The brutal death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by the police in Minneapolis in May, has triggered a worldwide wave of indignation and amplified the ongoing struggle to name systemic racism and anti-Black racism. CUPE’s Diversity Vice-President, Racialized Workers, Yolanda McClean spoke to Counterpoint about Black Lives Matter and the importance of seizing the moment. 

You have been fighting against racism and for employment equity for decades. What is your take on the current situation?  

YM: As a Black woman, I feel very sad and very angry at times. I start cringing before listening to the news, because I fear that another Black man or woman has been killed by the police. But I am also very hopeful when I see people who don’t look like me marching and protesting because they now understand that Black lives matter. 

They are finally paying attention. We have been advocating for some of these issues for decades and, finally, people are hearing what we are saying and waking up to the fact that there are problems and that we should fix them.  

Watching what is happening in the US leaves us with the impression that the situation of Black, Indigenous and racialized people in Canada is better. What do you say to people who believe that racism isn’t really a problem here? 

YM: Let’s not fool ourselves. Racism is not just an American problem. It exists in Canada, right here in our backyard. Canada has its own history of the enslavement of Black people, and that systemic violence continues today. In Toronto alone, Black people are 20 times more likely to be fatally shot by the police than white people. 

We can also talk about COVID-19. Folks who are working in the health care sector, the essential workers not getting the pay that they should, are predominantly racialized. They have been the most impacted by COVID. It is not police violence, but they are also victims of racism. 

Why do you distinguish anti-Black racism from other forms of discrimination?  Isn’t all racism equally bad? 

YM: Of course, all racism is bad. Black issues do not matter more than other racism and discrimination issues. But Black lives are brought to light in this time. It is OUR moment. 

Black people are facing systemic barriers and systemic discrimination that run very deep in Canada. It’s reflected in the jobs that people have, in the economic disparities that exist in our education, our health care, our housing.  

We have an opportunity to change that now, and we all need to be a part of this moment. You don’t have to be perfect to be a part of it. Some people who march and protest for Black lives don’t know what the solution to racism is, but they know we must do something. We cannot stop having these conversations. 

Apart from protesting, what can we do, together, to effectively combat racism? 

YM: Of course, we must have conversations at the dinner table and support Black businesses and Black people. But we also have to bring it to the next level. We must think about solutions like re-allocating police resources to help people in crisis. And we must insist on adopting and implementing employment equity plans in every organization. Because if we don’t do that, we still won’t have Black people in leadership positions where they could make a difference, on the ground. 

Unions need to lead the way in that regard. Unions have power. We need to commit real resources to fight racism and amplify the voices of Black members. We need to talk about bylaws, and about how to create diversity positions, and we need to offer training about racism in the workplace, the same way we are offering training on health and safety. 

You have been fighting for employment equity for decades. What keeps you going? 

YM: I have this quote from Rosemary Brown that I say all the time. It says: We must open the doors and we must see to it that they remain open so that others can pass through.  

I have been saying it for 20 years, and that is the saying I will die with. That is what keeps me going. Because I see injustices, but then I see success. If we don’t open the doors for people who look like me, and if we don’t keep them open for people who are incoming, then what are we doing this work for?

CUPE members can help combat racism and make their workplaces, their unions spaces, and their communities safe and welcoming for people who are Black, Indigenous and racialized. Here are some ideas: 

  • Acknowledge that racism and discrimination exist in our union. 
  • Understand that there is no such thing as reverse racism. 
  • Learn about anti-Black racism, systemic racism and oppression. 
  • Create space for dialogue with the end goal to identify action points. 
  • Commit to making space for Black, Indigenous and racialized people. 
  • Amend your bylaws to ensure there is a spot at the table for racialized members.  
  • Participate in the movement to end discriminative policies in Canadian society.