The B.C. government’s union rules that have barred a Cowichan Tribes contractor from working on a new hospital being built in his own traditional territory put the NDP in the crosshairs of the Opposition Liberals during question period Monday.
During question period, the BC Liberals called the practice discrimination.
“The Cowichan Tribes gifted land to the province to build a hospital in Cowichan, then the Premier told the Cowichan Tribes they can’t work unless they pay the union agents who support them politically,” said Ellis Ross, the BC Liberal MLA for Skeena who also served as Chief Councillor of the Haisla Nation. “This is a colonial story from 100 years ago.”
Equating it to what First Nations experienced 100 years ago, Ellis said the policy is exclusion and discrimination entrenched into legislation.
“That’s what the Indian Act was…You’ve come full circle. But you’ve made a provincial Indian Act. Not a federal one,” he said.
Last week, Health Minister Adrian Dix told legislature members the company could still bid on the contracts for the new Cowichan hospital. Dix maintained the same line Monday.
“They’re eligible to bid to work on the project, without a change to their workforce,” he said.
And for a second time, Coleman said Dix’s words meant the union requirement hadn’t actually changed.
“Show me the paperwork. Show me what you mean. The lip service needs to stop. Respect needs to start,” said Coleman, who owns Jon-co Contracting, one of the companies employed by Cowichan Tribe’s construction company Khowutzun Development Corporation.
Any company, unionized or not, can bid for government contracts. But as soon as shovels hit the ground, NDP rules still require the company to be unionized.
“Who are they to dictate what we do here?” said Coleman, adding that unionizing would halve his number of employees.
During question period, Dix was peppered with remarks from his BC Liberal colleagues saying the rule “makes a mockery of reconciliation.”
“Article 17 of UNDRIP says very specifically that Indigenous peoples have the right not to be subjected to any discriminatory labour. But that is what we’re seeing,” said Michael Lee, Vancouver-Langara MLA for the BC Liberals.
“It is a lingering form of colonialism. But it’s even worse because it’s colonialism driven by cronyism,” said Michael de Jong, Abbotsford West for the BC Liberals. “By a government that cares more about satisfying their political donors in the big labour movement than honouring the spirit of the UNDRIP.”
All of them asked Premier David Eby the same question: will he drop the union requirement that’s been central to NDP policy so far?
Late into question period, the premier replied saying his government is looking into the issue, but stood by the principles the union requirement is intended to enforce.
“It’s important we build [hospitals]. But it’s also important how you build them, the standards you build them to, and also how you treat people. That’s what the CBA agreements are about,” said Eby, referring to the Community Benefits Agreement which requires companies to be unionized.
With most of Cowichan hospital’s contracts eaten up already, Coleman has had to watch his company “dwindle down to one machine,” something he says will take years to financially and emotionally recover from.
“This CBA doesn’t help our taxpayers. It doesn’t help Cowichan. It needs to be abolished,” said Coleman.
And while in Coleman’s case the fight for economic reconciliation may be over, he says he’ll continue to fight for that same right for Indigenous people across B.C.