Tammy Kelly | CUPE Staff
Aubrey Gonsalves has been the president of CUPE 2316 since 2008, representing workers at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Aubrey is also the chair of CUPE Ontario’s Social Service Workers’ Coordinating Committee, defending the essential work of members and local unions across Ontario and advocating for high-quality, publicly-funded social services for all.
He was elected as CUPE’s Diversity Vice-President representing Black and racialized workers at our National Convention in 2021. He is engaged in many initiatives in the fight against racism. He is a relentless and passionate advocate for working together, regardless of differences, to achieve more as a society. He shares his experiences and how they can shape every CUPE member’s vital role in building an equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist labour movement.
You were one of the Canadian labour leaders that visited activists defending labour and human rights in Colombia as part of the Canada-Colombia Frontlines Delegation in the summer of 2022. What impact did this experience have on you and how can we keep supporting our Colombian comrades?
The delegation’s visit to Colombia is a trip I will never forget. It was an important learning and growing experience for me personally. We arrived at a pivotal time when progressive social movements and the most oppressed communities had come together. The Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and marginalized populations had organized with students, human rights defenders and the labour movement. They built a strong coalition that successfully elected a government for the people a few weeks before we arrived. This moment in history was one of the most inspirational parts of the experience.
During our visit, we met with many organizations and unions, including labour and human rights defenders, as well as families who lost loved ones during the youth-led resistance of 2021. I remember asking how can CUPE continue to support them beyond this trip. To be honest, I was thinking about typical things like money or campaigns, but their answer enlightened me. Each group responded that we can support them by continuing to defend our public services, human rights and marginalized populations, because the people of Colombia use them as examples toward achieving stronger public services and human rights. This is why we, as CUPE members, must keep fighting for our rights and for public services in Canada.
Every win, no matter how small, makes a difference in Canada and in other countries, too.
What does it mean for you to serve as CUPE’s National Diversity Vice-President representing Black and racialized workers?
It is an honour and privilege for me to be in this role and I want to pay homage to my predecessors. It is a role with a duty to achieve, to advance the work and the agenda of and for Black and racialized workers, as well as their intersecting identities. I not only represent the voices of the current CUPE membership. I also reflect and remain mindful of carrying the legacy of past leaders and members. This awareness remains alive in me, guides me, and inspires me to keep going.
As I move forward grateful to do this work, I do feel some uneasiness. While I am here, representing the voices of Black and racialized members and raising their issues, other equity-seeking groups have limited representation. While I do speak to these issues too, it is different as I speak to them as an ally, co-conspirator and accomplice without lived experience. This is the reason why I fight and support the need to increase the representation of diversity vice-president seats at CUPE’s National Executive Board.
There is a growing commitment to racial equity by governments and organizations. Still, the lack of improvement we see in the day-to-day experiences of Black and racialized workers is alarming. What do you think is the path forward?
I am not sure I would define this as a growing commitment. Rather, it is a rising trend where workplaces are now starting to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The reality is that this work will take a significant amount of time and will need a significant amount of push and support.
One step in the right direction is having opportunities for Black and racialized workers to connect, share experiences and learn from each other. Another is bringing employment equity strategies and policies into our workplaces and our union. We must keep enforcing anti-discrimination, which includes anti-racism and anti-harassment language in our locals and our collective agreements — which, in fact, aligns with CUPE’s Anti-Racism Strategy’s goal to “administer and enforce collective agreements with an anti-racist lens”. And there are different types of support that can be provided by our leaders and allies, such as making sure that everyone does land acknowledgements and reads CUPE’s statement for the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent.
Until these things happen, we will not see a significant change in the day-to-day experiences of Black and racialized workers.
What is CUPE’s role in putting an end to racism, multiple biases and multilayered forms of discrimination and violence?
While CUPE has had a strong history of challenging racism, we must realize and acknowledge that there is racism within CUPE, just like in many other organizations. The difference is that CUPE is acknowledging and recognizing its hand in racism, discrimination, and violence. Acknowledging is the first step to eliminating racism and discrimination. Taking action is the next step.
