Photo Credit: Photo on left of Huu-ay-aht First Nations Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis Sr. and photo on left provided by USW is a union member harvesting a tree
By: David Lochead
History was made on Feb. 19 when the Huu-ay-aht First Nations and United Steelworkers union Local 1-1937 agreed to pursue a tree harvesting contract together. Both sides will ask the B.C. government to allocate the Tree Farm License (TFL) 44 undercut volume to the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, which gives them the responsibility to sustainably cut and log trees in the Alberni Valley area and Huu-ay-aht First Nations traditional territory.
According to the United Steelworkers union (USW) this agreement is the first of its kind, as it commits to advancing reconciliation for Indigenous peoples while providing good union jobs.
The agreement started with the desire of Huu-ay-aht First Nations Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis Sr. to bring his people back to the Huu-ay-aht territory, as he recognized that good jobs are a way to do that.
“I grew up in the logging industry and one of things I remember was there was always well-paying jobs,” Dennis Sr. said.
Dennis Sr. recognized the TFL 44, the tree harvesting contract in the Alberni Valley, was under a commitment to the local union, USW Local 1-1937. So three years ago he began the process of negotiating with the Hereditary Chief of Huu-ay-aht First Nations Tayii Ḥaw̓ił ƛiišin (Derek Peters) and Brian Butler, the USW Local 1-1937 President, on a partnership that intends to bring good paying jobs to the Huu-ay-aht First Nations and union members alike.
For Butler, the timing of the negotiations worked out. USW Local 1-1937 had to cut a certain volume of trees in their TFL agreement with the provincial government but were going to struggle to do so with an aging union. If USW Local 1-1937 could not cut the trees allocated to them, government can give that tree cutting to a non-union company.
With Huu-ay-aht First Nations partnering with USW that problem is solved. The plan is to provide 50 well paying jobs to Huu-ay-aht First Nations members. Those members will receive training and retirement incentives, amongst other union benefits.
A critical part of this agreement is that the tree harvesting will be done on the three traditional Huu-ay-aht principles: everything is one, respecting the land and the animals, and looking after the territory. Also, by crafting a plan in partnership with the Huu-ay-aht First Nations this agreement commits to reconciliation and the principles of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“I think that’s the most important part to any reconciliation approach,” Dennis Sr. says of First Nations and other stakeholders coming together to form equal partnerships that respect UNDRIP and the treaties of the territory.
“As a union we fully support UNDRIP, reconciliation and healing. So we were more than welcome to working with Huu-ay-aht First Nations, who we consider partners now,” Butler says.
What this agreement also shows is the potential for the labour movement to play a larger role with Indigenous reconciliation.
“Absolutely,” Butler says of whether labour can play a larger role in reconciliation.
“We think it’s a win-win for everybody to have a healthy environment and job creation.”
“It’s going to be major,” Dennis Sr. says of the potential between labour and Indigenous peoples working together.
“It’s important that we ensure that as many people possible can benefit from resource development in our territory.”
While Dennis Sr. is positive about the blueprint this agreement gives for Indigenous peoples to receive equal benefits to Canadians, he says more work needs to be done.
“Getting to a place where First Nations can receive equal benefits is quite a ways off,” Dennis Sr. says.
“But I’m hopeful that things may change.”