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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
Stories
Introduction
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)

 

Norma Rae of the Okanagan

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Lehmann.
The Globe and Mail, November 8, 2001

Part 1 of 8: Inviting big labour


West Bank In the sun-drenched Okanagan Valley, where baseball diamonds and trailer parks sprout like peach groves, the people of the Westbank First Nation thought there was nothing left to absorb from the white world.

Their ancestral land had come to look as suburban as a strip mall. Old hunting grounds had been turned into a theme park, berry patches into drive-throughs and big-box outlets. Where fishermen once threw their nets, yachts and jet skis now ruled the waters.

In almost every visible way, their lives seemed no different from those of their 100,000 neighbours in Kelowna. But that was before the biggest public-sector labour union in British Columbia knocked on their doors, and band members were reminded that they were supposed to be different -- a communal people quite unlike the class-riven society around them.


"Every other Canadian citizen is guaranteed the right to belong to a union."
Evelyn Lube
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.

Related stories
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.
THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 8 plus a related film review):


Photo Essay
Westbank and the union


1. Inviting big labour
'Every other Canadian citizen is guaranteed the right to belong to a union'

2. Westbank's emerging class system
Rapid development transforms the secluded reserve to an affluent suburb

3. 'It was a very turbulent time to be an employee'
The struggle for solidarity on the reserve

4. Playing tough
Put your money where your mouth is, chief tells union reps

5. Colonial parallels
'Just another form of non-native people trying to shape their destiny'

6. 'We are the cash cow'
Leaseholders lobby for a greater voice in reserve affairs
7. 'Sometimes they're a vehicle' for change
Union successes in one workplace

8. Election fever and the union
'All of the employees are afraid of losing their jobs at the next election'

Related story: Globe review of the 1979 film Norma Rae - A primer on the original Norma Rae. Contains relaed Web links.


 
 

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Two worlds - photo essay


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