.
But politics can be ugly. In a clash of competing perspectives played out in other First Nation communities, a bitter dispute erupted between Haisla’s elected and hereditary leaders.
Whether because of outside interference or not, the Haisla hereditary leadership of the day – minus Russell Ross Sr. – effectively accused the elected council of bribery and corruption on a range of issues, including negotiating with resource companies and government.
Haisla council fought back. The struggle ended up in the BC Supreme Court as a libel case, where the judge ruled in favour of the elected council plaintiffs, which included Ross.
The case ruling set limits on how far elected officials could be publicly criticized bordering on libel, said Ross.
In the end, Ross said, he and council spent a lot of effort trying to convince their community that LNG could fuel socio-economic good.
“To this day, we are still recovering,” said Ross, who has no time for environmental activists who co-opt the language of Indigenous rights. “I condemn those who use First Nations for their political agendas; you’re dividing families and friends.”
When Ross’s father was near the end of his life, he wanted to pass on his hereditary title. He first asked his eldest son – who declined – then, his youngest, Ellis, an elected councillor at the time. Ellis said no (his elder brother subsequently accepted).
“I couldn’t see myself taking that role,” said Ross. “A leadership role that had no definition, that had no authority, and was surrounded by politics.”
In 2011, Ross was elected chief councillor. Two years later, he was re-elected by acclamation.
“My main thought was to bring all my people that went all across BC and Canada, and bring them home,” said Ross. “It was my understanding that they left in the first place because there’s no jobs.”
Current Haisla Chief Councillor Crystal Smith, said, “I’ve always respected his ability to choose a path forward and be committed to achieving his goals (and)… his straightforwardness. People tend to shy away from being completely honest.”
By 2012, Ross and his nation were making headlines. Under his leadership, the Haisla broke with other coastal nations when it supported the construction of liquified natural gas facilities in Kitimat. At that time, the Haisla were reportedly earning over $4 million a year in revenues from LNG.
“What we’re working on is a way to create $40 million worth of revenue coming out of these projects that could be shared amongst the northwest First Nations,” Ross said to CBC in 2012.
In the then BC Liberal government, Ross found a willing partner to aid him in his economic development goals.
Ross had nothing but praise for former B.C. premier Christy Clark for her strong backing of LNG and the protocol changes made to improve efficiency between the nation and the provincial government.
“Christy Clark made a promise to me that they were going to get things done away from the treaty table. At the time I didn’t trust the government or politicians, but they were true to their word,” he said, calling Clark the closest person he had to a political idol.
Ross became known as a vocal advocate for economic development in Kitimat and northern B.C., especially regarding natural gas. For much of his political career since, LNG has been one of the most important and recurring themes.
“He has spent years fighting for an LNG industry that will be the cleanest, the greenest, and the safest anywhere in the world,” Clark said of Ross in 2017.
Ross balanced staunch support of natural gas projects with a commitment to protecting the environment.
“Jobs and training are great, the revenues are great, but what’s the point if you are killing your environment?” Ross told National Geographic magazine in 2014.
“What people probably don’t know about Ellis is that he has some of the highest environmental standards I’ve ever seen,” said BC Liberal MLA John Rustad, who was minister of Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation when Ross was chief councillor. “He walks that line of being able to see how you can have development and protect the environment.”
Ross’s formula for economic success for the Haisla spilled out onto the region, eventually compelling him to test the strategy provincially as MLA for Skeena, and more recently, as candidate for the BC Liberal leadership. He aims to bring more prosperity to B.C. as a whole.
“By the time I resigned (as chief councillor), we had done so many things, acquired so much land, and got so much revenue coming in. Everybody was enjoying life and I thought ‘my community, my region’s on a good path, it’s time for me to help BC.”
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
Once plagued by people leaving, the Kitimat area now faces a housing crunch from an influx of people, both new and returning.
