"Every other Canadian citizen is guaranteed the right to belong to a union."
native labour activist
Evelyn Lube, a quietly determined mother of two employed as the band's bylaw officer, remembers the beginning of Westbank's labour wars, and how she and her co-workers were accused of siding with a big white union against their chief.
They were told by their elders that they were betraying native traditions of peace and consensus by wanting to form a bargaining unit to take on their management. But to this day, after threats, clandestine campaigns and family feuds, she believes a union is as fundamental to native progress as it is to that of any other culture.
If you don't know who Norma Rae is, read the Globe's 1979 film review about the Oscar-winning story of a plucky textile worker turned union organizer in the U.S.'s deep South. There are some additional Web links available for more information about the film.
"Every other Canadian citizen is guaranteed the right to belong to a union," Lube says.
"I think times are changing for first nations," she says. "We are an emerging government. We provide government services. Other governments have labour unions. I see no reason ours shouldn't."
Organized labour is not new to Westbank. The mighty B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, with 65,000 members, has represented workers in the band's nursing home since the mid-1990s.
But native leaders considered that unit an exception, something done just to secure provincial funding. A big union from Vancouver inside the band's own office -- its seat of power -- was quite another matter.
Lube and a small group of co-workers, among the band's 63 employees, felt a powerful outside force was needed to help them pressure their chief and council to agree to a modern collective agreement. They were tired of the nepotism and fear that towered over labour relations.
After every election, they saw peers transferred, demoted, even fired for supporting the wrong candidates. And others given hefty raises for voting for the winners.
"Why should they be second-class economic citizens?" asks Gary Steaves, director of organizing for the Vancouver-based union.
The union, long sympathetic to native concerns, was about to find out why. Three years after it won a certification drive at Westbank, it continues to face so many roadblocks set up by the band council that it has been unable to reach a collective agreement in three years.
The council not only feels its power threatened. Some of its members believe the presence of an outside union to be a direct challenge to the band's ancient culture and emphasis on working in harmony.
The tension between the two -- between an adversarial workplace and consensus management, between collective benefits and individual gain, perhaps even between notions of progress and preservation -- is quietly emerging in native communities across the country. And after the Westbank experience, some aboriginal people and labour organizers alike are asking whether their worlds can co-exist.
Westbank's struggle for solidarity seems innocuous enough, locked away in the plain brown-brick box of a band office just up Highway 97 from the bridge to Kelowna. A generation ago, a smaller office on a back road employed a handful of people to look after the only business that mattered: welfare. Pretty much the entire population was on it. But today's office is busy trying to run what is essentially a modern municipality.
Band members like Lube, as well as employees hired from outside, oversee bylaws, tax collection and multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects. They also are well paid for their work, typically earning $15 an hour.
But as they watched their chiefs grow richer, and council members setting salaries by whim, the skilled workforce felt they remained stuck in an old feudal regime.
Beyond the band office, the same tensions are changing the community as some band members earn fortunes, others get by and outsiders continue to arrive, in search of a better climate and lifestyle.