Indigenous people are protected under the UN declaration on Indigenous rights from facing labour discrimination.
“Indigenous individuals have the right not to be subjected to any discriminatory conditions of labour … employment or salary.”
It’s one of the articles of that document and the NDP government is making formal observance of the declaration the law of the land.
The bill requiring that all B.C. laws be consistent with the declaration is being debated in the legislature. The article is easy to understand and no one in their right mind would argue it. Protection of that sort is already in place.
But what happens when you hypothetically stack that principle against another policy the government is observing — that only certain unions are eligible to represent workers on public projects being built under community-benefits agreements?
What happens first off is that you get an angry cabinet minister.
Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser denounced Liberal critic Mike de Jong for conjuring up the question.
“Out of order. He is diminishing the issue of racism as it applies to Indigenous peoples, in a way that is crass, opportunistic and out of line and out of any expectation I would ever have for anyone in this place.”
De Jong had earlier said Fraser might be uncomfortable with the issue. But the minister corrected him.
“Angered would be the right word.”
The Liberals are going to support the bill, but remain critical of the community-benefits agreements for freezing out unions that don’t fit the NDP mindset and hiking the cost of public projects.
On designated projects, bidders have to employ workers from one of 19 favoured unions, who are hired through a Crown corporation. The Liberals dwelled on the issue earlier this week, as dozens of workers arrived at the legislature to protest the 18-month-old policy.
It’s a bit of a stretch to pull the UN declaration and the community-benefits agreements into the same argument, but de Jong tried to pull it off.
His scenario went like this: A First Nation with an interest in major developments and creating jobs — as is happening in Vancouver and elsewhere — certifies members as part of an Aboriginal trade-union organization.
“A government comes along and says regarding infrastructure work: ‘In order to work on those projects, you must leave the Aboriginal trade union and join a trade union of the government’s choosing.’ ”
Alternatively, individual Indigenous workers belongs to a union that isn’t on the approved list, so they can’t work on a designated job site until they switch.
The question is whether that is consistent with the UN declaration.
Fraser said it was a fanciful scenario, but de Jong denied it.
“We are living it in B.C. today.”
Restricting work to a select number of unions is a discriminatory condition of labour, in the B.C. Liberals’ eyes, so they think enshrining that in B.C. law will be a problem.
Fraser said the article is about outlawing racist discrimination on job sites and said the opposition should move on.
The argument ended inconclusively.
Liberals are much more interested in attacking the community-benefits agreements than they are in criticizing the declaration. As the debate made clear, they’ll throw anything they have against that arrangement. It’s hard to picture the scenario coming to pass, but it’s intriguing to imagine what would happen if it did.
And there’s no question how sweeping the declaration could be, once it’s fully recognized in B.C. law — for the first time anywhere.
Fraser said the bill doesn’t give the declaration legal force and effect. But it does “allow us is to change legislation, build new legislation that reflects the values and is in alignment with the UN declaration. So again, a very powerful tool.”
Much of the focus has been on the requirement for “free, informed and prior consent” before development of projects on Indigenous lands, and whether that means a veto.
But there are 45 other articles that B.C. laws will eventually have to observe. Figuring out the complexities — whether they are invented or not — will go on for years after the bill passes the legislature next week.