Not so long ago, major infrastructure projects in Northern Manitoba had very different consequences for Indigenous communities. Most often, construction projects, particularly hydro installations, meant displacement and hardship for northern communities and generated few jobs for affected residents.
The project would be tendered out, and the contractor in charge would bring in workers from elsewhere. Some came from across Manitoba and often, they were from outside the province. Even when projects were covered by project labour agreements (PLAs), as many as 60% of workers for some projects weren’t from Manitoba.
On projects like the Limestone Hydro Dam, 60% of the workers weren’t from Manitoba. Why didn’t these jobs go to Northern Indigenous workers? This project was in their own back yard. They had a knowledge of the area, and a natural ability to work and thrive amidst the surrounding elements. They also cared more than anyone about making sure our infrastructure was built to last.
Things began to change when PLAs strengthened by adding more stringent local hiring requirements that gave preference to Indigenous workers and to Manitobans. With stricter hiring rules, more Manitobans got jobs at infrastructure projects like the Floodway expansion, East Side Road and at newer hydro dam construction projects.
Ron Castel is an Indigenous Labour Relations/Outreach Coordinator with Manitoba Building Trades and a member of Pukatawagan First Nation from Leaf Rapids. SM
PLAs with local hiring preferences helped and thousands of Manitobans got good jobs that supported the workers and their families. This included hundreds of Indigenous workers who finally got a chance to do meaningful work.
Today, Brian Pallister’s government wants to ban these agreements.
But I have seen firsthand how workplace culture and productivity changed when we started giving quality jobs and training opportunities to people who actually live in the north or in Indigenous communities. That’s why I know how important it is to stop Bill 28 and save PLAs.
When I think about PLAs, I think of the adage that if you teach a man to fish, he will never go hungry. Similarly, when you offer a young person training on the job, and help them to develop skills, it doesn’t just benefit their future — it benefits their entire community.
They take their money, and they spend it in Flin Flon, or Thompson, or the Pas. And the next time they want to build a school, they have the skills to do it from within their own community. It takes time to create a skilled workforce, but if we’re not creating the right opportunities we will perpetually be forced to offload local jobs to workers from outside the province.
Manitoba’s Indigenous communities have an unemployment rate more than twice as high as the general population. In many areas, there are already considerable challenges in finding meaningful work and opportunities for advancement. PLAs can deliver these opportunities to the people who need them most.
Another benefit of these agreements is that they guarantee the same standards of safety and opportunity for everybody working on a construction site.
If you haven’t worked on a job site (and I’m guessing that Premier Pallister hasn’t), you wouldn’t know how important this is. Without this equality, resentment and mistrust can spread, turnover is higher, and delays end up increasing the cost of the overall project.
Instead of pursuing quality of life for our communities and quality of build for our infrastructure, Brian Pallister wants to bring us back to a time when all that mattered was the immediate bottom line. But there is still time to reverse course, save project labour agreements, and stop Bill 28.
Premier Pallister may feel indebted to special interest groups and out-of-province construction companies, but he was elected by ordinary people who depend on local job opportunities and quality infrastructure.
Before moving forward with Bill 28, I hope he speaks to those who depend on local job sites for learning and empowerment. He may learn that Manitobans can’t afford this legislation. And as somebody seeking re-election in two year’s time, neither can he.