The Electrical Worker online
November 2014

Who We Are
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to
First Nation Member Brings Passion to Manitoba Local

Chief White Eagle of the American Indian tribe, the Ponca, once said, "When you are in doubt, be still and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage."

Growing up in the '70s in The Pas, a town in Northern Manitoba, Carolyn Smeltzer, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, today a unit chair in Winnipeg Local 2034, was not one to stay still and wait. But courage, a trait inherited from her mother and grandmother, has defined her accomplishments.

After she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 6, Smeltzer's mother and grandmother enrolled her in figure skating, a costly sport that enjoyed scant participation by aboriginals.

By age 12, Smeltzer made the Manitoba Team. The only aboriginal and its second-youngest member, she traveled far beyond the reserve, all the while paying close attention to the language, behavior and intricacies of Canada's dominant culture. "I wasn't afraid of taking chances," says Smeltzer, whose family history spurred her to become an advocate for aboriginal rights.

When Carolyn was two years old, her mother narrowly escaped kidnappers who later, on the same day, murdered Helen Betty Osborne, a young high school student who had left her home in Norway House Cree Nation to attend high school in The Pas. It took seventeen years for two local white men to be charged in the case, which drew a formal apology from the Manitoba government for racial and gender bias in the investigation.

"Aboriginals learned they needed to become politically savvy and educated in order to help others who faced obstacles," says Smeltzer, who, in 1989 at age 18, attended an Aboriginal Youth Conference in Ottawa.

Four years later, Smeltzer, a single mother with three children, heard about a community college program to train computer programmers and systems analysts. She applied and was accepted, but was told she would have to wait two years to qualify and was placed on a waiting list for sponsorship. She nevertheless continued to attend class alongside 31 other students in the program, carrying her infant son on her back until the school approved her grant.

By the program's second year, only four students were left. Smeltzer was the only aboriginal female. Working nights as a network administrator and attending classes during the day, she sent her resume out to dozens of employers.

In April, 1995, Smeltzer was hired by Manitoba Hydro. For the next 10 years, she traveled throughout the province's vast northern quadrant helping to set up computers. "I had to leave my home community if I wanted to leave a life of poverty behind," But financial security was still far off as she was forced to spend money that was needed for rent on travel.

In 2005, Smeltzer returned home to The Pas, where she could also help care for her aging mother and grandmother. Previously a member of one of the smaller unions at the Manitoba Hydro, she joined the IBEW, becoming one of 600 members of Local 2034 with First Nations' backgrounds.

"I didn't really understand my rights as a worker until I became an IBEW member," says Smeltzer, who attended the IBEW Women's Conference in San Antonio, Texas, in September and served on a panel about leadership.

"I continue to be more and more amazed at the lengths IBEW will take to educate and empower their members," says Smeltzer. She is carrying on the tradition.

"I plan each meeting for our 34-person unit to ensure that it is well-organized with presentations and handouts to make it more worth everyone's while to attend," she says. She invites Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Velie or the local's northwest area representative to address members. Average meeting attendance has increased from an average of two or three to as many as 18. Politics is frequently on the agenda.

"Carolyn even cooks and bakes on her own time to get members to meetings," says Michelle Sentenac, a co-worker. Smeltzer, who is involved in charitable donations and other activities in The Pas, "always goes above and beyond," says Sentenac.

As some Canadian politicians promote anti-union legislation similar to measures supported by the U.S.'s right wing, Smeltzer recalls a quote she brought back from the Women's Conference, "Our cause is the cause of human rights and justice for all workers." How, she asks, can something so simple be so controversial?

She compares the lack of public discussion on a bill to make it harder for unions to win representation elections to the secrecy surrounding an involuntary immunization program that targeted aboriginal youth in government-established schools in the early 1900s.

"I come from the part of society in Canada where we had no say and where the government was our caretaker as in a parent-child relationship," says Smeltzer. "It amazes me still to this day how secretive laws [like anti-union measures] can be put forth, which should not happen in a true democratic society."


'I didn't really understand my rights as a worker until I became an IBEW member,' says Winnipeg, Manitoba., Local 2034 unit chair Carolyn Smeltzer.