More than 200 CUPE members, staff and allies shared personal stories of challenges and triumphs at the Equality forum during CUPE’s national convention in Quebec City. Participants shared stories through words, art and song, reflected on being equality activists and recharged for the struggles ahead.
Personal stories were the heart of the forum. Members from the national equality committees spoke about the events and experiences that sparked their equality activism. Participants talked in small groups about their own roots of struggle and triumph. Kalmunity and Kathia Rock shared their fabulous music; Queen Ka, a powerful slam. Elise Bryant, our MC and facilitator, helped us distill it all into images and a poem.
The CUPE members who generously shared their personal stories with the crowd were:
- Audrey Gauthier, National Pink Triangle Committee
- Heather Acoose, National Aboriginal Council
- Sheryl Burns, National Women’s Committee
- Steve Drost, Persons with Disabilities National Working Group
- Veriline Howe, National Rainbow Committee
The members spoke of stigmas, labels and exclusion.
Burns: “I spent the majority of my life pretending to be hearing, at tremendous cost to myself; it was exhausting, shaming and demoralizing.”
Acoose: “I was a ‘Native’ in elementary school, an ‘Indian’ in middle school, ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Aboriginal’ in high school, and now ‘First Nation.’ In reality, I am a human being with my own culture and identity.”
Howe: “Year after year the same students were selected based on the hierarchy of colour and status. I was overlooked, although I had a burning desire to participate, to be included and to contribute my talents.”
These members spoke of financial barriers, racism, discrimination and harassment, at times pushing them into depression and isolation, ultimately sparking anger, but also resolve.
Drost: “Turned down and shown the door, I was stunned by the coldness. On my drive home, I thought ‘How dare that social worker turn me down?’ The angrier I got, the more determined I became.”
Howe: “I felt hurt, crushed, and I said to myself ‘the nerve of her making such a comment when I was also qualified’.”
Activists also spoke of parents.
Gauthier: “My mother gave me a desire to speak out, to stand for justice.”
Acoose: “My parents were both in the residential school system. They raised our family in the city, where racism was still acceptable.”
Drost: “My parents were very supportive and encouraging. Two important values they instilled were fairness and respect.”
They spoke of solidarity from mentors and fellow union members.
Burns: “My mentor suggested that I inform people of my hearing disability and, later, that I get a modified schedule. That had a profound impact on me.”
Gauthier: “Joining the union movement, I felt accepted, backed up, ‘normal,’ respected.”
Acoose: “A co-worker said ‘there are different kinds of leave you could take instead of not getting paid.’ I was so thankful that day.”
They spoke of helping others, fighting for justice.
Drost: “I have a reputation at work for challenging the status quo; my job is to protect people from the system.”
Acoose: “The person who asked me to be shop steward explained, ‘You help other workers and speak up for them, like you’re doing now.’ So I went to the meeting and got elected.”
Burns: “I began lobbying to have real-time captioning on large screens at the front of the room so that the entire delegation would benefit.”
Howe: “I strongly believe that equitable rights are everyone’s rights. Unfairness can crush and stigmatize a fellow person.”
Gauthier: “My union supported me, and I wanted others to benefit from the advice I received. I wanted to help people realize that we can connect our goals with our work, that with this support anything is possible.”
They spoke of the deep roots of their activism.
Drost: “Becoming a union activist and disability rights activist - it is not an event or cause, it is a lifestyle.”
Burns: “My story begins in utero.”
Acoose: “What happened in my life that made me speak out? My story is what happened.”
From the event organizers, a special thank you to Veriline Howe, Steve Drost, Sheryl Burns, Heather Acoose, and Audrey Gauthier for sharing your personal stories, to Elise Bryant for her skillful guidance, to the cultural workers for feeding our souls with music and poetry, to Yolanda McClean and Brian Barron, National Executive Diversity Vice Presidents for hosting, and to everyone involved for making the equality forum a wonderful evening.