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The National Aboriginal Workers/ Workers of Colour Conference, organized this past September by the Canadian Labour Congress, was a tremendous success. Among the 400 delegates, there were more than 75 participants from CUPE.

We invited two of the CUPE delegates to reflect on the Conference and its message for their work in CUPE.


Building trust and fighting racism

Tan Si! [Pronounced Tan Sey which means ‘greetings’ in Cree.]

I recently had the opportunity to attend the First CLC National Aboriginal/Workers of Colour Conference in Montreal. The opportunity arose when my local agreed to send two delegates: an aboriginal worker and a worker of colour. When I looked around the union hall that night there were only two of us, myself and my brother Chong-Hin Quek. According to our local’s bylaws, you need to attend a certain number of meetings to be selected as a delegate. We were the only two that qualified, so we went.

But I wonder why that is?

I know there are workers of colour and aboriginals that work for the City of Calgary. But it’s still not representative of the community. I sat on an employment equity committee the City created to increase its number of aboriginal employees. I believe there was some improvement. But since then many people of colour and aboriginals have left the City employ. I wonder why that is? These low numbers are also reflected at our union meetings.

When I looked around at my sisters and brothers at the CLC conference, I saw more aboriginal people than at any union function I’ve ever attended, but not enough. Of more than 400 delegates, only about 12% were aboriginals. We, as a labour movement, need to take the same initiatives that we expect from employers. Did your local send anyone? Do you have a human rights committee? Are there any people of colour or aboriginal workers on your local executive? If you’ve answered no, I wonder why that is?

I wonder why that is?

The defeat at National Convention last year of the resolution to have a worker of colour and an aboriginal worker sit on CUPE’s National Executive Board tells us that people just don’t understand why equity initiatives are so important. This was painfully alarming, and showed me how much work we all have in front of us. If we are going to bargain for employment equity in our workplaces, then it should be acceptable in our Union! I don’t want resolutions to be passed only when the “timing” is right. I want them passed because you think that we, the workers of colour and First Nations’ People, should be employed, part of the union and sitting at the head table of this great union called CUPE.

If the labour movement is going to build a relationship with the aboriginal community we must also educate our membership about signed and unsigned treaties, land claims and culture. Start to build trust! As the aboriginal community becomes stronger through healing, education, land settlements and other forms of empowerment, more aboriginal people will enter our workplaces and our unions. They will become part of the labour movement if barriers are removed and trust is earned. An educated labour movement, an understanding labour movement and a supportive labour movement will bear results.

Elements of an action plan

Many issues and ideas were discussed in our workshop. Funding for equity initiatives in our unions needs to be a priority. We need to use the media to build relationships with our own people. We need to put our money where our mouth is and start to groom our own members for politics; not just talk about it. We need to form partnerships with our educators so the fight against Racism is learned very early on.

Activists need to be looking out for each other. We need to support one another and provide mentors. We need to honour our elders. Bring them into our functions with the young people. Let the young serve our elders and learn from them about respect. Respect and kindness must govern all of our actions. We need to use the community as our platform. We need to identify our allies in the struggle against Racism beyond our own unions. We need to set goals and let our allies know what those goals are. Most of all we need to be consistent.

This conference was a form of empowerment. The struggle against Racism is not just the responsibility of aboriginals and people of colour. Hats off to our allies at the conference for standing up and pledging to combat Racism.

CUPE has many strengths! Let the fight against Racism be one of our strongest yet. Our differences make us stronger!

Barbara Ames is an executive member of Local 38 and a human rights activist. She works with City of Calgary Waterworks department.


Equality is everyone’s struggle

As a woman of Colour, my reality is different than that of many CUPE activists.

CUPE, as other unions, is facing the fight of our lives. The “corporate agenda” is pushing downsizing, privatization and globalization, devaluing working people. With their seemingly limitless resources, they’re strategically targeting us as unions and working people. We, in turn, have to redefine the way we do business in order to survive and ultimately thrive. But do we recognize the way that this attack is designed? Or how it affects people differently? Do we build this recognition into our plans when fighting this agenda? Can we survive if we don’t take these things into consideration?

The world we live in today, is so different than it was even 20 years ago. Perhaps that’s why what we are facing today seems different than anything we have ever faced in the past. But is it? Is the corporate agenda really any different than the “class system” that has been in existence for countless centuries?

Class and colour divide us

How do you conquer a majority? The answer is age old. You divide them. You create a system where everyone is busy focusing on their own problems. You create a climate where helping others, working with others is undesirable. You create a system where there is always “someone to blame”, a class system where the majority can find false comfort in knowing that, although they are not at the top, at least they’re not at the bottom. You begin to find people saying things like “just be glad you have a job” – as if having a job is a privilege.

So, if we’re all facing the same fight, why would I say that as a woman of Colour, my reality is different? The CLC had it’s first Aboriginal/Worker of Colour Conference in September. How does this fit with fighting the hidden agenda?

My great-grandparents fought for emancipation and my freedom from slavery. My grandparents fought for my right to independence and basic education. My parents fought for my right to be counted and have access to places and things that were denied to me because of my colour. I now fight for my children and grandchildren. My fight is to end this class system. My fight is for my children to survive and my grandchildren to thrive.

How often have we seen the suffering and devastation of third world countries on television? How often have we read about youth of Colour being killed while in our legal systems? How often have we seen statistics of incarceration of our Aboriginal youth and youth of Colour? How often do we hear about the poverty, despair and even suicide of our Aboriginal youth and youth of Colour? These words have been spoken, read, heard and seen so often that many of us have become immune to them. But I can’t. As a woman of Colour, these are my children. As a woman of Colour this is my reality. As a woman of Colour, this is what the class system and corporate agenda mean to me. This is why I cannot sit by and allow things to remain the same.

Can’t close your eyes to others

The CLC’s Aboriginal/Workers of Colour Conference provided an opportunity to look at how we as Aboriginal people and people of Colour fit into this society we are part of. The CLC’s Anti-Racism Task Force Report shows clearly how we are treated differently. This in turn supports the exploitation of all workers.

So how do we as CUPE incorporate the findings of the task force report into our strategies? With all the fights we are facing, how do we make the time to understand what impact this system is having on us as a labour movement and as working people? How do we build the principles of solidarity and equality into all the work that we do? And if we don’t take the time to understand the strategic attack against us, how do we plan to survive?

Our aim is not to define our worth as individuals by comparing ourselves to those who have less than us. We should be defining ourselves as working people. Our worth being the standards that we all share.

Joanna Mason is co-chair of the National Rainbow Committee. Joanna is a member of Local 500 working with the City of Winnipeg library.