There are challenging tensions between the labor and environmental movements in Canada, especially in the context of conversations about a “just transition.” These tensions raise important questions about the colonial legacy of trade unionism. But they also create opportunities for trade unions in Canada to build deep solidarity with First Nations and, in turn, to fight for better working conditions while challenging the capitalist and colonial forces in which they operate, as Sydney Lang and Merle Davis Matthews argue in their contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.
The separation of labor and of Indigenous sovereignty, one of the themes of this year’s Berliner Gazette annual project “Allied Grounds,” is exemplified in an April 16th 2023 editorial in the Sudbury Star. In this newspaper article the author claims that Ontario’s New Democratic Party is ‘no longer the friend of the working man,’ because it supports First Nations’ right to consultation. The author goes on to write that “NDP members… want to get rid of our ‘colonial past.’ Trade unions, social welfare, and workplace safety laws are just a few products of our colonial past.”
In what follows, we take seriously the claim that unions (as a way of engaging in labor politics) emerge in a colonial context. How might taking this claim seriously shift the conversations around a just transition in Ontario? We ask this through analysis of who has been involved in the just transition conversation in Ontario and who has been overlooked by this conversation, as well as through examples of labor solidarity that reveal potential for a more united, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist labor movement.
A just transition in Ontario
Canada is currently debating what decarbonization might and should look like, through and outside of legislation, and with engagement from the labor and climate movements alike. These conversations are often taking place at the provincial level. For those in power in Ontario, the transition is synonymous with electric vehicle production. The Ontario Critical Minerals Strategy asserts in the first page that “There is no energy transition without critical minerals: no batteries, no electric cars, no wind turbines and no solar panels.”
The political party in power, the Progressive Conservatives, contends that mining will be a key part of the just transition in Ontario and that in centering mining, First Nations in Ontario are also centered. These conversations often focus on the possibility that fossil fuel workers will get left behind; in Canada the concept of a ‘just transition’ is often shorthand for justice for these workers. These debates assume that mineral extraction is both a necessity and a realistic solution to the climate crisis – assumptions that our collective, the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, has been challenging through interventions at the world’s largest mining conference for the past two years (2022, 2023).
A just transition plan rooted in extractivism
As members of a Toronto-based grassroots collective organizing around mining injustice, we find the limitations of these debates frustrating. In “left” spaces, the ‘professional class’ is separating itself further from the working class and material struggle and mining justice is increasingly divided in debates around the possibility of “green mining.” This trend reinscribes the same power relations that got us into this mess in the first place, and continues to rely on the logic of sacrificial zones.
Extractive projects create “sacrifice zones” – places that extractors poison and destroy for the greater good of economic progress, because they “don’t count” to the extractors. A key example is the proposed mining development in Northern Ontario’s so-called “Ring of Fire” region. The Attawapiskat River, which runs through the region and would be affected by any mining development, has been used for hunting, fishing, trapping, and travel since time immemorial. The Ontario government and mining industry have been referring to the Ring of Fire, which supposedly contains minerals that the government identified as “critical” to electric vehicle manufacturing and the province’s transition toward a greener economy. Meanwhile, First Nations like Neskantaga First Nation, have been under a boil water advisory for nearly three decades.
This reveals a colonial assumption in Ontario’s just transition plan, which has been supported by the mining industry and trade unions alike: that mining is essential to a just transition. In conversations regarding a just transition Indigenous sovereignty and labor are increasingly understood as competing rather than facing a set of issues around which they could build solidarity. Is there a different role that unions and labor struggles could play in the shift toward a just transition? Perhaps if unions can address colonial histories and presents then we can more easily have a transition that leaves no one behind.
The internal contradictions of trade unionism
So what does it mean to take seriously the claim that unions are a product of the colonial past? First, we think it means paying attention to the role unions have played in separating the issues of labor and land. Historically, conversations about a just transition have been limited by unions in transitioning sectors, such as oil and gas, taking the position of the employer to create and maintain good union jobs for their members.
For example, unions that support the expansion of oil and gas operations and increased employer profits to the supposed mutual benefit of workers. These calls for job security ignore 1) the transitional nature of these sectors, which are already prone to booms and busts, 2) the extent of the climate crisis in which we live and work, and 3) that the capitalist and colonial power relations in which its members work are detrimental to the strength of the union and any militant position it might try to take in support of its members, the broader labor movement and the environment.
