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May 2022

North of 49°
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A Return to the IBEW Family for Members
Keeping North America Safe

Most IBEW members don't have to worry about polar bears pestering them while they work. But for some members of Ottawa Local 2228, the big white bears can be a daily concern.

In March, Local 2228 negotiated an agreement with Nasittuq Corporation covering workers on the North Warning System installations along Canada's Arctic Circle border, reclaiming work that had belonged to IBEW members for decades. The agreement covers the 100 or so men and women who work all over the network: electricians to technicians, cooks to custodians — and polar bear monitors.

"Someone on bear watch is armed with a high-powered rifle to guard their fellow workers while they're out fixing equipment," said First District International Vice President Thomas Reid, who served NWS members for years as an international representative.

The NWS is a chain of 11 long-range and 36 short-range radar installations, designed to closely monitor military movement within North America's remote polar areas. Canada's contributions to this effort are part of the country's North American Aerospace Defense Command agreement with the United States.

"We've long represented these folks that service equipment to guard the north," said First District Lead Organizer Brett Youngberg. The defense network dates to the late 1950s when it was then called the Distant Early Warning System.

From about 1963 onward, as many as 400 station personnel, working for the stations' contractors, were continuously represented by Winnipeg, Manitoba, Locals 2085 and 1541. (Local 1541 was amalgamated into Local 2228 in 2017.)

In 1985, an agreement between Canada and the U.S. led to the creation of a modernized North Warning System. Workers' maintenance responsibilities and representation remained largely unchanged, thanks to Canada's historically strong successorship laws that helped union workers in a shop retain their union membership even if someone else came in and took control.

In 2000, the government of Canada started working with local indigenous populations to help them gain greater management involvement because the NWS installations are on Inuit land. Within a few years, the Department of National Defence had awarded a service contract to Nasittuq, an Inuit Canadian majority-owned corporation whose name means "looking out from a high place" in the eastern Canada Inuit language of Inuktitut.

But by 2014, successorship laws had gradually been watered down and the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Steven Harper awarded the NWS work to a new contractor — one that entered into an agreement with another union.

"That fight to keep the contract with the IBEW was expensive and frustrating," said Reid. But it wasn't the end of the road for the brotherhood, Youngberg said. "We maintained contact with those folks, and we put a lot of time and dedication into getting them back."

That tenacity, among other things, proved useful when the NWS maintenance contract came up for renewal this year.

"The Defence Department doesn't care who's doing the work as long as it's being done right," said Local 2228 Business Manager Paul Cameron. "When the contract came up for a bid, the department showed a clear preference for the service they'd gotten for years from IBEW members."

In March, the Government of Canada awarded Nasittuq a seven-year, $592 million contract to operate and maintain the NWS, with Cameron announcing that, thanks to help from the First District, Local 2228 had successfully negotiated an agreement with the contractor.

"Federal government is us," said Cameron, whose members also work with Nav Canada, the country's civil air navigation system, and several other federal government departments. "We're used to having members across the country," Cameron said.

While Local 2228 is based in Ottawa, Cameron noted that it has representatives who work out of Alberta and Quebec, too. "These Nasittuq members will be well served," he said.

Nasittuq is responsible for remote site operations including helipads, gravel runways, more than 100 buildings and over 300 bulk fuel storage tanks. The often weather-dependent work involves anything from maintenance and logistics support to air traffic coordination.

Given the work involved and its remote location, Reid added, "It was quite a challenge organizing them back with the IBEW. "I want to give some kudos to Brett, Paul and their team. I'm happy and excited to have this group back in the IBEW fold."


Ottawa Local 2228's new contract even covers people who watch for polar bears, such as the one pictured here in front of a radar dome.