There was laughter. There were tears. And there was a whole lotta shakin’ going on at Thursday night’s equality forum at CUPE BC’s 49th annual convention.
Co-presented by the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination and the International Solidarity Committee, the equality forum featured a trio of compelling guest speakers bookended by a brief workshop in traditional Metis “jigging” dance and a wildly colourful exhibition of Bhangra dance.
The event, hosted by CUPE BC Diversity vice presidents Dal Benning (workers of colour) and Dale Whitford (aboriginal workers), began with a demonstration of Metis jigging by Paige Moran and Caitlin Bird, followed by a collective “jig” in which several delegates took part.
The panel discussion, moderated by CUPE Equality representative Conni Kilfoil, began with a talk on the impact of mining on aboriginal lands by Steve Stewart, education program director for CoDevelopment Canada.
The “new Gringos”
Stewart shared the story of his emerging awareness of international human rights violations by Canadian mining companies over several visits to Latin America over two decades. Before 1990, he said, most Canadian mining operations were in Peru. Today, a dozen Latin American countries are being affected by Canadian mining operations; in half of them, activist opponents have been assassinated.
Stewart presented a sobering account of how the Canadian state subsidizes these transnational corporations. First, there’s CIDA’s support of P3 mining projects that involve NGOs like World Vision. Then there’s the Canadian Export Development Bank and the Diplomatic Corps. Finally, there’s the Canadian Pension Plan—some of which is invested in unethical companies.
He also addressed the absence of legal protections in Canada for communities affected by multinationals. NDP MP Peter Julian’s private member’s bill (Bill C-323) attempts to redress this by allowing foreign victims of human rights abuses to take legal action against Canadian offenders in Canadian courts.
“It’s not true that all Salvadorans hate Canadians,” Stewart said at one point, noting harsh criticism of Canada in El Salvador due to mining abuses. “But in some parts of the country where mining operations take place, it’s a good idea for Canadians who are visiting the region to tell people they’re Americans. That explains the title of my slide presentation: we’re no longer so benign. We’ve become the new Gringos.”
From victim to champion
Stewart’s presentation was followed by a riveting personal story of survival by an anti-bullying activist. Azmi Jubran, who launched a landmark human rights case against his own high school after suffering from homophobic taunts, threats and physical assault, briefly lost his composure as he began his talk.
“I’m 31 years old now, and it feels like it happened last week,” said an emotional Jubran, of the darkest period of his life. The son of an immigrant family from Iran, Jubran entered North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary School in 1993. Although he was heterosexual, he quickly became the target of homophobic bullying by other students and endured repeated incidents of physical and verbal harassment and assaults. At one point, in a classroom with a teacher present, some boys set fire to his shirt.
“People called me gay, queer, faggot. And the names got worse. There were physical threats, and death threats. People spat on me,” he said, noting that he never discussed it with anyone—not even his parents—until Grade Nine, when friends from Grade Eight began shunning him out of fear of being similarly targeted. He briefly considered suicide.
“If I had moved to another school, I might have committed suicide, because it would have meant I’d given up,” said Jubran. “It wasn’t me who had the problem; it was them. So I can say now that I’m glad I didn’t quit.”
Instead of quitting, Jubran filed a human rights complaint while he was still in school. The litigation dragged on for nearly a decade, landing in the Supreme Court of Canada before ending in his favour in 2005. Far more significant than the $4,000 award for damages was that the ruling held school boards across the country liable for the discriminatory conduct of their students and for failing to curb homophobic harassment in schools. The ruling also set a legal precedent allowing students who endure unchecked homophobic harassment to claim monetary damages.
Standing up for the unrepresented
The final panelist, Lucy Luna of the Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) in Abbotsford, spoke about the plight of migrant workers in Canada.
Luna, an organizer for UFCW Local 1518, told delegates that the governments of both Canada and Mexico have done little to improve conditions for migrant workers, because there is no representation.
“Successful representation for temporary workers can only be realized through collective agreements,” she said.
Luna said that the AWA has filed several applications to the labour board for unfair labour practices, including the deportation and blacklisting of migrant workers. In one example, several employers have blamed the early repatriation of workers on rainy weather.
“We have proof that the employers were helped by the Mexican government,” said Luna.
Delegates were asked to assist the AWA’s campaign to stop the blacklisting of migrant agricultural workers by calling the Mexican Consulate in Vancouver, sending an online letter to Mexican President Felipe Calderon (visit ufcw.ca/stoptheblacklist) and raising the issue with local government representatives.
Before a question-and-answer session on the issues, panelists and delegates were treated to an exuberant Bhangra dance performance by the Shan-e-Punjab Dance School.
See the convention gallery, for photos of the event.