While some trade unions have made strides to stand in solidarity with First Nations land struggles, their ability to truly challenge the colonial context in which they operate is limited. In their article titled “Indigenous Labour Struggles” in Briarpatch Magazine, Mike Gouldhawke details the contradictions between public statements and campaigns by trade unions and the nature of the labor of the members they represent. For example, in June 2022, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) led a campaign for clean drinking water for First Nations communities, in collaboration with communities in Ontario. However, they write, “PSAC as a union also includes prison guards, border guards, and RCMP civilian employees, despite prisons, borders, and police being among the most oppressive and colonial of institutions faced by Indigenous peoples.”
The history of radical and anti-capitalist unionism often still imagines that our pathway to freedom is as workers. In “As We Have Always Done” Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg scholar and poet Leanne Simpson writes that the goals of “radical resurgent education and mobilization cannot be the proletarianization of our people”; collective liberation will not come through freeing ourselves as workers alone. Colonialism and capitalism are deeply intertwined and it is only through challenging them together that we can begin to address the roots of the climate crisis.
Labor solidarity and indigenous sovereignty
This conversation can be an example of the ways in which these issues of capitalism and colonialism are treated separately or as competing, but it can also be a place to think through them together. We agree with Dietrich and Gutierrez’s contribution to the “Allied Ground” series, that what we need “is a redefinition of the demands that workers develop alongside their empowerment” and that this redefinition must challenge the siloing of environmental, decolonial and worker-led movements.
For example, in November 2018, General Motors (GM) announced that it would end production at the Oshawa, Ontario plant, losing around 2,600 direct union jobs. Unifor Local 222 initially called for a boycott of GM vehicles made in Mexico to both save the GM Oshawa assembly plant and pressure the company “to stop shifting production to the lower-wage country.”
Through this campaign, which was not particularly anti-colonial in itself, Unifor began to work in solidarity with the Mexican GM workers. Unifor president, Jerry Dias, spoke publicly about the working conditions of GM employees in Mexico, noting that “two dollars an hour is an absolute disgrace.” The union later supported workers at the GM plant in Silao, Mexico, vote to form an independent union and played an active role in supporting collective bargaining. This example shows how unions can engage in organizing that is not based on abandonment or the creation of sacrifice zones, but rather goes beyond colonial borders and addresses the problems facing workers in a systematic and anti-capitalist way.
Another example occurred at an INCO mine in Manitoba in the 1960s. IIndigenous people from Norway House and Split Lake protested at the nearby INCO mine in Thomson for the right to work for a wage after helping to build the mine’s infrastructure. The union representing the miners fought for the indigenous workers’ right to work at the mine, and they eventually won employment. While this is in part a result of these struggles for inclusion, as well as negotiated agreements between industry and First Nations, the Canadian mining industry has a history of hiring First Nations workers both to legitimize projects on Indigenous territories that have not been fully supported by First Nations, and to gain consent for resource projects in places that have been systematically underfunded by the state, despite the Canadian government’s indebtedness to First Nations.
The above examples are a reminder of both the limits of trade unionism and the potential of an organized workforce to fight for better working conditions in their own workplaces while challenging the capitalist and colonial forces in which they operate. Unions can make efforts to build deep solidarity with First Nations. This might look like unions supporting Indigenous calls for action with the expertise of their members, such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) expressing support and offering to work with the City of Winnipeg and provide expertise to organizations searching for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S) at the Brady Road Resource Management Facility, including the landfill where their members work. This could also look like unions advocating for employers to approach First Nations as sovereign nations, outside of the “duty to consult” framework. This is a difficult playing field for unions to navigate, especially when these “moves” are often co-opted by a profit-driven industry, and in a context where First Nations are already overburdened by requests for consultation on new resource developments, and often lack basic infrastructure and necessities.
We see this process of building relationships and solidarity as essential to a just transition. We envision a future where unions representing members in the auto industry or renewable energy are building relationships with First Nations who are resisting the mining of critical minerals on their territories. And that this is prioritized by the union because they have a mobilized membership that understands the nuances of the climate crisis, the government’s and industry’s false solutions to the crisis like electric vehicles, and that both their struggles and their victories are inherently connected.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds