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CUPE Saskatchewan’s annual Aboriginal Conference June 14 and 15 featured the theme of water, which is a pressing need for many Aboriginal communities. The conference was attended by 36 CUPE members who self-identified as Aboriginal, whether First Nations, Métis, or Inuit.  Many participants were attending the conference for the first time.

Elder shares wisdom with delegates

Elder Dexter Asapace of Kawacatoose First Nation blessed the conference with a prayer.  He told delegates about growing up and shared wisdom passed to him by his elders. Asapace came from a big family and saw many hard times, including spending three years at a residential school.

I did a lot of fasting in my life. I asked for strength,” Asapace said. “I’m a traditional Cree. I never lost that when I went to residential school.”

He told delegates that he learned not to judge anyone.  “My dad told me – you’ll be judged one day by the Great Spirit. You have no right to judge anyone.”  Asapace said that there is a good and a bad side of life.  “You’ll get tested every day. Somebody will make that day miserable. But be helpful, don’t gossip.”

Life is precious. Take care of your kids.  Take care of yourself.  You’ll get tested for humbleness every day.”

Asapace also talked about water and said, “In our days there was no such thing as water purification.  We’d drink snow.  We’d drink the same water horses and cattle drank. We drank the water the Creator gave us. Now we can’t do that.”

The elder said that he never thought he’d have to buy water but because of a water advisory, he had to buy water.

A long time ago, we’d wash our clothes in the dug-out.  Our drier was the wind.  Our clotheslines were the trees.”

Asapace said that water today is contaminated.  He cautioned, “It’s going to get worse.  Some day we’re going to be punished over that. Some day we’re not going to have it.  Some day there’s going to be a big flood.”

He spoke about the declining number of animals and birds, discrimination, survival, and the lack of respect in today’s communities.

He concluded by saying, “God gave us hands, eyes, mouths to use them in a good way.  Everything you do in this world, you’ll have to pay the price of someday.”

Water courses available to schools through SDWF

Nicole Biederback, Director of Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF), gave an overview of programs and projects about water available for schools. The courses are designed for all levels of students, from preschool to grade 12. All programs involve an action component so that students inform their parents, friends and the community through actions like making posters, holding information evenings, even producing radio ads.

Courses include Operation Water Drop, where children test their own water and compare it to national standards; Operation Water Biology that looks at using plants to treat water rather than chemicals; and Operation Water Spirit.

Operation Water Spirit is available in English and Cree. It encourages students to look at water from a First Nations perspective. Students learn that not everyone has safe drinking water. Information is available on the Foundation’s web site at www.safewater.org. To find information about Operation Water Spirit go under the education tab and click on Education Cree. The web site also features current news stories about water.

Speakers bring greetings and share information

Saskatchewan Regional Director Aina Kagis shared that the latest Canadian Automobile Association magazine Westworld features an article entitled, Gabriel’s Country: Paddling the South Saskatchewan.  Kagis noted that the article states that the Riel Rebellion was not a rebellion, but more like a civil war, with people fighting for their homeland.

Kagis told delegates, “It’s a privilege to join you. Thanks for inviting me.”

CUPE Saskatchewan Secretary-Treasurer Judy Henley talked about the structure of CUPE.  She explained how CUPE and committees work and that any CUPE member could run for a table officer position or to be a member of a committee.

CUPE Senior Aboriginal Officer Don Moran shared his own story and talked about barriers for Aboriginal people to get involved both in elected positions and as CUPE staff. He spoke about isolation such as “going to events and being the only brown-looking person in the room.” He said you need allies to back you up and told delegates “There are a lot of allies out there.”

Even union language can be an issue.  “Chief Shop Steward, it’s a tough thing when you’re an Indian,” said Moran.

Moran told delegates that he was sent to Cypress Hills as one of his first jobs as a staff rep. It was cowboy country and Moran dealt with many stereotypes and learned that he had some of his own, too.

His advice to delegates: “Don’t say it if it’s not nice.  It works in our union.  People come to respect that.”

Brian Barron, CUPE NEB Diversity Vice-President brought greetings and said that he is reclaiming his identity as an Aboriginal person.  He talked about what it was like to work in an unfriendly workplace, to be given only manual labour to do and be skipped over for promotion.

I’ve had some tremendous experiences in our union,” Barron told delegates.  “The challenges we face never go away.  We really have to look at what’s going on. We need to find opportunities.  We have to change and adapt to make our union more understanding.”

He told delegates to never let their future be determined by other people. “We’re all in this together, regardless of the colour of our skin.”

Elected officers sworn in

Delegates stood while CUPE Saskatchewan Secretary-Treasurer Judy Henley swore in newly elected committee members. Heather Acoose was elected as Executive Board member.  She is a member of CUPE 3967 and works at Pioneer Home as a Cook and Dietary Aide.

Nakota Hassler, CUPE 3967, a Continuing Care Assistant at Wolseley Memorial Independent Care Centre was elected as Alternate.

Three committee members were also elected to serve two-year terms.  Elected are: Colleen Bear, CUPE 3967 who works at Broadview Union Hospital as the Aboriginal Health Coordinator; Jodi Goslin, CUPE 5999 who works at St. Joseph’s hospital as Admin/Receptionist/Switchboard; and Carmel Mitchell, CUPE 21, a Major Facilities Cashier for the City of Regina.

Delegates were presented with sweetgrass as they left the conference, most taking home door prizes and raffle prizes drawn and given out while waiting for votes to be counted.

Heather Acoose, Colleen Bear, and Sheila Le Doux from the Aboriginal Council organized the 2012 Aboriginal Conference with help from CUPE SK Secretary-Treasurer Judy Henley and National Representatives Lois Lamon and Tony Head.

Opening event and social a big hit

The conference began Thursday evening with a presentation and performance by Métis artist, Donny Parenteau, followed by a social.  Parenteau duplicated the presentation he has done in over 40 schools in the past five years. He presented at 15 schools this year, with the help of CUPE Saskatchewan sponsorship. Parenteau’s slide presentation is based on his life story and is designed to help students speak up because “when their voices are shut down, they are vulnerable to bullying.”

Parenteau says it’s not enough to talk to kids, they have to be able to talk back. The six points he followed to reach his dream to play in the Grand Ole Opry are dream; believe; visualize; attempt or try; sacrifice; and accomplish.  There’s also a seventh point: keep trying and never stop.

I see a lot of troubled students out there,” says Parenteau. “I’m trying to influence students to use their voice and to start speaking to parents and teachers.”

After the slide show, Parenteau and his band delighted everyone with their musical performance.  He took many requests including fiddle tunes, old time country favourites, and songs from his 2012 Juno-nominated album, To Whom It May Concern.