One of Ross’s daughters works as a First Nations community liaison for the Rio Tinto Alcan mining corporation in Kitimat. When Ross was chief councillor, his daughter earned $50,000 more per year than him. With his help, she got a mortgage at 22.
“These stories are becoming a dime a dozen,” said Ross. “Nobody even talks about how hard it was 50 years ago.”
It was that progress which convinced Ross to step down as chief councillor in 2017 to run provincially.
After nearly two decades in power, the BC Liberals faced a tough re-election battle against John Horgan’s NDP, who had spoken against LNG projects and proposals (the New Democrat government has since embraced the industry).
Ross won his race by more than 1,000 votes, displacing the New Democrats who had held the riding for 12 years. Interestingly, even though Ross won most of the polls in the Kitimat region, the NDP candidate won the most votes in Kitimaat Village.
Three-and-a-half years later, during the 2020 election, Ross’s mother was dying. She insisted on voting, and a ballot box was delivered to her bedside.
When the counting was done, Ross won Kitimaat Village by a single vote.
“In the last 4 years we’ve seen no growth, and investment has been chased out of BC,” Ross said, explaining his motivation to run for BC Liberal leader. Ross is addressing members of the Okanagan Sikh Temple in Kelowna during his leadership campaign.
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
A proponent of the BC Liberal tenet of free enterprise, Ross maintains he’s not ideologically driven. “I’ve always believed that if somebody needs a helping hand, the government should provide the framework for a strong economy.”
“His view is, ‘What can we do to help people from a day-to-day perspective,” said Azim Jiwani, campaign communications director for Ross’s leadership bid. “He’s gone on the record many times and said he doesn’t really find himself fitting anywhere on the partisan scale.”
Despite Ross’s victory in 2017, the Liberals lost government to an NDP-BC Green Party alliance. Christy Clark resigned as BC Liberal leader, and Ross found himself on the Opposition bench in Victoria as the natural gas and petroleum resources critic, where he continued to advocate for economic development while learning the ropes of the legislature.
The process was not mistake-free.
“Even the scientists and the experts can’t agree on what’s really going on,” said Ross regarding climate change at an oil industry documentary screening in Alberta in 2019. “If the experts can’t figure it out, why are we not having a conversation about that?”
Critics had a mini-field day over the grainy, 30-second video clip of Ross. The criticism prompted Ross to make a statement on Twitter clarifying his belief in the threat of climate change.
“I am not a climate change denier. I know the threat is real,” the tweet read. “There are a lot of mixed messages out there and we owe it to our young people to give a clear explanation of how we can be better together.”
In February 2020, more controversy erupted across B.C. and the country, when protesters blockaded roads and railways to support activists at the “Unistʼotʼen Camp,” near the mouth of Gosnell Creek, between Kitimat and Houston. Activists, calling themselves “land defenders,” protested the building of the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline which will run from west of Dawson Creek to the LNG Canada facilities under construction in Kitimat.
The planned route had consent from the elected leaders of every affected nation, including the Haisla, but was opposed by some hereditary chiefs.
Debates raged across Canada over how pipelines affected reconciliation with Indigenous people, the climate, and whether hereditary or elected First Nations leaders should determine what happened on Indigenous land.
Ross was a regular news source across the province and country, denouncing the NDP for their soft approach to the activists at the “Unistʼotʼen Camp.”
“CTV called, asking me to debate a lawyer and I thought holy smokes, that’d be amazing!” said Ross. “I thought, ‘Hey a real debate, great, and it’ll be on reconciliation.’”
His debate opponent was Pam Palmater, an activist Miꞌkmaq professor and chair of Indigenous Governance from Ryerson University. Strongly opposed the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, Palmuter makes a living teaching students about decolonization, and often condemns the RCMP and others on Twitter.
Once the debate got going, it was clear Ross and Palmater may as well have been speaking different languages.
“I’m trying to come from a background of experience and case law,” Ross explained later. “All I’m getting back is discussion about hereditary versus elected leadership and things that didn’t relate to reconciliation.”
