Canada's largest construction union has signed a pact with the national Assembly of First Nations to promote a larger Indigenous work force. In doing so, the union's leadership accepts some construction projects will not proceed when First Nations are in opposition.
There are at least two major projects in British Columbia – the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and the Site C dam, with a combined worth of over $15-billion – that are in jeopardy in large measure because of First Nations' opposition.
The Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA) has formally embraced the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, making free, prior and informed consent from those communities a requirement for resource development.
"The bottom line is, we're just going to have to accept that in certain situations, we're not going to be successful in pushing projects forward," Joseph Mancinelli, international vice-president of LiUNA, said in an interview. The union represents 120,000 Canadian workers, mostly in construction, and 8,000 of those members are in B.C.
At a convention in Vancouver on June 6, Mr. Mancinelli told his members their union needs to find ways to get more Indigenous youth into trades training for reasons of social justice – and also because the aging trades work force desperately needs new skilled workers.
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the AFN, signed the agreement with LiUNA at the meeting. He said the purpose is to ensure there are investments in human capital that will help close the gaps between Canada's enviable standard of living and the bleak standard of living for its Indigenous people.
In the agreement, LiUNA promises that it will seek in new collective agreements to provide Indigenous workers with a percentage of the jobs in major construction projects. In some regions, such as Ontario's north, that share could mean a dominant share of the work.
But for there to be jobs, there must be projects.
Mr. Bellegarde has asked provincial governments across the country to withhold permits for resource development until project proponents can demonstrate they have a plan for First Nations engagement.
He said the AFN recognizes that its members are not always unified on issues such as pipeline construction. "We support the right to self-determination, the right to say yes, the right to say no," he said in an interview. "If projects do go ahead, we need to know what is being done to ensure there are economic employment opportunities for First Nations people. . . That's the key: Sustainable economic development and employment strategies."
In B.C., the current Liberal government supports the Kinder Morgan project and has committed $8.8-billion to build the Site C hydroelectric dam. However, the Liberal government is widely expected to fall in a vote of confidence later this month.
The opposition NDP has reached an agreement with Green MLAs to try to form a minority government and both those parties oppose the oil pipeline project and Site C – partly due to strong Indigenous opposition. Both parties also support the principles of the UN declaration on Indigenous rights, promising to seek free, prior and informed consent from First Nations before moving ahead with resource development in B.C.
In an interview, B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett predicted that an NDP government in B.C. will drive away capital investment in resource development – meaning fewer jobs for First Nations workers.
"There has been a lot of good collaboration between First Nations and the private sector," Mr. Bennett said. "But all the mining people I have talked to, they say 'Bill, we are out of B.C. if the NDP come in.' If natural resource development stops or slows down, First Nations are going to be the first casualties of that."
However, Mr. Mancinelli said there are many types of construction projects – public infrastructure and housing, for example – that can provide employment. As well, he said his union is willing to put its own money – billions of dollars in pension plan investments – behind its commitment to Indigenous training and employment.
"We can leverage that financial strength, to get more work not only for our people but for Indigenous youth as well. The potential is incredible."