I have been working alongside Debra Merrier, CUPE’s Diversity Vice-President representing Indigenous workers, to put CUPE’s Anti-Racism Strategy into action with the participation of CUPE members who are Black, Indigenous, racialized or allies. We are hosting gatherings on a regional and national level to achieve the strategy’s second key goal: “Increase the representation of Black, Indigenous and racialized members in the union”.
And this is the way we will move into ending this systemic problem within CUPE, and then the larger labour movement, and our workplaces and society as a whole.
How can we stimulate participation and representation of Black, Indigenous and racialized members in union leadership, and better address members’ needs and vital perspectives?
In Colombia, I was inspired by the struggle and achievements, specifically of Afro-Colombians and women. So, I want to share a story that brought tears to my eyes. During our trip, we met Dora Lilia Gomez, the first woman president of the Union of Postal Workers of Colombia (STPC). In 2004, as CUPE and other unions started working with labour activists in Colombia, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) set up an opportunity for a Colombian labour delegation to visit Canada. The only condition was that one of the two delegates must be a woman. This is how Dora Lilia Gomez was able to visit Canada.
It was the first time she left her country, the first time she saw women being treated as equal to men, and the first time she encountered women in leadership positions. She shared with us that “her feminism started in Canada.” Back in Colombia, it inspired her to run for president of her union. She ran against the incumbent president who was a man and won, making history. Now she mentors other women to move forward, to keep the movement going.
This shows why the second goal of our anti-racism strategy is closest to my heart: it highlights lived experience and representation. Members will be impacted the most when they see themselves on the stage. It is the most empowering feeling.
I would like to challenge local leaders out there respectfully with this question: What are we doing to reach out to marginalized groups to get involved, to be part of our executives? If you are unsure, I strongly encourage you to read the action points under the 10 over-arching goals in CUPE’s Anti-Racism Strategy.
Our union defends public services and workers’ rights, it fights against privatization and oppression. How can we do more? Why should we move from being not racist to the next stage — to be anti-racist?
I see a lot of similarities between anti-racism and anti-privatization. First, someone who is not racist is similar to someone who supports public services, and it is a great start. But we need to push further — and that is what anti-racism and anti-privatization mean. Anti-racism and anti-privatization are about being proactive.
There is a difference between saying “I am not racist” and “I see racism and I am going to do something about it”.
In other words, we must be proactive and take action as needed, and continually, against racism and against privatization of public services. Linking privatization to racism is important because it helps people understand that saying “I support public services” or “I am not racist” isn’t enough to eliminate privatization and racism. The question is what are we doing and what are we going to do more of to dismantle racism?
We participate in rallies to raise awareness about the impacts of privatization. We battle privatization with calls to action and campaigns. The solidarity of anti-privatization is clear, and even though some locals and places of employment are not experiencing this, we all stand in solidarity with each other on this issue.
This solidarity is so important on so many levels. It lets those experiencing privatization know they are not alone and they have support from others. It also sends a message to governments and corporations that CUPE, unions, workers and communities will not stand for it. And while many provinces have an anti-privatization committee organizing anti-privatization actions, not all provinces fight racism at this level.
That same type of solidarity, allyship and advocacy is needed when we are talking about acts and experiences of racism. We must have that same passion and vigour when fighting against racism. Those same initiatives need to be implemented when tackling racism.
Black, Indigenous and racialized members need us to prioritize their issues. They should never be left behind or alone. Building solidarity on these issues is important, but the question is what are we doing? We need to take action.
Hear more from Aubrey Gonsalves on YouTube as he speaks to delegates at CUPE Nova Scotia’s 58th Convention.
At CUPE’s 2021 National Convention, delegates adopted a CUPE-wide Anti-Racism Strategy. Read the strategy and help us carry out its 10 key goals and actions.