SASKATOON - Three eagles soared high above the Saskatchewan plain as about 50 members witnessed the founding of CUPE’s national aboriginal council here on May 5, 2006.
Eagles are a powerful omen signalling that the creator has blessed the event, one participant said. The day before, a video lamp crackled and popped during the elder’s prayer and a Métis flag fell to the floor. So the eagles were welcome. They helped ensure the flow of positive energy that came from this historic two-day gathering at Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
CUPE aboriginal members came to found a council. They came to find ways that their union can battle against the barriers that have long stopped aboriginal workers from fully participating in Canadian society. And they came away with a renewed spirit to accomplish those goals.
“We need to serve our aboriginal communities better,” National President Paul Moist told members who travelled from the four western provinces, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. “We will seek your direction on how CUPE can assist on issues like land claims, education, and employment.”
That the founding should take place in Saskatchewan was appropriate. This is where the signing of partnership agreements has led to thousands of jobs for qualified aboriginal workers. This is where the first provincial CUPE aboriginal council was founded. And this is a province where 51 per cent of the people will be aboriginal by 2050.
“We will reach out from here with the founding of this new council,” National Secretary-Treasurer Claude Généreux said. “We will work with this council to continue CUPE’s fight for equality and social justice. And we do need to fight.” He referred to the federal government’s cancelling of the Kelowna accord that held so much promise for Aboriginal peoples.
Jobs dominated the discussion along with the problems of racism and stereotyping. Members shared stories of how aboriginal workers had been frozen out of paid work solely because they are aboriginal.
Again, Saskatchewan has led the way in the fight against discrimiation when it comes to jobs. A four-hour workplace training program helps to dispel the myths about aboriginal peoples. More than 17,500 people have taken the training, thus paving the way for fairness in hiring.
“Learning has to lead to earning, not welfare,” said Wayne McKenzie, from the Saskatchewan government’s aboriginal affairs branch. “Aboriginal people should be hired because they are qualified, not because they are aboriginal.”
Another dominant topic was union organizing. “We need to start building some trust before we can expect aboriginal workers to join CUPE,” said Daria Ivanochko from CUPE National’s organizing and regional services department. “We can’t just walk through the door of workplaces and say join us.”
British Columbia participants proudly described the advances they’ve made since founding their council two years ago. One advance was the four-month mapping project, funded by CUPE National, to show where more organizing is possible in aboriginal communities.
In all, the gathering identified 22 issues that the new council needs to address in its advisory role. The five top issues: youth awareness, organizing, under-representation in the workplace and in CUPE, aboriginal awareness training and the formation of provincial aboriginal councils.
The interim council also chose two senators, Brian Barron of Local 500 (Winnipeg city workers) and Joanne Webb of Local 4800 (Hamilton health care workers), to act as co-chairs until the council can be officially recognized by CUPE’s national executive board in June. The NEB meeting coincides with National Aboriginal Day on June 21.
A cultural highlight of the meeting was the arrival of 17 dancers from St. Mary’s School. They regaled members with the butterfly, jingle, hoop and healing dances. The kindergarten to Grade 8 students also performed Métis jigs.
The council will meet again in November in conjunction with CUPE’s national human rights conference in Vancouver.
See the photographs from the event by clicking here.