Longtime city worker and union leader Bev LaPointe, who has died at 56, is being remembered as a “local hero” and champion for gender equity.
As president of CUPE Local 339, LaPointe led the City of Nelson’s unionized workforce through its lengthiest labour dispute. She also filed a human rights complaint against the city that resulted in major policy changes.
“She was on the leading edge of working towards inclusion in the workforce,” said mayor John Dooley, who spoke at her memorial service last month and paid tribute to her at a city council meeting this week. “She took the approach that women deserved jobs not because they were female but because they were qualified. She could operate every piece of equipment in the city and was a real advocate through her union for workers’ rights.”
LaPointe joined the City of Nelson’s parks and public works staff in 1980 and became well-known for tending to Gyro Park and as the first woman to drive a city snowplow. However, in an otherwise male-dominated department, pornography was pervasive. She endured it for years before reaching her “breaking point” in 1995 when she found an explicit poster pinned inside a cupboard door in the carpenter shop. “It was like being hit,” she said. “It was like an assault. I was speechless. I was humiliated. I was degraded.”
She filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Commission and the city responded with a new sexual harassment policy that banned porn from the workplace. However, LaPointe said it didn’t change her co-workers’ attitudes.
In 1998 a tribunal heard two days of often lurid testimony. LaPointe said graphic images in city vehicles and buildings caused her stress and health problems that denied her advancement opportunities. A settlement reached a few months later gave her $5,000 plus a promotion, wage increase, and restored sick leave.
Moe Lyons, co-ordinator of the Nelson and District Women’s Centre at the time, called LaPointe “a local hero” whose “courageous fight” won her the “wholehearted support” of the women’s association.
“We all saw how painful that battle was for her, and were tremendously impressed with her steadfastness and her clear understanding that this issue was so much more than one woman’s fight,” Lyons said this week.
In the following years, LaPointe was elected president of her union, which Lyons called “vindication” since she was chosen to lead some of the people who previously vilified her.
By 2002, trouble was brewing over job security provisions but with a mediator’s help, a strike was averted. Two years later, however, the union rejected the city’s final offer, unwilling to accept concessions on minimum staffing levels. The city responded by locking out 74 workers for the first time in the local’s 55-year history.
The dispute dragged on over the summer and affected garbage collection, transit, and bylaw enforcement. It was finally resolved after ten weeks just as the Nelson Leafs’ season appeared to be in doubt.
In a letter read at LaPointe’s memorial service, CUPE BC president Mark Hancock praised her resolve. “Bev showed amazing leadership in what can only be described as one of the low points for the City of Nelson,” he said. “Because of her love of community Bev didn’t want to hurt the residents that live there and she really struggled with applying pressure that could possibly have resolved the dispute faster.”
Reflecting on the lockout later, LaPointe insisted that as “shaken and worried” as city employees were about their future, they were equally worried about the community’s fate as a result of service disruptions.
“We endeavoured to ease the effects of the lockout on Nelson citizens and exercise peaceful and respectful picket lines,” she said, noting that parks staff rushed to put as many plants in the ground as possible while a bargaining committee member worked until the last minute to train her supervisor on the finer points of her job.
LaPointe, who retired in 2012 after 32 years with the city, was also a vice-president of CUPE BC, chair of the union’s environment committee, a member of the national environment committee, and a director with Toxic Free Canada.
She sat on the New Democratic Party’s women’s rights committee and in 2008 finished third in the race for the Nelson-Creston NDP nomination.
Born in Vancouver and raised in Nelson, she was an outstanding fastball player, following in the footsteps of her aunt Lillian Hickey, who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s.
LaPointe died peacefully at home on April 17. She is survived by longtime partner Loreli Dawson, whom she married last fall, as well as her father and brother.