December 28, 2020

IN CANADA, FIRST NATIONS’ LONG PROUD HISTORY as ironworkers reaches back to the 1880s when men from the Iroquois Confederacy were hired to build the Victoria Bridge across the Saint Lawrence River for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

In B.C., First Nations ironworkers were a part of the Depression-era construction of the Lions Gate Bridge that connected Vancouver and North Vancouver.

Ironworkers Local 97 training co-ordinator Derek Dinzey says the union is proud of the large numbers of First Nations members, and their accomplishments, but says the credit for that goes to the workers.

“The way that we get so many First Nations members out here is word of mouth. Nobody ever picks a trade that they haven’t been told about,” Dinzey said.

With the Lions Gate Bridge, attracting skilled First Nations workers was partly due to geography.

“Because that one end is on First Nations land, I know that we did have quite a few First Nations on that project,” Dinzey explained.

A current example of that word-of-mouth communication is in and around the Village of Chase, B.C., about 50 kilometres northeast of Kamloops.

“Think we have got 10 to 12 First Nations ironworkers from Chase,” Dinzey said.

With a First Nations population of only a few thousand, having 10 or 12 ironworkers is something remarkable.

“We have got a very prominent ironworker from Chase and he has brought a lot of people with him.”

Local 97 member Benny Anthony was moving back to the Chase area after working in Manitoba when Tradetalk reached him.

“The whole plan is to be more community-oriented, to go full circle and move back to my home area,” he said.

Anthony was studying to be a social worker after graduating from high school about 25 years ago.

He took a summer job as a non-union ironworker in Vancouver after he found the classroom stifling.

About 10 years later, a friend helped him get a union job. Since then, Anthony has been encouraging others to follow.

“I have always helped people get jobs, to come and work with me, First Nations and non-natives. There was a younger generation in my community that I started bringing into this craft.”

Helping others along — though not as a social worker — came naturally to Anthony.

“A lot of them I knew growing up. I used to be a youth counsellor. I used to organize youth programs, camping trips, just setting up programs.”

He says the most important thing he looks for in a potential ironworker is attitude.

His family, friends and fellow Local 97 members come from the Neskonlith, Adams Lake and Little Shuswap bands.

Anthony has done a lot of work for Harris Rebar, which employs many First Nations workers. He says the looming shortage of skilled trades people means it is a good time for him to up his game, and bring more First Nations into ironworking.

“I have the young generation phoning me all the time looking for an opportunity. A lot of these guys want a different chance and a different outlook, and they look at me as a role model now that I have really concentrated on my life.

“These guys from Chase have all become really good ironworkers and a lot of them now are foremen. There’s a couple guys working in the States, and I am proud of how they have worked out.”

Second chances

“I am one of those guys,” says Travis Foard, who is full of praise for his mentor, Anthony. “Now, this guy’s in his 40s, he is a role model. He is a leader. He is taking these young guys and he is giving them a shot with the union. Setting them up with school and giving them jobs.”

Foard said he was working as a welder in Alberta, but wanted to come back to his community and his family.

“He helped me with that. He told me what I had to do and he basically signed me up for a course, and they requested me, which allowed me to move back home and make a decent wage. He is the reason why we are making good money and providing well for our families, why we are successful.

“He is a real role model. Not only has he created a lot of great ironworkers in the trade, but he has created guys like me, and now I am a leader and a mentor as well. I bring guys into the trades as well.”

Foard says it’s easy to get people’s attention and show them how to make a good career, and a good life. In a small town like Chase, everybody knows everybody.

“People see us being successful, driving nice vehicles. I own a house here. I have a young family, I have got two sons and a wife here. I feel like I owe it all to him. He really opened doors.”

Foard now works as a foreman at Harris Rebar. He says his rewarding career and his well-paying union job are only part of the story.

“We were all friends in high school. He just brought us all together. I don’t know what would have happened if we never ended up with a good career, getting in trouble. I don’t know what our lives would be like.”

From pushing brooms to building bridges

Angeline Camille knows what it’s like to be discriminated against for being a woman, and for being First Nations, on both union and non-union jobs.

“Sometimes I cannot believe what comes out of people’s mouths,” says Camille, Indigenous co-ordinator for IBEW Local 993 based in Kamloops.

Camille rose above the racist attitudes, became a union member, a journey electrician and now helps others rise above racist attacks and pursue careers in the trades.

“I tell them: ‘Yeah, you go through all this crap. You know you are going to run into some racist person out there, but if you keep your own wits about you, you can get through it.’”

Twenty years ago, Camille, a member of the Shuswap First Nation, took a job with a non-union company that was supposed to include an electrical apprenticeship.

“As a First Nations woman, all they had me doing was pushing a broom and walking around with a vacuum cleaner. That is how I spent my first six years in the trade, instead of learning something I was just cleaning up after them. It was frustrating and demeaning.

“It really affects you. I started thinking, ‘Is this a trade I want to be in if all I am doing is pushing a broom?’”

