Unionized construction has a role in healing and building for the future

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The labour movement has always been about more than just workers coming together democratically to address their common concerns.

By M. Malatesta

The labour movement has always been about more than just workers coming together democratically to address their common concerns. It’s also been about standing up for oppressed and marginalized communities and those who have been denied the right to stand up for themselves. That includes Indigenous Peoples.

While unions have organized and advocated for Indigenous workers for decades, the BC Building Trades is developing a Reconciliation, Strategy and Action Plan to break down barriers and encourage understanding among union members of the conditions and struggles facing First Nations communities today.

Three gatherings were held in May and June at the Operating Engineers Local 115 hall in Burnaby. In addition to study sessions, there was a “healing circle” where participants expressed their personal experiences and perceptions of colonial culture and its impact.

“It was pretty emotional for me,” said Geoff Higginson, president of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 2. “It was really eye-opening for me as to who I am and my own history growing up in Canada. My grandfather was a settler who came from Europe and started a small farm in southern Saskatchewan. It was tough for him and his family just to survive. But I realize that I am where I am today because of his opportunity. That came as a result of what was taken away from the First Nations.”

Like in most parts of the colonized world, European-based corporations and governments pushed or militarily conquered and forced Canadian Indigenous societies to give up the lands that supported their sustainable economies of hunting, fishing and gathering going back thousands of years. The colonizers also destroyed food sources, brought fatal diseases and criminalized cultural practices. People were forced onto a restrictive reservation system with impossible economic restrictions. Several generations of children were torn away from their families to be raised in church-run residential schools and taught to reject their Indigenous heritage in favour of British colonial teachings. These schools were often scenes of violent abuse and thousands of child deaths. Currently, Statistics Canada reports that First Nations continue to be the poorest and most under-represented communities in Canada.

Higginson said this was a major contributor to the ongoing crippling problems facing First Nations people. “That trauma gets passed on from generation to generation,” he said. “The alcoholism, the alienation (due to) racism and discrimination, the hopelessness, the lack of opportunities. I learned how this has been a real trauma for the First Nations.”

The gatherings were co-facilitated by Brenda Ireland, former head of the Industry Council for Aboriginal Business at BCIT who now runs First Light Initiatives, and Paulette Regan, former director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and author of the book Unsettling the Settler Within, which encourages non-Indigenous Canadians to examine their beliefs about world history and the ideas presented by colonial-dominated culture.

“I think it’s a very optimistic time,” Ireland said. “The union movement has once again taken the lead in taking steps to make change and engage with First Nations in a working environment. These are steps toward reconciliation.” She added it is in sharp contrast to the constant media coverage of rising racial violence and bigotry, especially in the U.S. “Despite all that, we’re in a new beginning on a path to reconciliation. In an environment where no one really knows how it gets done, we realize we need a process to engage on how we grow with the country and come together as people.”

Higginson wants to see practical further steps between the BC Building Trades and First Nations as a result of this plan. “For me, it’s not enough to give a leg up to First Nations. It’s about healing and then building on that. It’s about changing my role as a union trainer and representative. We can’t go forward without knowing our history. It’s more than just getting more First Nations workers onto building projects. We can’t just train them and then expect that to happen.”

He said he wants to see labour unions involved directly with First Nations-run community economic development projects where the Indigenous communities control and set the direction for the development. “It’s their land. They should be in control of it, and not some big international corporation. That’s who we should be working with directly.”

For More Information: 

Contact the BC Building Trades office
(778) 397-2220

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