Three workers for Cree Construction have been fired after organizing a protest over what they say is racism shown them by non-native superiors. The workers had been building access roads to Hydro Quebec’s EM-1 project.
They organized a blockade June 20 of about 50 Cree Construction employees, including non-native workers, to protest inaction on their complaints by the project manager, Clement Jacques Tremblay, and the superintendent, Jean Yves Gauthier. The two were denied access to the site for the morning.
They delivered a list of demands to Cree Construction outlining the need for better communication (that the foremen should be able to speak English), calling for more native foreman and better training for natives, and zero tolerance for racism.
A few days later, Johnny Swallow, Allan R. Gull and Michael Coonishish were fired. The official reasons given by Cree construction for the firings was that their action constituted an illegal strike, that the individuals were troublemakers, and that it wasn’t the first time they had given the company a headache. Gull says the justifications don’t hold water.
“That was just an excuse,” said Gull. “Those guys [Swallow and Coonishish] never did anything [wrong] in the past. For myself, I was trying to make things better for the people who were working there, and the people behind me who are looking for work with Cree Construction.”
He also stated that as a foreman, he had expressed his concern over the treatment of his fellow Cree workers by some of the other foremen, most of whom only spoke French.
Mismanagement was rampant, he also charges, noting one incident in which a manager bought $15,000 air-compressed seats for his pickup truck in order to be more comfortable.
Gull says a lot of money was wasted with no accountability. Yet when those issues were brought to the forefront, they were largely ignored.
Numerous attempts were made to reach Cree Construction representatives for comment, but no one returned the Nation’s phone messages.
Michael Coonishish, a bulldozer operator and one of the people to be fired, said that changes had to be made at the company. “I felt that Cree money was being misspent,” he said.
Coonishish said there are big problems with the internal culture at the company. “I never felt a part of the company,” he explained. “Other companies I worked for treated me better.”
One worker still on the job (who wished to remain nameless) said that racism was so blatant it seemed to be normal. He said Crees were passed over for promotions, they weren’t given the proper training and they had to deal with a hostile environment every day.
There was also rampant nepotism within the ranks, said Gull. “One of the higher ups had hired his sons, who weren’t qualified for the job they were given,” he said.
Gull warned that Cree construction shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they are owned by the Crees. “The whole Cree Nation are shareholders in Cree Construction, and I think they can do something about it,” he said.
Despite the firings, these men got their point across. Today, most of their demands have been met, and some of the allegedly racist employees are no longer working there.
Gull said that he’d like to get his job back, but not if it means writing an apology.
“I only tried to do good for the company, I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “The unions [CSD, FTQ] said they are going to take Cree Construction to court and get us back pay starting from the day we were let go.”