Despite the abuse, Camille persisted with her dream of being a journey electrician. Some 14 years ago, she showed up for work at an Enderby substation, excited that she was beginning her electrical apprenticeship.

Then, the nearly retired male journeyperson she was assigned to work with told her he had a few things to say before they started.

“He said, ‘I don’t think women are capable of doing this job. They are only good for the kitchen or the bedroom.’”

That wasn’t the end of it.

“Then he said, ‘Second of all, I am going to tell you, I don’t think you Indians are God-damned smart enough for this job.’”

Camille wasn’t going to let her dream die without a fight. She stood her ground.

“I looked at him and said, ‘You know what, buddy? You better pray that this God-damned Indian woman is smart enough to do her job, because I am First Aid on this job and you look like you have one foot in the grave. I just might forget how to save you.’”

Things couldn’t have started worse, but Camille and the racist old journey electrician focused on the job, and her training. Things got better. By the time she was done working with him, a transformation had occurred.

On their last day together, he told her, “You are going to make it. No matter what anyone says to you, you are going to make it on this job and I am going to be proud of you.”

“Yes, he is still alive and kicking,” says Camille, after the obvious question about what ultimately happened to him. “He is still ornery as hell. And I still give it back to him. We ended with a really good understanding.”

Now, Camille visits communities all over B.C. recruiting First Nations workers to be electrical workers or workers in other trades. She says things are getting better on job sites, and more First Nations and non-First Nations are educated about what is not acceptable at work.

When Camille finds First Nations members interested in pursuing a career as an electrician, she directs them to the IBEW’s Workplace Alternative Trades Training (WATT), a three-week introductory course in Victoria.

The times they are a changin’

Camille has only worked on jobs with other women a half dozen times in the past 14 years. Evidence that things are improving can be found at the new Kamloops Hospital construction project.
“At the Kamloops Hospital, there are actually five female electricians working that job. Out of the five, two are journeys and three are apprentices.

Local 993, has 710 members. Of the 570 journeymen, 20 are women and five are First Nations women. Of the 140 apprentices, 36 are women and nine are First Nations.

CBAs: More benefits than just those on the blueprint

By the NumbersConstructing B.C. bridges, highways and rapid transit is about more than building critical infrastructure.

Workers on the Highway 1 upgrading near Revelstoke, the Pattullo Bridge Replacement and Broadway corridor rapid transit extension have a chance to work on reconciliation as they work on public sector infrastructure.

Brenda Ireland is the senior advisor, Indigenous relations for BC Infrastructure Benefits. BCIB is the crown corporation tasked with administering the province’s Community Benefits Agreements on certain public infrastructure projects. CBAs prioritize jobs and training to local people and underrepresented groups in the trades, including women and Indigenous workers.

Ireland said First Nations and non-First Nations workers need to understand the province’s history if they are to work together respectfully.

“If you do not understand the history then you are not able to make the linkages between what has happened to Indigenous Peoples and what is happening on the ground today.”

Ireland, an Indigenous woman, and Dr. Paulette Regan, a non-Indigenous woman, created History Matters! Indigenous Cultural Competency and Reconciliation in the Workplace, a four-hour course that is being taught to every worker hired on a CBA project.

“We start at pre-contact so our participants understand what Indigenous society was before the newcomers arrived,” Ireland said.

Participants are then led through the imposition of the Indian Act, First Nations being forced onto reserves, the forced removal of Indigenous children into residential schools, the destruction of First Nations governments and economies, and much more.

“We look, of course, at the Indian agent system, which established and enforced those laws that made it impossible for Indigenous people to make very simple decisions about their own lives. Even chopping a load of wood and going to sell it, you had to have the Indian agent’s permission.

“You could not put a roof on your house without having the Indian agent’s permission. You could not meet in political assembly to talk about land claims. You could not hire a lawyer.”

The course deals with the attitude of many non-Indigenous people who have been led to believe that what happened a long time ago, doesn’t affect people today who were not alive when many of the discriminatory laws came into place. And it is important to know that many of these laws are still in place under the Indian Act.

“Whether you arrived in Canada yesterday, or whether you arrived 200 years ago, you are still benefiting from the fact that Indigenous peoples have been marginalized, have been pushed aside.”

Most are shocked by what they learn, and that they had never learned the truth of B.C.’s history.

“Almost to a person it is like, ‘I did not know this. How could I live in a country and not know this?’ It’s hard history to hear.

We have this shared history that we really don’t know a lot about.”

As difficult as it is, it’s critical to understanding why attitudes are the way they are,” explains Ireland.

“A lot of attitudes and stereotypes are based on ignorance — of not knowing our history and the history of Indigenous Peoples.”

The course has already been given to workers on the Highway 1 Illecillewaet upgrading project. And five intercultural teams have been prepared to deliver more courses as BCIB prepares for the Pattullo Bridge replacement and the Broadway corridor transit projects.

It’s clear, Ireland said, that the course makes for a more respectful, co-operative workplace.

“I think it is going to make it more difficult for those who carry those racist attitudes to stick to them, because that is all based on not knowing. It is based on not understanding. History matters.”

By David Hogben