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When employment equity plans began in the 1980s in Saskatchewan, about 2 per cent of the workforce was Aboriginal. Today, in workplaces with employment equity plans, the participation rate for Aboriginals is between 7.6 to 9.8 per cent. In workplaces without a plan, the participation rate is still at a dismal 2 per cent.

In November 2000, CUPE signed a partnership agreement with the Saskatchewan government to promote a representative workforce strategy. A representative workforce is one where Aboriginal people are present in all classifications and at all levels in proportion to their working age population.

From this general agreement flowed a tripartite agreement between the CUPE health care council, the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) and the provincial government. A committee was formed to promote the strategy, to identify barriers in collective agreements and to make recommendations for change to the executive and bargaining committees from both the employer and the union. The health care sector was chosen because it was the largest public sector employer in the province and had the largest variety of job classifications.

The first changes were to the language of the collective agreement covering 14,000 health care workers in Saskatchewan. The tripartite committee of government officials, union, and employer representatives drafted contract language to provide for education, succession planning and retention of Aboriginal workers. The proposed language was presented to the members, who endorsed it. It was then presented to the unionemployer bargaining committee, which agreed to it without making any changes at the bargaining table. The members ratified the contract.

The partners then successfully lobbied the executive council of government for funding of all educational programming needed for the strategy. This had to include preparing the workplace for Aboriginal people and vice versa. Overcoming negative effects of equity programs and misunderstanding of Aboriginal people was a priority. A workshop was developed to dispel the myths and misconceptions. By February 2005, about 6,700 CUPE health care workers and managers had received the training.

CUPE also hired an Aboriginal education cocoordinator. At present, CUPE and the provincial government share the funding for this position.

Changing the attitudes of Aboriginal people toward unions, and particularly toward the health sector, was another focus. We found barriers to Aboriginal involvement through the partnership studies. We saw that seniority clauses in agreements were viewed negatively. As well, Aboriginal people were not applying for jobs because they felt they had little chance of being hired. This perception was reinforced by low representation of Aboriginal people in the health sector workforce.

Training was another key component. We worked with other stakeholders, such as Aboriginal and educational institutions, to ensure that Aboriginal people could receive training for health care positions. Meetings were set up to assure the training institutions that jobs would be provided and that enough training spaces would be available for Aboriginal students.

A “train the trainer” workshop was offered to workers in the health sector to ease the workload of the two facilitators from CUPE and SAHO. Three CUPE members took the training.

Today, more Aboriginal people work as special care aides, home care workers and licensed practical nurses, and there are more Aboriginal students entering the health care field, particularly in nursing.

About 1,500 Aboriginal people have been hired since the partnership agreements were signed. The participation rate of Aboriginals in Saskatchewan’s health care sector was 1 per cent. It is now at 5 per cent.

By Don Moran