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VICTORIA—For 79 union members attending CUPE BC’s second province-wide aboriginal gathering this past weekend, the conference slogan couldn’t have put it better.

Creating the Inner Warrior—Empowering our Aboriginal Members” marked the first time since February 2004 that First Nations and Metis CUPE members from throughout B.C. had met in one place to share their experiences and workplace challenges as unionized employees. 

While the inaugural gathering focussed on ways to make CUPE more inclusive of its aboriginal members and raise awareness among the general membership about cultural and workplace issues unique to First Nations and Metis members, this year’s event, held at the Laurel Point Inn on Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations land, was more pro-active.

Delegates took on an activist agenda that included water issues, aboriginal law, workplace rights, community activism and ideas to raise the aboriginal profile in CUPE locals.

In his opening remarks CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill, recounting some of the union’s work on aboriginal issues since the Kelowna gathering, noted the increased level of activism among aboriginal members—especially women.

But he added that the gathering was “merely one more step” in the long process of empowerment.

We all agree that we need more diversity in our union and that a culturally diverse union can help build a stronger community,” said O’Neill. “But what will that community look like as CUPE members collectively face the challenges of privatization, and especially public-private partnerships, or P3s, in the coming years? Regardless of the issue you’re facing in your communities, I want to assure you that your union is there for you, and will continue to provide whatever assistance we can.”

Conference co-chairs Carrie Bishop and John Thompson, who also attended the Kelowna gathering, agreed that this year’s event represents real progress.

This weekend really was about self-empowerment, about taking action on the issues important to us,” said Bishop. “It was wonderful to meet so many aboriginal brothers and sisters who were not only willing to talk but eager to put plans into action.”

Thompson said the gathering received a lot of positive feedback.

There was so much energy, right from the start,” he said. “People were really excited to be able to meet like this again. The workshops went really well, and the cultural elements were appreciated, too.”

Order of British Columbia recipient Sophie Pierre, leader of the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Tribal Council and the first woman co-chair of the First Nations Summit, set the tone for the weekend with an eloquent keynote address at the opening plenary.

Quoting from a 1997 self-help book by Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (Amber-Allen Publishing), Pierre reminded delegates that they can achieve a lot by observing some simple rules. (The Four Agreements are: Be Impeccable With Your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best.)

The Saturday morning plenary session featured guest speeches on spiritual, community, union and political empowerment. Before the workshops, separate sharing circles were held for men and women.

For all the progress CUPE has made on aboriginal issues, much work needs to be done. During a workshop on aboriginal issues in the workplace, co-facilitated by CUPE 951 activist Dale Whitford and UVic law professor Heather Raven, a number of participants—mainly women—shared deeply painful experiences of racism and neglect by their employer that had yet to be resolved. Nonetheless, CUPE was thanked for its role in trying to effect change.

I have attended both gatherings and I found people to be much more outspoken this time around,” said Whitford, impressed by the courage participants showed.

In my workshop, I heard many times how CUPE became involved from the beginning, at a grassroots level, and was able to effect meaningful change. Other stories were less encouraging, for sure, but overall I do believe this was a step forward for both CUPE and Native people across the province.”

Saturday’s working events were followed by a dinner featuring drumming and dance at the Mungo Martin House, an aboriginal longhouse next to the provincial museum that has been on the territory since 1953. The performance by the Esquimalt Singers and Dancers, who appeared in traditional Salish attire, added to the dramatic ambience of the longhouse, where a flaming bonfire lit the faces of everyone present. The food, prepared by W’sanec’ First Nation catering, featured delicious fried bread (bannock), salmon, crab, and deer meat, among other delicacies.

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