The Electrical Worker online
May 2014

IBEW, First Nations Partnerships
Build Canada, Unionism
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It was a unique opening to the 38th IBEW International Convention in Vancouver in 2011. Members paid silent respect to Elder Rose Point, a member of the Coast Salish tribe, the First Nations people who once inhabited the territory beneath the convention center on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Then 4,000 delegates, led by Point's nephew, chanted in unison "whinatza," an expression that means "I'm a part of who you are."

The sentiment aligned perfectly with the powerful spirit of brotherhood at the gathering.

And opening with speakers from the First Nations exemplified the efforts of the IBEW and signatory employers to deepen ties with aboriginal populations in Canada.

Progress in the form of mining and infrastructure projects is encroaching on once isolated reserves, some so remote that they are only accessible by plane or snowmobile.

But, in a growing effort, the IBEW is recruiting, training and organizing these previously marginalized North Americans whose schools and services lag behind those of the majority population.

More IBEW locals, employers and advocates of the First Nations and the Metis (mixed European and aboriginal peoples) are opting to follow the lead of major industrial enterprises like Manitoba Hydro by developing pre-apprenticeship training programs to promote diversity in the skilled trades and the mainstream economy.

Treaties between First Nations bands and federal and provincial governments frequently require corporations engaged in projects on reserve land to hire indigenous residents. But, cultural awareness and developing mutual respect are essential to successful partnerships between the IBEW and First Nations communities.

"The same principles and values that underpin First Nations culture — justice, equity, sharing responsibility — define the solidarity of labor activists. Unionism resonates well with our First Nations brothers and sisters and strengthens both," says Winnipeg Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Velie.

Economic imperatives are merging with moral vision and pragmatic problem-solving in a decisive turn to develop the indigenous workforce to address a growing labor shortage that has mostly been filled by foreign workers on temporary visas. While First Nations peoples constitute less than 3 percent of the population, the majority are below 23 years of age. First Nations people constitute the fastest-growing section of Canada's population.

Pre-Apprenticeship Training Builds Solid Careers

"It's with a sense of pride that I and other First Nations members produce electrical power in the areas where we live," says Jeremiah McKenzie, who hails from the Grand Rapids Reserve and is one of 600 Winnipeg Local 2034 members from aboriginal or Metis backgrounds.

A 14-year technician at Manitoba Hydro, McKenzie graduated from a pre-apprenticeship program targeting deficiencies in educational services on his reserve. McKenzie now encourages others to follow his path and participates in the First District's Next Gen (young workers) program.

Canada's largest populated First Nations community resides in Ontario, home to 23,000 members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy including Mohawks, Cayuga, Senecas, Onondaga, Oneida and Tuscarora. About half of the population lives on Six Nations reserves, while others mostly live in urban areas.

Hamilton, Ontario, Local 105 partners with other building trades and the Six Nations Grand River Employment and Training, to offer the Work Ready Aboriginal People program. Once a year, prospective construction workers travel from their reserves to visit 10 affiliated training centers of the Greater Hamilton-Brantford Building Trades Council.

Arriving in a 22-passenger bus financed with the assistance of the building trades council, they are given some safety training and a taste of the requirements for entering diverse apprenticeships.

"I am extremely proud to be an IBEW Local 105 apprentice, "says Ashley Porter, a mother of four, one of several new members who entered the electrical trade through the program.

Construction trade unionism is well respected in many territories. Mohawk ironworkers, the daring "skywalkers," erected some of Manhattan's tallest buildings for generations. Porter's uncle, Kevin Porter, is a Local 105 member.

Ashley, who was assigned to a solar project after opting for the electrical trade, had attended a year of university but as a young high school woman, was not encouraged to consider a trade.

"Schools on the reserves need more information on unions and the building trades. If I knew then what I know now, I would have pursued the electrical trade years ago," says Porter.

Filling the Labor Gap, Bridging Cultures

"It can be a culture shock," when many First Nations recruits enter the union workplace, says Cecil Woodhouse, an IBEW journeyman working for Rokstad Power Corporation. Woodhouse worked at Manitoba Hydro for 20 years, including six directing the aboriginal pre-placement program.

Hailing from Manitoba's Fairford Reserve, Woodhouse says many residents there are familiar with unions, having worked as carpenters, ironworkers and operating engineers for years. But on many of the 20 or more reserves in Local 2034's jurisdiction there is no union legacy.

"Coming from the First Nations, I understood many of the questions on the minds of applicants for Manitoba Hydro jobs," says Woodhouse, who, last winter, along with his brother Norman and several Fairford Reserve friends, erected more than 7 million pounds of lattice and fabricated steel in less than seven months at a new converter station, never losing a day of work despite temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius.

"Sometimes I needed to ease supervisors off on interviews with applicants about their work experience," Woodhouse said, adding that recruits may have lacked traditional work proficiency because of the remoteness of their reserves. "I would accept skills like fixing a snowmobile in the cold," says Woodhouse, who is credited by Velie with continuing to organize new members.

