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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
  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 8 of 8: Election fever and the union

West Bank locator Those who thought Derrickson's departure would lead to a quick settlement were soon disappointed. Eli, the new chief, supported the union during the campaign, but now says he wants to ensure that it has his reserve's best interests at heart. In fact, he also has begun to question the need for an outside union, and has suggested that the employees form their own association.

He questioned whether the band, under the Indian Act, even has the authority to deduct dues -- a fundamental issue to the union -- and more recently has been promoting yet another idea, that the union form an aboriginal unit. "If my people want a union, it has to be their union, not someone else's."

But slowly, progress is being made. The two sides have agreed on a standard benefits package, wage grid and grievance process. Previously, the band office employees could take sick leave, but not the daycare staff.

The struggle is also forcing the labour movement to reassess its basic principles. The Westbank collective agreement, for example, will probably spell out special rights for native employees -- in effect, stating that not all workers are equal. Both the band and union hope to agree to preferential hiring for natives, starting with band members, then other Indians in the region, then other aboriginal people and finally the general population. The union's traditions of seniority will not apply.

The agreement also may include a special bereavement clause allowing natives to follow a tradition of grieving a death long after it occurs. This "celebration of life" can go on for five days, which would be counted as paid time off.

But other issues have yet to be resolved, including job evaluations, which the band claims it lacks the expertise to conduct. For Steaves, the union organizer, the delays represent a side of aboriginal culture that big labour is trying to adjust to. His bargaining unit sees itself as much a part of the band as it is part of a union. "They believe they're negotiating for the community. The employer and employee have more in common with each other than in traditional industrial settings."

And despite the tenacity of Lube and feistiness of Derrickson, most people on both sides of the bargaining table would rather shy away from conflict.

"They are infinitely more patient than non-native people," Steaves says, trying to reconcile the Westbank union culture with the table-thumping he is accustomed to. "They are very patient and very focused. Where they want to go does not blur with time. You know how unions operate: We go in and say, 'We've got to do this. We've got to do that.' Unions are very task-oriented and believe you shouldn't wait 111 years for your first collective agreement."

"They don't need a union. As far as I'm concerned, they don't work anyway. Any non-native living here will tell you that."

Katja Maurmann

However, the local ratepayers may not be so patient. As taxes and levies rise to cover the growing cost of Westbank's administration, the residents are pressing the band for more information about where their money is going. The response has not been positive.

When Nick Carter stood up at a recent meeting with the band council to ask why his water charges had gone up so much in one shot, a councillor said simply that the money was needed for "infrastructure." No details were provided.

Like many people, Carter does not believe the band is out to deceive him. In his mind, the band office is not up to the challenge of running what some consider the equivalent of a municipality. And now the union, he and his neighbours fear, will serve to restrict change.

"There are inefficiencies in the band office and I'm not sure if unions are going to change those inefficiencies, of which we as taxpayers pay a good chunk," says businesswoman Katja Maurmann, who took over from Carter on the advisory council.

"When you have a union in there, it will become very difficult to remove people who aren't doing their job."

Since moving to Westbank from Manitoba in 1996 to be near her elderly parents, Maurmann has been shocked by the slowness of the band's operations. Most of its municipal work is contracted out to the Central Okanagan Regional Development Authority. Yet she finds band employees will take weeks to deal with the most straightforward request.

"They don't need a union," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, they don't work anyway. Any non-native living here will tell you that."

"(Collective bargaining is) a really good start to fixing some of the problems we have in the community."
Evelyn Lube

Lube understands these concerns, but sees them as all the more reason to sign a collective agreement. For political reasons -- whether nepotism or revenge -- many employees hold positions for which they are not qualified. They also do not want to do anything on the job that might attract attention.

If the union can secure job descriptions and evaluations, standardize wages and set disciplinary procedures, the band might operate more efficiently.

But as the talks drag from season to season, year to year, even those basic steps seem like giant leaps. Over the summer, the union agreed to suspend negotiations so the band could focus on a recent referendum on self-government. The proposal was defeated, but a second vote is expected next spring.

The band employees may not want to place their fates on hold that long.

By Christmas, the unofficial campaign for chief and council will begin in earnest, nine months ahead of the actual vote. Ron Derrickson is already floating his name for the ballot, at least when he is not in Europe, where he has travelled twice in four months.

"All of the employees are afraid of losing their jobs at the next election," Lube says. "It's the way it has always been, and it's the way it always will be, until something is done."

She no longer has to fear for her own job. In what is a very small town, the crossover between politics and bureaucracy, between public action and private lives, even between her own ambitions and her community's desires, got to be too much for the organizer. Three weeks ago, she resigned.

But she says she will stick with the collective-bargaining process until an agreement is reached. "It's a really good start to fixing some of the problems we have in the community."

The bargaining unit may become part of a bigger, and largely white, labour movement. It may pit native against native. But that would be no different from the current workplace, Lube says.

At least by joining a bigger movement, the band employees would be able to challenge their own leaders and work to a broader labour standard -- one they see all around them in Okanagan, and across British Columbia.

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.



photo essays
Two worlds - photo essay

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