NORMA RAE OF THE OKANAGAN The workplace was tense, rumours swirled of secret lists, people to be fired and homes to have their water cut off. Finally, Evelyn Lube decided she'd had enough. Something radical had to be done, even if asking for help from a big union risked ending in a racial showdown

Thursday, November 8, 2001 – Print Edition, Page A14

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.

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.

"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.

Westbank's emerging class system rises like a new subdivision on the sloping western shore of Lake Okanagan. Located across the water from Kelowna, at the 145-kilometre-long lake's narrow midpoint, the reserve is crowded with trailer parks, strip malls, a winery and golf courses. All were built on land the Crown leased to the local natives, who in turn developed it and leased it to a fast-growing population of newcomers -- mostly white retirees who now outnumber the native population 8,000 to 580.

The rapid development has transformed Westbank from a secluded reserve to an affluent suburb and given it a certain financial independence (as well as water and sewer lines to all residences on the reserve).

It also helped Ron Derrickson to make his fortune.

Even on B.C.'s eccentric political landscape, Derrickson deserves a special place. He has held the chief's office, on and off, for 25 years and in that time has become fabulously wealthy by his people's standard.

He says he controls about 80 hectares of reserve property and leases most of it to trailer parks and shopping centres. As well, he freelances as a negotiator for other native bands, charging $3,000 a day plus a 10-per-cent commission on whatever he can wring out of Victoria or Ottawa.

Life was not always so sweet. Derrickson started out as a welder, but then went into the real-estate business with his brother, Noll. Their timing was auspicious. The federal government had started to encourage natives to leverage their land for economic gain. Ottawa kept the reserve as Crown property, but issued so-called certificates of possession, similar to long-term leases, to those willing to put up some money and plan some form of development.

As the band assumed control of local planning, municipal services and bylaws, the chief became especially important to developers and landowners. First elected in 1976, Derrickson took the role of deal-maker to new heights. He invested band money in -- and then became a director of -- the Calgary-based Northland Bank. But it collapsed in 1985 and he stepped down as chief a year later.

Three years ago, when the voters brought Derrickson back, some band employees became worried. Rumours swirled that a secret list was being prepared of people to be fired or transferred. One woman said she'd been warned that her mother's house was about to lose its water supply.

The climate of fear was too much for many employees. Lube and a few close friends met privately with the union, and they were told that they would be supported if they could get signatures from half the 63 staffers.

Lube's secret campaign was like trying to launch a putsch in a remote mountain kingdom. She had to sneak around to people's homes at night, pleading with them to keep the drive secret. She doubted any laws that protect union organizers would do her much good, not when her opponents controlled just about every aspect of reserve life.

"It was a very turbulent time to be an employee," she says. "Employees knew they would lose their jobs if they signed a union card."

Even Derrickson, who as a welder had belonged to the Machinists and Aerospace Union, says he appreciated the desire for job protection and a standard for wages -- but that did not mean he was not going to fight it.

When Lube finally presented him with the 32 signatures needed for a simple majority, he was unsettled. He sensed a threat to his power as chief, not just from his own employees but from a union bigger and more powerful than all the first nations in the region.

But the tussle that ensued was much more than something out of Norma Rae. For one thing, Derrickson was not alone -- many band members agreed a union would divide their community -- and the opportunity to test that theory soon presented itself when the two sides opened contract talks in a Vancouver hotel.

To Derrickson's surprise, the union reps were not only all white -- he had expected a token native -- they were also ready to fight. "One guy said, 'If you don't make a deal, we're going to fuckin' tear you apart,' " he recalls.

If the union wanted to play tough, so could the chief. He said that he had fired only two people -- both with good reason -- but wished he had gone further.

The band's tax office employed five people when a part-timer would do, he claimed. In fact, the whole operation could be farmed out, freeing up more money for the band's school. Would the union oppose that? he asked.

And then he told the organizers to put their money where their mouth of social justice was. "I said, 'You want a deal? Why don't you put $15- or $20-million of your pension fund into development on the reserve? Then I'll guarantee you union jobs."

Derrickson knew that the union would not put up the money. There was nothing on the reserve that a pension fund could invest in anyway. But he wanted everyone in the room to know that no matter how far the union got at Westbank, he would still portray labour as "us and them," native versus white.

"I have yet to see one thing the unions can do for Westbank First Nation," he says.

In front of the chief, the union did not budge, but realized it was on new ground -- uncharted ground, really, for much of the labour movement.

As native communities continue to gain economic power and more control of local affairs, their expanding work force is ripe for organizing drives. But both sides know that the struggle is as much about culture as it is about politics, and the danger of racism -- of outside unions telling aboriginal people what to do -- runs high. In close-knit communities such as Westbank, the arrival of a union threatened to pit family against family, and disrupt native organizations just starting to get on their feet.

The colonial parallels are easy to pick out. "They have hundreds of years of history of non-native people telling them what to do," notes Steaves of the Government and Service Employees Union. "And they suspect their employees joining a non-native union is just another form of non-native people trying to shape their destiny."

As a believer in aboriginal rights and self-determination, he admits to being in a quandary, as is his union. It does not want to be seen as running roughshod over a native band, but to back off would be to abandon people such as Evelyn Lube who are trying to get a better deal and more respect. It would also send the wrong signal to the growing number of first nations people considering the union option, be they teachers in a reserve school or loggers in a band-owned forestry company.

