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Cultural events during national conventions in recent years have helped to highlight the underlying values and broader goals of resolutions and the intense discussions that take place both on and off the convention floor.

In the case of the performance by Tagonak, two young Inuit women who performed at an Equality forum during CUPEs 21st national convention, the skill, strategy and sheer tenacity involved in their presentation were in themselves powerful symbols for the ongoing struggles for equality that CUPE members are confronting in their communities and workplaces every day.

The 2003 Equality forum was moderated by Judy Rebick. Panelists included Michl0065 Audette, president of Quebec Native Women; Punam Khosla, feminist, poverty activist and most recently author of a report entitled If Low Income Women of Colour Counted in Toronto; Carol Robertson, former CUPE Quebec equality representative and pay equity activist; Cynthia Petersen, a lawyer whose practice focuses on issues related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people; and David Onyalo, an equality officer with the Canadian Labour Congress.

The forum couldnt begin to cover all the equality issues that CUPE members themselves brought to convention through resolutions, committee reports and special caucuses. It was, however, an evening packed with big, over-arching questions about the impact of globalization on human rights struggles, and how unions can and should deal with issues of racial profiling, Aboriginal governance and same sex marriage.

Government used to be an equalizer

Punam Khosla was eloquent in her appeal for unionized workers to understand the connection between growing poverty, especially among women of colour and immigrant women, and governments reneging on their responsibility to provide public services and respect human rights. Government used to be an equalizer, says Khosla. Now [it] seems to be to policing the gap left by absent public programs. People who are most affected are blamed [for their own poverty].

She called upon forum participants to recognize the effect of fear on the downgrading of peoples rights recalling how the issue of womens safety has been used by the authorities to encourage broad support for the passage of squeegee kid legislation. All of a sudden squeegee kids were the reason women were afraid to drive alone in their cars at night. And of course the legislation makes it impossible for street kids to earn a few dollars.

Michl0065 Audette reminded participants that the latest revision of the Indian Act continues to deny Aboriginal women their independence and David Onyalo reminded the members in attendance that the tools once used to balance the gap between rich and poor, tools such as pay equity and labour laws, are being taken away.

Rising threat of racial profiling

From the audience came comments and questions about disability rights, expressions of frustration about the lack of women in leadership in CUPE, and from Shehnaz Motani, a member of CUPE 2950, concerns about how CUPE might educate or otherwise mobilize members to resist the legislative creep infringing on the rights of all Canadians and resulting in racial profiling.

HEU member Louise Hutchison called on participants to understand just how drastic the war against equality rights can be. She told how in British Columbia womens rights have become so eroded since the neo-Liberals under Gordon Campbell formed government that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) singled out BC and Canada for failure to comply with the CEDAW convention.

Equality the key to solidarity

Whether through the Equality forum, the 67 equality-related resolutions on Aboriginal rights, child care, disability rights, equal pay, womens rights and leadership, racism, poverty, literacy, pay equity, youth workers, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people or the equality-based caucuses held during convention, not to mention local bargaining, harassment policies and grievance handling, CUPE members are expressing a clear understanding that equality issues are the bedrock of the labour movement.

What also seems certain in the current political climate is that there is considerable pressure being brought to bear on that bedrock. Punam Khosla encouraged forum participants by reminding them, The difficult political situations in which we find ourselves can also act to spark activity to make coalitions happen. And it is the coalitions of unionized workers with community and political activists that eventually come together to secure the rights championed in the resolutions brought by members to the convention floor.

Those lucky enough to have experienced the Tagonak performance no doubt noted how every throat song, drumming session and Arctic game ended in peels of laughter. The performers explained how important laughter is to the release of the tension of performance. Marilyn Hannah, a recently retired CUPE school worker from BC agreed.

Laughing is something we should do more both at the bargaining table and in our workplaces. Looking at things through the lens of humour often helps us to see things more clearly.

Combining Punams observations with the Inuit practice of laughing off tension could be a good strategy for CUPE members who will continue to wage major equality rights battles in the coming years.

Louise Leclair