First Nations communities across Ontario should work with unions like Local 793 because they share many of the same ideals and values, business manager Mike Gallagher told a conference of Aboriginal leaders and training officials in Thunder Bay on March 26.

Unions like Local 793 will also bargain collective agreements that protect workers and ensure First Nations communities benefit from developments that take place on their lands, he said.

“I want to encourage the elders and the chiefs of the First Nations peoples to work with organizations like mine – the Operating Engineers – or other groups out there because you have to have some permanent benefit from development that occurs on your land,” he said.

Gallagher was a guest speaker at the two-day conference. The event, called Aboriginal Apprenticeship: A Solution to Bridge the Skills Gap, was hosted by Grand River Employment and Training in partnership with the Aboriginal Apprenticeship Board of Ontario.

Local 793 and the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario (OETIO) were partners/sponsors of the event.

Purpose of the event was to share how the construction industry and First Nations communities can work together to support Aboriginal people becoming indentured apprentices.

Gallagher told the audience that people have a habit of focusing on things that set them apart, but they’d be better off concentrating on the similarities.

He said First Nations peoples and workers in building trade unions like Local 793 have much in common, namely that they love their children and care about the environment and future.

“If we don’t have that we have nothing,” he noted.

Gallagher said people sometimes think that construction workers don’t care about those sorts of issues, but they do.

“We want to make sure that our workers are safe and there is respect for the environment.”

Gallagher said he has great respect for First Nations peoples.

He recalled working as an 18-year-old on a rail project in Saskatchewan. It was a mobile camp and a census was being done. However, the Aboriginal people from Saskatchewan refused to be counted because on the census form they were listed as Indians, not Aboriginals.

“I respected that,” he said.

Gallagher said he could relate because, as a young boy, he remembers going with his mother and father to Ottawa to protest the Vietnam war.

“I see that spirit of fighting for justice and it makes me feel good wherever it comes from.”

Gallagher also talked about David Kawapit, an 18-year-old Cree from the James Bay community of Whapmagoostui, who left his home Jan. 16 and walked 1,100 kilometres in freezing temperatures to Ottawa to draw attention to the plight of First Nations youth.

“How powerful is that?” Gallagher asked. “That’s just uplifting to me. That’s a real symbol of hope.”

Gallagher noted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not meet Kawapit in Ottawa on his arrival March 25 although he did greet Pandas that were arriving about the same time.

Gallagher said First Nations communities have some big decisions to make because there are a lot of opportunities coming along as projects expand into areas where Aboriginals live, one being a possible mine in northwestern Ontario by Cliffs Natural Resources.

He told the audience that Local 793 and the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario (OETIO) recently helped HP White recruit two First Nations excavator apprentices for the McLean’s Mountain Wind Farm project on Manitoulin Island.

He urged the delegates to embrace unions in their communities because unions will ensure that employers honour collective bargaining agreements with First Nations workers.

He held up Local 793’s Provincial Collective Agreement, saying it sets out things like grievance procedures, health and safety provisions and ratios of apprentices to journeymen, along with a schedule of wages for various types of cranes and heavy equipment.

Gallagher said unions make sure the rights of workers are protected.

“If all of the development that takes place is done non-union you’ll have none of those enforcement abilities to make sure the promises can be kept.”

Gallagher said if First Nations peoples get into apprenticeships now they’ll be ready when the work comes on stream.

“One of the best things we can do for our children is give them a career, give them a skill, and an apprenticeship offers them that.”