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Doug Lavallée wanders to the head table at the front of a meeting room at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a First Nations arts and heritage centre just north of Saskatoon. The occasion is the historic founding of CUPE’s national Aboriginal council.

Lavallée is retired now, but he was once the regional director of CUPE in Saskatchewan. He is an honoured guest; held up as someone owed a great debt, referred to as one of a number of past CUPE members “who struggled for years to see this day.” He looks slightly embarrassed by the attention. He’s got a kind face that seems ready to crack a smile or a joke at the slightest provocation. But there’s a set to his jaw as he prepares to tell the audience a story.

In a low voice, he begins to describe a day from his childhood. He was with his grandmother that day. As they walked toward the government office on the reserve, he noticed her hand shaking. He didn’t understand why, but he didn’t ask. Instead, hand-in-hand, they continued to walk toward the government office. The closer they got, the harder her hand shook.

I suppose she was going in to pick up a welfare cheque or something,” Lavallée remembers. There’s a look in his eyes, and the room, usually filled with the sound of papers rustling or whispered conversations, is noticeably hushed.

We went up to this window. There’s a man holding a cheque. My grandmother is standing in front of the window. This guy takes that cheque, and he’s pulling it back and forth in the window. It’s like he’s teasing her. He’s saying something like: ‘Come on, smile for me. Smile or you don’t get the cheque’.”

Lavallée pauses and looks toward the ceiling, remembering the humiliation, before continuing. “I promised myself that when I grew up, and I came across that guy, I’d squish him,” Lavallée says with a grin. One feels the tension collapse as the crowd chuckles. “I never met that man again,” Lavallée says, more seriously, “but I met a lot of people like him over the years. That’s why we worked so hard to change things.”

Lavallée is one of the trailblazers who helped push CUPE to this day, says National President Paul Moist. “In 1996 or so, Doug was telling the CUPE national executive to get our act together,” he says. “That the population of Saskatchewan, the workforce of the province, was going to be increasingly Aboriginal. And that we hadn’t done enough to reach out.”

At the time, Moist sat on the CUPE national executive board representing Manitoba and Saskatchewan. “Doug was crystal clear on what needed to be done,” Moist recalls. “Health care needed to be restructured; it is – now. School boards had to be restructured; they have been. Finally, Doug said that Aboriginal Peoples would have to become a priority for the union. We’re finally moving on this.”

Moist spoke about the need for labour to address issues such as contaminated water on reserves, stalled and unresolved land claims, substandard education, and a lack of training and employment opportunities for Aboriginal Peoples. “These issues deserve to be on the agenda of Canada’s largest union,” he said.

Shared values

It’s been a long time coming,” National Secretary- Treasurer Claude Généreux said at the founding of the council. He reminded people that there would be a lot of work ahead. He cited the $5.5-billion deal between the federal and provincial governments and Aboriginal groups reached last fall in Kelowna, B.C.. The agreement set targets to improve housing, health, education and economic conditions for Aboriginal Peoples over the next five years. However, in their first budget, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives failed to honour the agreement.

The 50 or so people who attended the Wanuskewin gathering came from almost every province, even though CUPE has only three provincial Aboriginal councils: in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. (CUPE Ontario recently passed a motion to create a council.) They were there, says equality branch staff member Connie Kilfoil, because they understand the “very real shared values between those involved in Aboriginal rights and labour rights.” She attended as part of the B.C. delegation.

Unions strive to protect workers from exploitation by bosses,” she explains. “In Aboriginal societies, the concept of sharing resources for the common good amongst members of the collectivity, is consistent with a saying in the labour movement that an injury to one is an injury to all. The tradition of decision-making by consensus is very compatible with the CUPE model of local autonomy, which respects the rights of locals to decide on their own affairs.”

Leo Cheverie, CUPE’s national diversity vice-president for Aboriginal workers, is from Prince Edward Island. He says CUPE needs the council for tangible reasons: jobs, equal opportunity and human dignity.

Aboriginal workers aren’t represented in workplaces,” Cheverie says. “There are a lot of young Aboriginal workers entering the workplace, working for municipalities, in education and health care. We have to make sure there are opportunities for Aboriginal workers now, but also in the future. We need to make sure that CUPE, as an equal opportunity employer, employs more Aboriginal people to make sure they have a place in our union. We need CUPE to show leadership as a way of making sure that we stand up for all of our members, that we are able to grow stronger by being more inclusive.”

Aboriginal baby boom

To put this into perspective, consider the population boom occurring in Aboriginal communities.

