The goal of economic justice for Indigenous Peoples is central to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 Calls to Action. This is something that British Columbia, the first jurisdiction to enact a law to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has attempted to address in part through its 2018 provincial community benefits agreement (CBA). The agreement aims to provide economic opportunities for Indigenous Peoples and other equity-seeking groups by providing construction jobs and training for provincial transportation infrastructure projects.

The B.C. CBA is an agreement between the British Columbia Infrastructure Benefits (BCIB), a provincial Crown corporation, and the Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council (AIRCC), a group of 19 local divisions of labour unions, such as the British Columbia Regional Council of Carpenters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and other unions that are involved in the construction industry. According to the BCIB, 15 per cent of total trade hours were completed by Indigenous workers on CBA projects in 2020, up from just 5 per cent in 2017. This is good news, but there are some shortcomings.

Despite advocating for their involvement in the skilled trades, Indigenous groups are not a signatory to the CBA. “First Nation communities who own most of the land in Vancouver were never even approached to have input,” Michael Cameron, former director of Indigenous initiatives at Industry Training Authority B.C., told us. “That’s not how you negotiate CBAs.”

Though this agreement has helped continue important conversations and may show increases in hours worked by Indigenous workers, in many ways the agreement makes assumptions about how Indigenous groups may be able to – or even want to – participate in this kind of economic development. What are these assumptions? What do they mean for the goal of economic justice for Indigenous Peoples?

Assumption 1: Apprenticeships and training are all that are needed to support an Indigenous workforce.

While the B.C. CBA aims to create apprenticeship and training opportunities and provides compensation for housing and transportation, Indigenous communities have noted that the agreement fails to break down some of the existing barriers for their workers. One major barrier they experience when trying to access construction jobs is the lack of transportation to job sites because they may not have a driver’s licence or reliable vehicle.

A historic lack of investment in education for these communities means that there are often barriers to obtaining the skills needed for jobs. Indigenous groups have also said that the difficulty of being far from their communities and lack of days off for cultural practices and community events often makes participation in the construction trades impossible. It is also important to note that there is a significant history of racism within unions, which acts as a major barrier for Indigenous workers who are interested in the skilled trades. The CBA aims to address this barrier through cultural competency training, though some Indigenous stakeholders are skeptical about how effective this type of training actually is.

Assumption 2:  Indigenous workers will have equal access to high quality jobs once they join AIRCC unions.

Skepticism has also been raised about the CBA’s ability to roll out benefits in a way that provides Indigenous workers with enough time to attain the certification needed to qualify for skilled jobs. Historically, this has proven to be a challenge when it comes to workforce development programs, meaning Indigenous workers fill manual, unskilled, entry-level jobs.

We spoke with Glenda Louis, a community member from Okanagan Indian Band, who argued that for workforce development programs like this, Indigenous workers are “either offered…a traffic-control [position] or maybe they’re just to use a shovel and dig post holes…They’re not quality jobs, sorry.”

Because of the requirement to join one of the AIRCC unions while working on CBA projects, the agreement also assumes involvement in unions will lead to upward mobility despite a history of marginalization within construction jobs.

Assumption 3: Affiliation with AIRCC unions is desired.

By assuming that access to construction jobs through unions is an ideal benefit, the CBA misses the opportunity to help First Nations develop their own tools for economic development. First Nations may prefer to focus on business development and building capacity within Indigenous communities rather than encouraging work outside the community. Instead of helping build or support their own businesses, the CBA encourages workers to take on roles that are economically dependent on the provincial government, unions and construction companies owned by non-Indigenous people. Though this approach has the potential to increase job opportunities, it does not necessarily create sustainable, long-term economic justice.

A better alternative?

Though the CBA has started an important discussion, there is still work to be done. The agreement has the potential to repeat past shortcomings in Indigenous workforce development, and in its current state it is likely that the CBA imposes the economic development goals of other stakeholders onto Indigenous communities, rather than reflecting the needs and desires of these communities.

Future policies should require collaboration with First Nations when determining economic development goals and the benefits that could help achieve them, rather than falling back on assumptions that construction work and union membership are universally available. This was a missed opportunity when the CBA was established because it did not strictly include Indigenous groups.

Though some Indigenous workers will find great opportunity in the construction trades, others may not find this path attainable or desirable. To remedy this, the CBA should offer Indigenous workers a wider array of jobs, such as administrative or engineering positions related to infrastructure projects. Additionally, the CBA should include benefits that support existing Indigenous-owned businesses or the development of new Indigenous-owned businesses to provide benefits for First Nations seeking economic independence.

Finally, it is vital for agreements of this nature to prepare workers for quality, skilled jobs rather than entry-level positions. Future initiatives must plan to create longer timelines for education and training opportunities to ensure workers have the certifications necessary for jobs with the proposed project. This could mean preempting projects and carrying out workforce development years in advance. This strategy may allow for upward mobility in the construction industry rather than assuming that union membership alone is enough for higher quality jobs.

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Jodi Miles
Jodi Miles is a recent graduate from the Dalhousie University Master of Planning program. She works as a planner at a private consulting firm and has experience working in research roles.
Lisa Berglund
Lisa Berglund, PhD, is a professor in the School of Planning at Dalhousie University. Her work focuses on social mobilization in the context of gentrification, and she has studied community benefits agreements across Canada and the United States

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