Paramedics on Beausoleil First Nation's reserve on Christian Island in Ontario have joined the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).
The paramedics voted unanimously in late June, after a short organizing drive.
They are the first paramedics on an Ontario First Nations reserve to be represented by OPSEU, said Jamie Ramage, head of OPSEU's ambulance division. The paramedics are employed by Beausoleil First Nation.
Beausoleil First Nation has nearly 2,500 members, 643 of which live on one of the First Nation's reserves, according to information on Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada's website. The First Nation has land on Christian Island, Beckwith Island and Hope Island. Most members live on Christian Island in southeastern Georgian Bay, near Midland. About 20 paramedics serve the community that can only be accessed by ferry. There is no hospital on the island. According to the First Nation's website, two paramedics are available 24/7. Ramage said, as far as he knows, the majority of the paramedics live off the island and many work for other nearby emergency services.
Paramedics organized to join the union quickly. Ramage said he was approached by paramedics from the First Nation in May. After only one meeting with the union, the paramedics had voted to join OPSEU.
It "usually doesn't happen that way," Ramage said, noting it often takes several information meetings before workers decide to join. The paramedics' "united front made it happen so quickly," he said. They knew they wanted to join OPSEU.
Paramedics were concerned they weren't getting paid as much as other paramedics in Simcoe County, said Ramage. They wanted the legal protection of a union.
They were "eager" to join OPSEU, but the union made them wait while it determined whether unionization was possible on a First Nations reserve, he said.
"We didn't want to take them down the proverbial garden path and not end up in the rose garden, so we took our time," said Ramage.
He said unionization will improve the quality of paramedic services in the community because it will allow workers access to improved job conditions. Workers are more likely to provide better service when they are happy themselves, he said.
Beausoleil First Nation Chief Mary McCue-King did not respond to questions about the unionization, either by phone or email. rabble.ca contacted her several times throughout July and August.
The First Nation filed a response with the Ontario Labour Relations Board on July 6 objecting to the vote, saying the Canadian Labour Code applies on First Nations reserves. The labour board certified the union later in July.
In an email to rabble.ca in August, Ramage said there have been no reports of the Beausoleil First Nation government acting badly toward paramedics since they unionized. He did say a council meeting is scheduled for Aug. 26 to give an update on the union. He said he was not sure what that meant.
OPSEU is not the only union that represents workers on First Nations reserves across Canada. Many union representatives involved with organizing police on Quebec First Nations reserves with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said unionization has improved working conditions, including increasing salaries and benefits. Some First Nations were hesitant at first, they said, but workers were not disciplined for joining a union.
Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.
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