In the general Canadian population, the post-war baby boom peaked more than 50 years ago, meaning more people will soon be leaving the workforce than entering it. However, the Aboriginal baby boom is still in full swing, as figures from the 2001 Statistics Canada census of Aboriginal Peoples show. In 20 years, Winnipeg’s Aboriginal population grew from 16,000 to nearly 56,000. The most dramatic increase has occurred in Saskatoon, where the Aboriginal population grew from about 4,200 in 1981 to more than 20,000 in 2001.

The challenge facing employers lies in recognizing – and meeting – the employment and training needs of this growing population. This is particularly important in western Canadian cities, where First Nations, Métis and Inuit may comprise 8 to 15 per cent of the urban populations. Unless these challenges are recognized and met, Aboriginal people will continue to have a much lower share of jobs in the workplace – not for lack of trying, but due to decisions that fail to provide for them.

Some of these issues came forward throughout the two days of the conference. Delegates also discussed representation in bargaining groups, more and better training as facilitators, adapting materials to include more relevant content, and better support and networking within the union for Aboriginal members.

Participants shared their disappointments and frustrations, but also their successes. B.C. participants proudly described the advances they’ve made since founding their council two years ago. One positive outcome was a fourmonth mapping project, funded by CUPE National, to show where more organizing is possible in B.C.’s Aboriginal communities (see sidebar).

The council also chose two senators, Joanne Webb and Brian Barron, to act as co-chairs. Webb is a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation in southern Ontario. New Credit is located beside the Six Nations territory, just down the road from Caledonia, where the recent occupation of a housing development turned into an ugly standoff, with violence on all sides.

As someone who has friends on both sides of the river, so to speak, it seems as though we’ve gone back quite a few pages,” Webb says. “Divisions have appeared among people who have lived side-by-side peacefully for decades. Now this has happened and it’s as though all of that progress in bringing people together has been destroyed, and it’s affecting us as members too.”

Webb says the tense situation in her backyard has underlined for her the necessity for a national Aboriginal council that can act as a place to identify concerns. “We need to give a voice to our Aboriginal members who often feel as though they can’t speak about certain things,” she says. “[The council] is important for getting those voices out there, to encourage people to be more assertive, to express themselves, and to assert their rights.”

A huge step forward

For Webb’s co-chair, the forming of a national Aboriginal council sends a clear signal, and not only to members in the union. “What CUPE has done may not have been accepted 100 per cent by everyone,” says Barron, a member of CUPE 500, Winnipeg civic workers. “But it took the step to do it.”

Barron says that how CUPE went about creating the council is as significant as why it did it. “The biggest thing is that CUPE asked for the help of Aboriginal Peoples,” he notes “CUPE has educated and communicated with Aboriginal people in the past, but for the first time [nationally] it’s asked Aboriginal people for help in making a place within the union where they can meet and discuss things among themselves.

It’s a huge step forward for the organization to ask for [our] help. Anyone who knows a little bit about Aboriginal cultures knows that something like that shows respect – and that means a lot to Aboriginal people,” he adds. “CUPE is the only organization I know that has tried to deal with us respectfully. That’s why I think it’s now up to us all to make sure this works.”

Gerri Harris is a senator on CUPE Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal council. She believes the national council isn’t just about the big ideas; it will also benefit the average Aboriginal worker.

The work situation is so unstable sometimes, but especially so when you have band councils that think they can fire you for no reason,” she says. “With the union, people can have some job security. If someone feels they’ve been fired for no reason, the union will protect their rights. In the past, people didn’t have things like health benefits or pensions. They can now, because the union is changing this. People can have some peace of mind that they might not have had before.”

Harris has a lot of hope for the future of the national Aboriginal council, as well as for regional councils like hers in Saskatchewan. She sees the Internet as one way of establishing a network of Aboriginal councils in every province and territory.

We’re building a national Aboriginal information superhighway,” she says. “Everyone’s very excited about this, because it means we can now email each other right across the country to stay in touch and trade information about what’s happening.”

By the end of the Wanuskewin meeting, the gathering had identified 22 issues the new council needs to address in its advisory role to CUPE’s national executive board. The five top issues were youth awareness, organizing, underrepresentation in the workplace and in CUPE, Aboriginal awareness training and the formation of provincial Aboriginal councils. The council will meet again in November 2006, in conjunction with CUPE’s national human rights conference in Vancouver.

There is racism and there always will be,” says Barron. “[But] instead of accepting or expecting paternalism, it is now incumbent upon us, the Aboriginal members, to step forward and engage others within the organization, take on those leadership roles, start working on some of the problems we have.”

Webb is fired up with a sense of hope and optimism tempered by determination.

People say, ‘Oh, you’re just interested in organizing, signing up new members’,” she says. “I tell them: yes, but that’s really a small part of what I’m trying to do – what we’re all trying to do. We’re all trying to help our communities first and foremost. That’s what we’re all working for – our communities.”