A union has been ordered to pay $500,000 to a company operating work camps in northern B.C. after an arbitrator ruled it defamed Civeo Corp. in an online post that linked the corporation to historic broken promises to Indigenous peoples.
“The union’s statements were very serious, particularly when placed in the broader context of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada, and the history of colonization and broken promises to First Nations more generally,” arbitrator Nicholas Glass wrote in the recently published decision.
“Although counsel for the employer declined to go so far as to make this positive assertion, I found that the use of the phrase ‘broken promises’ was deliberately chosen and highlighted by the union to associate the employer’s conduct with the unsavoury history of broken promises suffered by First Nations over many decades.”
Civeo Corp., a Texas-based company that operates as Civeo Pacific Northwest Employees LP to provide worker accommodations for industrial development in northern B.C., was awarded the settlement after the Vancouver-based union Unite Here Local 40 posted a banner on its website that read “Civeo’s broken promises to First Nations people.”
The post went on to criticize the company for low wages, a decrease in hiring of Indigenous workers and a lack of “commitment to improving the living standards of Indigenous workers and their families.”
Glass ruled that the allegations against Civeo were “a complete fabrication” designed to apply pressure to reopen the collective agreement with the union before its term was up.
He added the words carried a “special sting” against the backdrop of failed promises to Indigenous peoples in Canada and said the sweeping allegation was “much more damaging” than simply accusing the company of failing to fulfil a promise.
Instead, he said, the phrase suggests bad faith.
“This was not concealed innuendo but an open invitation to moderately well-informed Canadians to associate the employer’s conduct with this unsavoury and distressing history,” he wrote.
Unite Here Local 40 describes itself as “the fastest growing camp workers’ union in B.C.” and represents workers for Civeo, Horizon North Kitimat, Kitimat LNG, Coastal GasLink’s Parsnip Lodge and ATCO camps servicing the Trans Mountain pipeline project.
Early in the pandemic, the union fought for — and won — better working conditions for Horizon North janitors cleaning the LNG Canada plant, including a 40-per-cent pay hike over three years, increased hiring of local Indigenous workers and better health benefits.
In October, Unite Here Local 40 won a grievance against Civeo, when the BC Labour Relations Board ruled the corporation unduly influenced workers from organizing with the union. It granted Local 40 access to meet with camp workers on the Coastal GasLink and Trans Mountain projects.
The defamatory “broken promises” post on Local 40’s website was specific to Sitka Lodge in Kitimat, on Haisla Nation territory. The camp has provided accommodations to workers on the LNG Canada project.
Civeo also operates two work camps on Wet’suwet’en territory, in the western portion of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, and was named last month in two unrelated lawsuits that allege sexual assaults and a culture of excessive drinking and harassment at the three camps, including Sitka Lodge. Both lawsuits remain before the courts.
Civeo entered into its agreement governing labour relations at Sitka Lodge with Unite Here Local 40 in 2018. While the agreement is meant to last the duration of the camp’s operations, it is subject to changes by mutual agreement between the parties.
The agreement included prioritizing the hiring of local Indigenous workers and minimum hourly wages, adjusted each year for inflation.
Glass found that while Civeo may have caused “disappointment and frustration” to local First Nations by offering wages well below other industry jobs in the region, particularly at a time when the cost of living was rising due to industrial development, he found no specific violations of its collective agreement.
The issue of wages came to a head last summer, according to the decision, when a request to reopen the agreement was turned down by Civeo and the union sought ways to put pressure on the employer.
That’s when it posted the “broken promises” allegation, which remained on the site for two months, despite calls from the company to publicly retract the statements and apologize for making them.
Civeo filed its grievance against the union on Aug. 20, seeking damages and a cease and desist order. It said the comments were intended to cause harm to Civeo in the community and in its business interests, as it has a partnership with the Haisla and works closely with the nation on hiring.
During the February hearings, a Civeo employee testified that the company has a positive relationship with the Haisla Nation.
As evidence, Civeo pointed to a recent Kitimat Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for Indigenous partnerships, for which it was nominated by the Haisla. Civeo, Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada are all included amongst the awards’ sponsors.
The decision called Local 40’s accusations of decreasing Indigenous hiring “very misleading,” given an overall decrease in hiring of workers during the pandemic.
“The truth was, there was a decrease in hiring of workers who were Indigenous and workers who were non-Indigenous during the chosen period, but the union singled out just the one category for its negative publicity against Civeo,” it said.
Arbitrator Glass also noted low wages were shared by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers.
The union says that while the company touted its commitments to First Nations, workers at Sitka Lodge struggled to pay their bills. “The promise of resource projects like LNG Canada coming into the community was unfulfilled,” the decision said in summarizing the union’s position.
“Large-scale resource projects like LNG Canada operate in British Columbia, particularly on traditional and unceded territories of Indigenous peoples, and promote themselves as providing economic opportunity,” it said. “British Columbians and Indigenous people welcome these projects into their community expecting that they, too, will benefit from the projects.”
Mike Biskar, lead organizer for Local 40, testified workers were upset that wages fell well below other industrial projects in the area, such as the Kitimat Modernization Project, where labourers received $45 an hour while lodge workers made $21 an hour.
Biskar testified that “broken promises” referenced what the union was hearing from Indigenous members — that they had expected well-paying jobs that would cover their bills.
Biskar testified the lawsuit has forced the union to stop pushing for things like increased hiring of Indigenous people and a reduction in workloads.
The decision took into consideration the “broken promises” banner’s font size, positioning and prominence. It noted that a link to the webpage was sent to the union’s 180 email recipients and posted to its Facebook page, where it was promoted with an advertisement that was clicked 625 times.
Glass said that its placement on the website meant it had potential for wide distribution, including through internet searches, and added that the union’s delays in removing the post and continued insistence that the statement was fair “should substantially increase the damages.”
Glass cited evidence of Civeo’s “good position and standing in the community.”
“Civeo has a very good reputation with respect to its relations with First Nations… which is seriously threatened by the claim that Civeo has broken its promises to First Nations,” he said, adding that the conduct “merits a substantial award of punitive damages.”
He ordered the union pay $400,000 in general damages and $100,000 in punitive damages, and to retract the defamatory comments.
Unite Here Local 40 declined to comment on the decision or if it would file an appeal. No retraction is currently posted on the union’s website.
Civeo Corp. didn’t respond to The Tyee’s request for comment.