Kevin Wilson | CUPE Communications
When long-simmering disputes over Indigenous land claims in the town of Caledonia, a short drive due south from the City of Hamilton, flared up last summer, offering up material support was a familiar and foregone conclusion for CUPE 3906.
After all, the McMaster University academic local had been supporting various Indigenous causes in the region for more than a decade – most notably with respect to the dispute that placed settler property developers and politicians on one side against activists from Six Nations of the Grand River. Activists have long argued that the land in question was never the Town of Caledonia’s to sell to developers.
The efforts of CUPE 3906, while appreciated, rarely if ever seemed to galvanize the local’s membership or strengthen the bonds of solidarity between the union and Indigenous groups advocating and agitating for changes in the relationship between settlers and Indigenous people across Canada.
This time, said CUPE 3906 President Sharoni Mitra, things were different.
“The work we’re doing and the support we’re providing help in a material way to really strengthen the bonds between our members and the local Indigenous community,” said Mitra.
Involvement by CUPE 3906 activists and rank-and-file members skyrocketed following the latest occupation by Six Nations members and their supporters of the two housing developments. The activists renamed the development 1492 Landback Lane, a drily humourous line connecting the dots between the year European settlers first made contact with Indigenous people in the Americas and the assertion by many members of Six Nations that the land in question was stolen from their ancestors.
Nowadays, involvement and outreach between the union and Six Nations activists, often called Land Defenders, continues at unprecedented levels, thanks to a well-connected and motivated Indigenous Solidarity Working Group (ISWG) at local 3906.
Mitra said the local provides the group with two crucial resources: material support and the autonomy to take on the tasks they feel are important, with no strings attached or second-guessing by the local. The working group operates with two co-chairs, one of whom is a Sociology student and member of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) First Nation, which is one of the First Nations comprising Six Nations.
“Because of Sonia’s direct ties with the Six Nation community, we’ve been able to really strengthen those ties,” Mitra said.
Among the tasks undertaken by the ISWG is the solicitation for and approval of proposals from Indigenous-led organizations and grassroots Indigenous activists to apply for and receive ‘Community Impact Grants’ of up to $500 to support activities and actions that aid and benefit local Indigenous communities, both on and off of reserves.
Providing material support while attaching little or no strings is the sort of thing that could make a treasurer uncomfortable, but CUPE 3906 Treasurer Chris Fairweather said the program has become so popular with members that they approved an even larger budget for the group.
“In fact, we’ve had other CUPE locals approach us and ask if they could contribute to the working group’s budget,” he added.
For Mitra, one of the most gratifying aspects of seeing the working group and its efforts flourish goes well beyond funding worthwhile endeavours. As the conflict escalated and blockades were tested by police and others for weaknesses, supporters from CUPE 3906 put their bodies in harm’s way to strengthen the Land Defenders’ blockades.
“We’re getting an opportunity to engage with Indigenous people on their terms in a way that we, as a movement, haven’t always done. Labour’s relationship with Indigenous people causes is a seriously complicated one over the years and this actually lets us engage in some seriously good and meaningful dialogue,” she said.