Sacred Lands: Profile on the First Nations Safety Council of BC

In the Nlaka’pamux tribal area of British Columbia, there are ancient trade routes that Aboriginal Peoples have travelled for generations. As they walked along these routes, they would stop and carve the trees. But a few years ago, these trees were chopped down by a logging contractor. The workers had no idea what to look for to tell if the trees had been culturally modified by aboriginal ancestors, something the newly formed First Nations Safety Council of BC (FNSC) is aiming to change.

“We wanted to focus on creating a First Nations-led organization that would specifically address occupational health, safety and environmental management in a culturally appropriate, holistic manner,” says Esther Winder, board chair. “We’re travelling in unchartered territory here.”

The association has two categories of membership: general members (aboriginal individuals, businesses and communities in B.C.) and associate members (any non-aboriginal individual or business organization who shares the vision and supports the mission statement of FNSC).

FNSC is developing the Safe Nations certification, a contractor relationship management tool that can be used by general members to support operational oversight of work being conducted on their land. Those who receive this certification would benefit from enhanced credibility by honouring the cultures and traditions of Indigenous Peoples and advanced opportunities by being listed on the online directory, says FNSC.

“It will also benefit them in contract negotiations. (For example) the pipelines that are doing business in many different territories… It would show good faith,” says Winder. “They will also understand a little bit more about what First Nations people are all about.”

To achieve the Safe Nations certification, organizations need to submit their HSE management system, including any Certificate of Recognition (COR) or ISO audits, and the FNSC conducts a gap analysis and outlines corrective actions. All employees at the company — including upper management and supervisors — are required to participate in cultural alignment training, provided by FNSC. This will include an online general orientation and a nation-specific orientation that outlines the local traditions, cultures, language, interest and priorities of the aboriginals on the land in which the company will operate.

“There are over 200 bands in B.C. and they operate under different territories. For instance we have the Haida people, the Carrier people, the Shuswap people and then amongst those people are different bands,” says Winder. 

Aboriginal workers

Aboriginals are the fastest growing demographic in Canada and these new, young workers need mentorship and proper health and safety training, says Winder.

“Through education, coaching and mentoring, (FNSC is) going to demystify occupational health and safety and environmental management,” she says. “We want to ensure a healthy and sustainable environment is passed on to our future generations. “

To accomplish this, FNSC is looking to partner with heath and safety associations so it can deliver industry-specific safety training in aboriginal communities throughout B.C.

The association is also looking for partners in post-secondary institutions that will contribute to or donate scholarships, in order for aboriginal students to pursue HSE management certificates, diplomas, degrees and certifications. 

Through business members and Safe Nations certified companies, FNSC will also identify on-the-job training opportunities, such as apprenticeships, internships and job shadowing.

When it comes to employing Aboriginal Peoples, employers need to have respectful workplace policies in place to protect the psychological safety of these workers and understand the barriers and challenges they face.

“Some of the barriers would be prejudice, harassment, and as well, understanding if you take a shy, young 18-year-old man that has worked with nature and been in a supportive community of a couple hundred people for his whole life and throw him in Fort McMurray, it would be a culture shock,” says Winder. “We all have to be compassionate with each other.”

Winder holds a diploma in occupational health and safety from BCIT in Burnaby, B.C., and she just achieved her Canadian Registered Safety Professional certification in July. For 30 years she owned and operated a long-haul trucking business where she spent her career transporting dangerous goods and hazardous waste internationally. Now, she works as a safety supervisor at Cool Creek Energy in Kamloops, B.C. Combined with her Shuswap roots, she is the perfect fit for board chair of FNSC — but her qualifications weren’t exactly what got her the job.

“My aboriginal upbringing tells me it’s my responsibility to give back to my community. At our first gathering early last year, nobody else volunteered, so I did. But then they all teased me about sticking up my hand because they know how much work it is,” laughs Winder. “This is a cause I believe in, so I stepped up to the plate.”

As board chair, Winder’s personal goal is that aboriginal businesses and people will oversee occupational HSE management of businesses operating on their lands and traditional territories. She also wants businesses to respect aboriginal values in boardrooms, at the negotiating table and on the ground.

“Health and safety and the lives of our workers matter as does the preservation of our territories, the resources within them, which sustain our cultural and ceremonial lives,” says Winder. “We are all in this together. And that is the heart of all First Nations people. We are all connected whether it be land environment, people and the things living on it and in it.”

This article first appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of COS.