Aboriginal, Civil Litigation

More allegations of racism linked to Manitoba Hydro site


WINNIPEG — A report into working conditions at a Manitoba Hydro site details allegations of racism, sexual harassment and prison-like living conditions.

``I feel alone and segregated, and too scared to ask for help,'' one participant said in the report called Keeyask Workplace Culture Assessment: A Review of Discrimination and Harassment.

About 180 workers at the Crown utility shared their experiences working at the Keeyask Generation Project near Gillam in 2016 for the report done by an independent firm.

Over four weeks, the firm interviewed people and conducted an online survey to get a sense of the conditions.

``Racial slurs and derogatory comments are common. Indigenous workers employed in the construction sector also experienced discrimination and harassment,'' the report said.

``Their experiences include differential treatment in advancement, training and work hours.''

Workers nicknamed their accommodations at the main camp as ``Keeyask-atraz'' because it was like a prison.

The report found there was a troubling ``roll call'' done by supervisors where Indigenous workers would often be told to get off the bus heading to the site because there was no work, but all the non-Indigenous employees would stay on.

Employees brought their ``preconceived notions of race to the workforce,'' the report said. One employee said they were called a seal eater, squaw and Pocahontas.

One employee said they were being sexually harassed, but was too afraid to do anything because of retaliation.

``I was afraid of how I was being treated. The anxiety was so bad I would be shaking and sweating because what they were doing and trying to push me out, as well as sexual harassing me? [They] tried to corner me and would say things,'' the employee said.

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Alberta Indigenous rights litigator Leighton Grey says, regrettably, Indigenous workers are not immune from industrial exploitation, which has been a fact of life since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Europe three centuries ago — and going on in Canada for a long time.

Grey, a senior partner with Grey Wowk Spencer LLP, points to the historical treatment of Indigenous people in Canada as the genesis of such oppression.

"While most Canadians know that the Canadian Pacific Railway was built largely by Chinese labourers, many of whom perished in the process, some would be surprised to learn that pursuant to the Indian Act, a person need not be a Status Indian to be elected chief of a First Nation, he says. “In fact, they need not be ‘Indian’ at all,” he says.

“This harkens back to the days when a mining, lumber, or other industrial operation would set up on or near a First Nations community. Often, the owner of the factory would double as the Indian agent and serve as chief, since they employed all of the local Indigenous workers," Grey explains.

At that time, he says low pay, poor working conditions, the provision of liquor in lieu of wages, and racial abuses were commonplace and that the Indian Residential School (IRS) legacy has made this situation even more acute since its effects are multigenerational.

“Many descendants of IRS survivors suffered parental abuse, had disrupted educational backgrounds and addictions issues,” Grey says. “These conditions subject them to impoverishment and particular vulnerability to industrial exploitation. In other words, they are so desperate for work that they will endure extreme prejudice and abuse at the hands of their employers in order to keep their jobs, however menial.”

The current social climate in Canada only exacerbates the situation, he adds.

“We are living in a time when group identity politics are heightening intolerance to a level that Canadians have likely not seen since the internment of German and Japanese Canadians during the Second World War,” Grey says. “The singling out of Indigenous peoples for perceived ‘special treatment’ by our federal government has effectively painted a bull's-eye on their backs for the greater population.”

Employees didn't complain about the treatment partly because there were no clear reporting policies due to an array of contractors working at the site, the report said.

Many of the allegations mirror complaints contained in a recent Clean Environment Commission report, which held hearings on the environmental and social effects of energy development in Manitoba's north from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The commission heard that some construction workers abused Indigenous women and, in some cases, the RCMP did nothing to stop it or did not take the complaints seriously.

The latest report also heard from local communities whose members worked at the site. They said the hydro project brought an influx of drugs into the community and broke up families.

The report, which was released in 2017 but just recently came to light, included 64 recommendations to improve workplace culture. It advised that the utility should develop a campaign to address discrimination, provide workers with assistance from a trusted advisor, and standardize policies around investigating workplace complaints.

Manitoba Hydro said it has completed all but one involving conflict resolution training for all managers.

Sheila North, former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern First Nations, said the allegations of discrimination aren't surprising because Indigenous communities have been sharing similar stories for decades.

``I really hope that for the sake of the workers and the sake of the integrity of even the area that things will change, and policies will change and conditions will be different for our people that work up there in these areas,'' she said.

``People are feeling a level of frustration and complete disregard and disrespect for themselves as individuals.''

Indigenous communities and leaders need to be involved in all aspects of projects on their homelands to change the working environment, she said.

``(It's) reminiscent of the disregard and the disdain that existed during the residential school era and all of those negative impacts of colonization that we hear about now,'' she said. ``The seriousness of what is happening. It is something that none of us can ignore.''

© 2018 The Canadian Press

— with files from AdvocateDaily.com

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