Indigenous communities face many of the same challenges as American Indian reservations in the U.S., compounded by historic disparities. First Nations children, on average, receive 22 percent less funding for welfare services than other Canadian children.

According to the Assembly of First Nations, suicide rates are five to seven times higher than for non-aboriginal Canadians. First Nations youth are more likely to end up in jail than to graduate high school.

If the education and employment gap between First Nations and fellow Canadians is closed, the Assembly estimates that $400 billion would be added to Canada's GDP by 2026 and Canada would save $115 billion (Canadian currency) in government expenditures.

Labrador's Innu Nation

St. John, Newfoundland, Local 1620 Business Manager Terry Rose said the union lacked strong ties to workers in Labrador, the northern portion of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a Texas-size region where First Nations residents comprise a majority of the population of 50,000.

A year ago, everything changed as the local began preparations for the $7.5 billion Muskrat Falls transmission project with members of the Innu Nation in the Labrador community of Sheshatshiu.

The project will upgrade power systems by building 900 miles of 500-kilovolt transmission lines across Labrador then underwater to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It begins in the historic homeland of the Innu, an indigenous people, numbering 1,700, who live predominantly on two Labrador reserves.

Steeped in activism, the Innu had, years ago, protested the flooding of their land by companies for hydroelectric power. Despite having won the right to vote earlier than other First Nations bands, the Innu only became covered by treaties, comprehensive land claim settlements, in 2002. They had little or no experience with unions although their members have worked on mining projects.

Seeking local cooperation for the massive project, the provincial government and private industry mandated that Innu be given first priority for Muskrat Falls jobs, followed by aboriginals, Labradorians, provincial residents of Newfoundland, then all other Canadians.

The IBEW negotiated an agreement providing for all work on the power transmission segment of the project to be performed by union members. Fifteen other unions will participate in the work.

Promoting Excellence, Resolving Problems

Local 1620 Assistant Business Manager Don Murphy reached out to the Innu Nation to discuss how to best employ its members on a diverse array of jobs — from staffing the project's work camp with cooks and housekeepers to clearing brush, operating heavy equipment and training as apprentice linemen and electricians.

The local union helped ensure that interpreters and Innu shop stewards communicate with their peers in their native language. "We understood that for the Innu, dealing with most of our members and managers can be similar to the challenge we would face if [our majority members] were dropped into a French-speaking factory in Montreal," says Local 1620 Business Manager Terry Rose. "They need to have their questions answered."

Innu recruits, some as young as 18, are now engaged in Code of Excellence training in Labrador where they are instructed in proper safety procedures and introduced to the history of the IBEW and their roles and responsibilities to the IBEW and its customers.

"No union has worked harder than the IBEW to build trust with the Innu," says Josie Dubberke, executive assistant to Innu Grand Chief Prote Poker, who maintains a database of 700 band members eligible for work.

IBEW representatives scrutinize job orders from employers to ensure that requirements for hiring fairly reflect the needs of the job. They quickly work to resolve any misunderstandings between First Nations members — who already number 130 and are expected to total 300 at peak operations — and others on the project.

Clementine Kuyper, an Innu Nation employee, who works with Ms. Dubberke to find jobs for residents and helps them adapt to new jobs, is one of the beneficiaries of the Muskrat Falls project. Her husband, who was recently hired on the project, was working away from the family for a year. The reserve's distance from major population centers often made it impossible for the couple and their children to communicate by cell phone. He is now happy to be working closer to home.

More Skilled Workers = Stronger Reserve Economies

"If it wasn't for the IBEW, Grand River Employment and Training would not have the WRAP Program and we would still be trying to open doors rather than working as a collective as we are right now," says Brandi Jonathan, the group's apprenticeship coordinator, who helps assess the educational needs of applicants.

With additional residents trained in the skilled trades, says Jonathan, conditions will improve on reserves where adequate housing and modern infrastructure are so often lacking.

"Apprenticeship is not a new concept to aboriginal youth," says Thunder Bay, Ontario, Local 402 Business Manager Glen Drewes. "Bands have their own apprenticeships, learning trapping and hunting and other skills by the side of their elders."

Drewes, whose local apprenticeship program includes six First Nations students, anticipates more long-standing opportunities for cooperation between IBEW and aboriginal communities as the "Ring of Fire," a developing chromite mining project, will require roads and rail lines to be built through First Nations lands.

In a future issue of The Electrical Worker, we will profile Carolyn Smeltzer, a longtime aboriginal rights activist and member of Winnipeg Local 2034 who serves as a unit chair for The Pas at Manitoba Hydro.


First Nations members of Winnipeg Local 2034, above, helped erect seven million pounds of steel in six months at Manitoba Hydro's Riel substation.


Ashley Porter, right, alongside Hamilton, Ontario, Local 105 Business Manager Lorne Newick, entered the local through a Six Nations pre-apprenticeship program.


Members of the Innu Nation in Northern Labrador participated in Code of Excellence training delivered by St. John, Newfoundland, Local 1620.


More skilled workers will improve life on the reserves, says Brandi Jonathan, at left, a Six Nations apprenticeship coordinator.