An Indigenous labour leader is realistic but also optimistic as industry and Indigenous businesses and communities come together to build the future of Canada.
All Nations Union president Mary French took part in the From Reconciliation to Building Together — A Discussion on Building and Fostering Meaningful Business Relationships between Construction Companies and Indigenous Organizations panel at the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association’s (ICBA) 2023 Construction Innovation Summit recently.
While she expressed hope as more projects are developed, she also cautioned that industry partners need to come to the Indigenous community with the right mindset and first look within to ask themselves what their goals are and how they intend to engage in reconciliation.
“It has to start in your boardroom. If you start a conversation (about reconciliation) with senior management and you get eyerolls or people are on their phone and they’re not invested or interested in that conversation, how do you think we’ll be successful on the ground?” she said.
She added in a recent meeting she was asked by a white Canadian to define reconciliation.
“What that tells me, instead of being angry or bitter, is that we have so much work ahead of us,” French said.
“What we are is an opportunity, especially in joint ventures on major projects. If we can be part of the conversation in the beginning to help you create your labour structure, can you imagine how different it would be?”
French also cautioned without Indigenous input on labour structure at the beginning of a project, meaningful change will be elusive.
“If you don’t have a say in the labour structure, how are you going to be successful in getting your people meaningful work?” she said. “Let us be part of trades, of chasing projects, don’t make us a six-month hire on a major project, feed us well for six months and then drive away feeling good about yourself, because have you really made any change?”
She said while she initially faced mistrust of unions when speaking with Indigenous people, the way to build a middle class is through benefits, pensions and financial security for all members. The All Nations Union is open to all races while staying rooted in Indigenous values.
“What does reconciliation mean to me? It means uniting Canada. Stop pitting us against each other, (and instead) let’s create opportunities. This is a country made up of immigrants and Indigenous people, so why don’t we have a union that represents that?” she asked.
She added she hopes one day Indigenous relations are in the same position as health and safety is now, just another aspect of common-sense organizational governance.
“Twenty-five years ago, when someone said health and safety you would roll your eyes, then they started hiring people but not in key roles. They weren’t at senior management meetings and it was something you had to do,” she said. “Through growth of that space, we’re now seeing successful projects with no fatalities or serious injuries. The culture changed.”
French also pointed to ad-hoc partnerships between construction and industrial crews and Indigenous communities during British Columbia’s fire and flood seasons as an inspiration.
“To see people so broken, and to be part of an organization that didn’t take out contracts and just said, ‘We’re all humans right now and we need to take care of each other,’ that’s what’s important,” she said.