The debate quickly devolved into a shouting match.
At one point, Ross said elected chiefs had endorsed the Coastal Gaslink pipeline to help Indigenous workers build better lives for themselves and their families. Palmater retorted with a pivot, stating an “anti-poverty strategy” based on “destruction of the climate” was unworkable.
“What a crock, come on!” Ross responded with uncharacteristic ferocity.
“Nobody wants to understand the true impact that economic development can have on First Nations,” Ross said in a subsequent interview.
“Nobody wants to understand the true impact that economic development can have on First Nations.”
Ross in his office at the BC legislature.
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
By “nobody,” he meant the host of activists, academics, and politicians who oppose the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, and profess support for Indigenous people while ignoring the 20 elected First Nations along the pipeline that consented to the project.
“That is so wrong. That is so terrible,” Ross said. “Everybody in today’s day and age has the opportunity to pick their leadership.”
Ross questioned why Canadian political leaders stayed silent when democratically elected First Nations leaders were ignored in favour of unelected, hereditary chiefs.
“Why do you condone this when the whole concept of Canada was built on democracy?” asked Ross. “If it’s not your elected leaders who will help build your future, then who?”
Ross has little patience for identity politics either, even those as innocuous as rural versus urban. He expressed disappointment that so much focus on his BC Liberal leadership candidacy has revolved around his Indigenous background and personal struggles, rather than his principles.
“I find that, at times, missing the point. I’d much rather think about some of the things I was part of, and think about what I stand for, and my values,” Ross said.
“I’d much rather think about some of the things I was part of, and think about what I stand for, and my values.”
[Photo Chad Hipolito]
“Ellis is clearly an individual who, first and foremost, cares deeply about his community and people,” said conservative activist and political commentator Aaron Gunn. Ross is “an independent and critical thinker who is unafraid to stake out contrarian positions if he believes them to be right,” Gunn added.
Ross’s strong stances on the culture wars set him apart from the other leadership candidates. He scoffed at the practice of labelling of people by categories like “settlers” and “colonialists.”
Ross also criticized tearing down statues of historical figures like Capt. James Cook and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald; the cancelling of Canada Day celebrations in some communities; and the Royal BC Museum’s recent decision to “decolonize” a longstanding exhibition of colonial B.C.
“Someone once said you can’t learn anything from a statue,” said Ross. “Yes, you can. Read the plaque and you’ll understand why it’s there. Add another couple plaques for the not-so-good things he did.”
Some of his opinions have gotten his invitations to speak on college campuses rescinded.
“This identity politics, I don’t think people realize where this is headed,” said Ross. “It’s all politics at the end of the day. There’s no reason to cancel history. If anything, add to it.”
If Ross is elected BC Liberal leader on Feb. 5, he’ll have certainly added something to the history books. If he doesn’t win, he’s made it clear to other candidates he’ll be a loyal teammate. Meanwhile, Ross continues to help his former teammates on Haisla Council when asked.
“He still always comes back to Kitamaat. His advice is still sought,” said Smith. Besides being her mentor when they were both on council, Ross was also her former high school coach.
“When I actually became chief, one of the first discussions with him was, ‘I can text you anytime I want. I can call you whenever I want for advice and direction.’”
Ross’s friend and campaign co-chair, John Rustad, said the other leadership candidates are afraid of him.
“I think, quite frankly, they’re worried,” Rustad said. “He speaks from the heart and you don’t get the usual spin in politics.”
During his political career, Ross has remained committed to democratic principles. He’s denounced divisions, and taken what he saw were the best actions to improve people’s lives. Running for leader of the BC Liberals, a position that could one day vault him to premier, is Ross applying that same pragmatic approach to a larger arena.
Regardless of his path ahead, his principles will be his guide, not some stark political ideology.
“I can’t be that politician. I can’t do it,” Ross said. “It’s not how I was raised, or what brought me results.”