"We're not your enemy," Steaves likes to tell native leaders, whom big labour once counted as its best political ally on the West Coast. "We just disagree on whether your employees deserve three weeks' vacation or two."

With that in mind, Lube and her co-workers continued to push for a collective agreement, but Derrickson returned to Westbank in search of other options. His council adopted a labour code, borrowed from the Kamloops First Nation, which guaranteed employee rights. It also gave the band council the right to select a union, should staff want one.

When the employees refused to accept the code, the council suggested that they form their own aboriginal union, to be headed by local representatives from the Assembly of First Nations. That, too, was rejected.

The employees knew such "native solutions" would do nothing to right the underlying imbalance of power in their workplace; that they collectively would still be servants to the chief and council, rather than committed employees to an organization.

But Derrickson and many of his supporters were unwilling to negotiate, perhaps knowing that the employees would not want to strike -- their last resort -- against their own community. He warned them that there would be job cuts -- perhaps 15 or 20 positions -- and programs would suffer. "You know who's the loser?" he asked. "The person on welfare, because all the funding is going to paying salaries."

This right-wing response made Derrickson a hero to Westbank's new white majority -- people such as Nick Carter who make the Okanagan Valley safe ground for the Canadian Alliance. Party leader Stockwell Day holds the seat next door to Westbank.

Many of the residents are fiercely anti-union, anti-government and (in private conversation) anti-native. "We are their cash cow," says Carter, a retired Kelowna entrepreneur who moved to Westbank eight years ago. His spacious home -- a mansion next to most native homes -- has a million-dollar view of Lake Okanagan, but his 80-year lease on the property cost him only $56,000.

Yet Carter says few people want to move to Westbank because there is so much uncertainty over native politics, the band's supply of municipal services has been erratic and now the union drive is slowing things down again.

For the $4-million in taxes he and his neighbours paid the band last year, they received only $1.8-million back in services. "They have a pretty good deal," he says. "They don't pay five cents worth of tax."

The leaseholders have been lobbying for a greater voice in reserve affairs, and Carter was part of a citizens advisory group created to give them an outlet. But last spring he quit over the band's refusal to include non-natives in its proposed system of self-government.

Since then, the council has pushed through a 47-per-cent increase in water charges, without consulting the ratepayers. Carter fears that the union will only entrench what he considers the band's bloated work force, jack up wages and, in turn, push up his own taxes. "I told them, 'You can't keep shaking the money tree.' "

Such fears are given little credence on the other side of the Westbank mountain, in a canyon that seems very far away from the largely white lakeside communities. Here, nestled in the woods where most of the native minority lives in modest bungalows and two-storey homes, the Pine Acres nursing home is held up as a native-labour success.

The home is part of a social infrastructure the federal government built on the reserve and left for the local people to manage. Next door is a big school and youth centre, with a floodlit ball diamond, the idea being that children and elders should never be far apart.

Eight years ago, the Government and Service Employees Union launched a organizing drive at Pine Acres, facing the same fears Evelyn Lube would bring to it five years later. The band, which owns and operates the home, could do little to stop the union effort, seeing as the provincial Health Ministry funds most of the 80 beds. But it tried, launching a lawsuit and claiming that a provincial union could not represent workers on federal land.

The case was dismissed, and the band then warned employees that their work environment would change for the worse. Residents might even suffer, should service be cut to cover higher wages.

Instead, the average wage went from $12.50 an hour to $20, in line with other provincially financed nursing homes, with no cuts to service. The province covered the difference.

The union also negotiated an agreement to hire natives first, to have management pay for "culturally appropriate" training for staff to deal with native residents and to extend the probation period -- all in order to soothe fears that it was imposing a new workplace culture on the reserve.

"So unions aren't always about poor management," comments Ron Derrickson's cousin, Jo-Ann, the home's administrator. "Sometimes they're a vehicle" for change.

She says her management team spent too much time trying to keep out the union, only to discover how good it could be. In the past, she recalls, "if someone was late, you would let it go. Now, if you have so many 'lates,' you have a discussion of what's going on. . . . It allows us to be more proactive."

Maintenance worker Blaine Mills says the union has made it "10 times better" at the home. He married into a native family, but he knew his job was always in jeopardy. "Every election, you would hear the rumours: 'They're going to fire all the white people.' Now, elections come and go."

The union's success at Pine Acres has not rubbed off at the band office, where talks on a collective agreement have dragged on and on. Prospects of a settlement seemed to rise last year when the people of Westbank voted out Derrickson by a count of 127 to 78. Some people did not like paying $500 a day for his services. Others did not like his anti-union stance (during the campaign, he claimed that the added cost would erode social assistance, schooling and health care for everyone). And he was accused of threatening to punish band workers who voted for his rival, Brian Eli.

But what really cost Derrickson the chief's job was another investment scheme -- he had persuaded the council to put $2.5-million in a medical research company, in which he had already held a stake.

Ever the entrepreneur, Derrickson now runs his real-estate holdings from an office overlooking one of them: Old Macdonald's Farm, a theme park off the highway that cuts through the reserve. If more people were like him, he says, Westbank -- blessed by warm weather and access to Kelowna's work force and international airport -- would be buzzing with economic activity.

But unions will only reinforce the stagnation he says many of his neighbours have come to accept. As chief, "one thing I found was the work ethic wasn't there," he says, watching stock prices flicker across his desktop computer screen. "One thing the reserve system doesn't instill is discipline: 'Put in a good day's work.' "

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."

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."

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.

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