National Aboriginal Day: Building bonds between Indigenous communities and the labour movement

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Photo: flickr/Enrico Petrarolo

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Forging a better understanding of the labour movement among Indigenous communities will likely be a lifetime mandate for Michael Desautels. 

The proud Métis Nation member, who has Ojibway heritage and hails from Red River, Manitoba, has helped organize thousands of workers as the Indigenous and Human Rights officer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada -- a post he has held for eight years.

"We represent about 12,000 [workers] in the three territories -- a good chunk of who are Inuit members," Desautels says.

Some of the locals in small, remote communities only have five members." Just to negotiate one collective agreement is way more than we'd ever get in collective dues from those members, but it's something that we think is quite necessary to do," he says.

It improves conditions for those workers and creates more awareness and representation of challenges facing Indigenous peoples among PSAC members.

Overcoming prejudices associated with outsiders, and garnering understanding of how unions and the labour movement can improve life for Indigenous workers is another big focus of Desautels' job.

Sometimes, there is resistance from leaders in First Nations' communities because unions are perceived as belonging to the "white man from Toronto or Ottawa."

"It does make it a little bit difficult because, truth be told, it actually is a bit of an act of colonization to organize," he says.

However, moving forward together has created new ways of organizing and opened new possibilities.

"We have to start talking about the way in which union values and traditional First Nations values are not that much different in terms of [how] both work for the collective and [that] it's not every person for themselves."

This must be firmly rooted in the advancement of the labour movement and Indigenous people in Canada, he says.

Aligning with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), despite certain differences in beliefs, is another way that PSAC and the labour movement are building bonds with Indigenous communities.

"We maintain a good working relationship [even] though we don't see eye to eye on every issue," Desautels says of the AFN.

"From a working-class perspective, the AFN doesn't really have a good working-class analysis and the chiefs are sort of all over the map when it comes to workers' rights and workers' control.

"We're hoping to demonstrate that we are in fact allies to Indigenous peoples. It's part of what we hope to do…to strengthen relationships."

PSAC's success in unionizing staff working for band councils is an example of the progress in these relationships.

"We represent workers who work for band councils. This helps provide a certain amount of stability. [In some cases], there will be a new chief elected and the whole staff gets booted out, and the new people come in from that person's circle of influence." Having a union helps to ensure staff are not replaced when a shift in leadership occurs, Desautels says.

Moving towards repairing the image of labour and businesses among Indigenous communities is also important. 

"I'm from Manitoba and some of the hydroelectric projects that flooded the traditional territories in the North weren't hiring Indigenous people. All the hiring was done from hiring halls in the south, so we were shutting out Indigenous workers," he says."

"That's part of the image we were trying to change, and part of the role of the labour movement we're hoping to change by ensuring that [labour strategies] include providing training and employment opportunities."

Challenging certain internal attitudes at PSAC is another step in the journey, Desautels says. 

"The federal government is really good at promoting Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal heritage -- like having a place to smudge in the workplace and promoting cultural events -- which draws in a lot of people and Aboriginal members. But it's not doing anything to further the rights of Indigenous peoples." 

It is important that the active promotion of cultural practises is not confused with the struggle and progress of recognizing Indigenous rights that will lead to concrete improvements for communities, he says.

"We're trying to keep the culture apart: acknowledge it, but keep it distinct from the advocacy work and the political work that must happen before real change can be made," Desautels says.


Michael Desautels has been a lifetime union activist. Before he worked at PSAC, he was a regional education officer for the Canadian Autoworkers' Union in the Prairies. He has also worked as the Alberta regional representative for the Canadian Labour Congress.

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/Enrico Petrarolo

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