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Sisters and Brothers:

Welcome to CUPE’s first National Human Rights Conference.

Our union has a history of struggle over human rights and equality issues both in the workplace, and,  in society as a whole.

CUPE’s leadership in seeking social justice for our members and all citizens has resulted in victories and progress. Yet many challenges remain.

This week we will reflect on some of our history, and look forward to the wide range of human rights issues we face today.

What a tremendous turn out for this conference. I want to thank each of your locals for sending you. And,  on behalf of Brother Claude and our NEB, to welcome you to the beautiful city of Vancouver.

A special welcome to our new activists. Please stand if this is your first national conference.  Let us welcome to the CUPE family.

I also ask you to join me in thanking our DVPs, Brothers Dharam Boodhoo and Leo Cheverie, our Equality staff, led by Sister Sandi Howell-Solc, and all  members who serve on CUPE’s Equality Committees—Rainbow, Aboriginal Council, Pink Triangle and Women’s Committees—all of whom have made this conference possible….on behalf of our entire union. Thank you Sisters and Brothers.

Je disais que j’aimerais que vous vous joigniez tous à moi pour remercier nos Vice-présidents de la diversité et des autochtones, les confrères Dharam Boodhoo and Leo Cheverie,  notre staff du service d’égalité ainsi que la consœur Sandi Howell-Solc,  et tous les membres de nos comités d’égalité nationaux, pour avoir rendu possible cette conférence.  De la part du syndicat entier, merci consœurs et confrères.

Our human rights focus throughout our  history has included workplace issues—national and international.

All are important, all shape the freedoms we experience, or don’t experience. And, the struggles for social justice never end. We know from experience that we can never take our rights and freedoms for granted.

At the level of the workplacr, collective bargaining shapes our rights as workers. Most of CUPE’s 3,400 agreements contain no-discrimination clauses, provisions which protect our rights.

This wasn’t always the case.

At Manitoba Hydro  Local 998 this year celebrated its 40th anniversary with CUPE.

In doing so, they profiled many historical moments in our history with that employer, including a provision from the 1956 collective agreement…..

    “The marriage of a female employee shall be considered as her resignation….

    A female employee who has been permanently appointed may apply, at the time of tendering her resignation, for re-employment after her marriage.”

Needless to say, that collective agreement has changed for the better, but I suspect that most new members, covered by today’s Local 998 agreement have no idea that such provisions used to exist.

More recently, in the mid-1990s, CUPE National, through the now defunct Court Challenges program, launched a legal challenge over the issues of benefits for same sex partners….including pension survivor benefits.

We won this case at the Supreme Court of Canada and paved the way to change Canadian laws and break new ground through collective bargaining.

This was a pressing workplace issue as well as, a societal issue in which our union led the way. I salute both the foresight and fortitude of our past national leadership and our staff for their strong, principled stand. It has made Canada a more inclusive and fair society.

There are dozens of other examples I could have cited at the level of our workplaces.

The key point is that collective bargaining represents our front-line for the pursuit of enforceable rights to dignify the labour of our 550,000 members.

Let us re-dedicate ourselves, through the Human Rights lens of this conference,  to collective bargaining as a means of ensuring that the equality rights of all members are both expressed and realized.

At the level of Canadian society, CUPE’s history is replete with examples of human rights struggles.

We have leant both our voices and our resources to countless struggles.

We embrace the words of Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said:

    “It is through action at the national level that     international human rights obligations can be translated into reality.”

Again….there are dozens of issues I could cite where our union has joined broader national debates….the fight for pay equity….the fight for free collective bargaining rights….the fight for universal public Medicare….the fight against racial profiling in our communities…the fight for peace…for an independent Canadian foreign policy.

But time only affords me the opportunity to cite two such struggles.

In October 2002 a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar was returning home from vacation.

He was detained by US authorities in New York as a suspected Islamic extremist with ties to Al-Qaeda.  He was deported to Syria….held against his will….imprisoned for almost one year…and tortured by Syrian military intelligence.

He regained his freedom…returned to Canada…but Maher Arar was not free.  His government ignored him…his attempts to clear his name were ignored…he was traumatized….

No charges were ever laid…not a shred of evidence was ever produced…he was guilty by inference…his human rights were grossly violated…he remained imprisoned under a cloud of suspicion.

Our union joined with the CLC and other unions and civil society groups to create and fund the Maher Arar support group.

Maher Arar’s struggle is far from over, but the release of Justice Dennis O’Connnor’s report is perhaps the beginning of the end.  What do we now know?

•    The RCMP knew shortly after Arar’s arrest that there was no evidence of terrorist links….yet they told American authorities he was a “suspected” Islamic extremist.

•    Notwithstanding what they knew, what the RCMP did next was worse than their initial action.  They conspired to keep him imprisoned in Syria.

•    They refused to endorse a letter by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister seeking his release….9 months after his arrest and incarceration!

•    They sent a list of questions to Syrian authorities……. questions regarding their suspicions of his alleged extremist activities.

•    We know now that the RCMP officials knowingly misrepresented facts in briefings to senior officials of the Canadian government.

•    We know after Maher Arar’s release from jail that the RCMP continued to feed their suspicions to Canadian journalists….that they attempted to block the public inquiry.

•    We know that the RCMP has said they are sorry.  We also know that no one has been disciplined…..that certain of the RCMP officers involved in this case have been promoted.

•    Finally, we know that Maher Arar was and is completely innocent….and we know we are all less free when the state tramps on rights while acting upon their suspicions.

I said a moment ago that this case is far from over.  I am proud that our union…from day one….supported Maher Arar, and on behalf of our National Union I pledge our continued support and make the following statement, on behalf of this conference and our entire union:

1.    I salute Maher Arar for his courage and fortitude…his fight     remains our fight.

2.    I call for the Harper government to apologize to Maher     Arar…in the name of all Canadians…and to make financial     restitution to him and to demand a public apology from the     US government.

3.    I call for an independent inquiry into the cases of Canadian     citizen Ahmed El Maati, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed     Nureddin……each of whom were investigated for alleged,     unproven, links to terrorist activities.

4.    Finally, I call on the Harper government to hold the RCMP to     account, beginning with the immediate dismissal of     Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli.

CUPE’s history is replete with examples of international solidarity work, in the pursuit of global justice.

Global solidarity amongst workers and the pursuit of peace are anchored in our National Constitution….more importantly our conduct and actions over the past 43 years speak to progressive voice on the part of our union.

We know that as citizens of the industrialized world, we control a disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth and food supply.

We know that most of the world’s people live in poverty; that infant mortality in the South is 107 deaths per 1000 births, while in the North the rate is 6 deaths per 1000.

We know that life expectancy in the South is 48 years—30 years less than we enjoy.

We know that the 3rd world subsidizes we who live in the industrialized world.  Sub-Saharan Africa needs 600,000 more nurses to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic.they can’t train people fast enough yet we import to the countries of the North, 25,000 African health professionals per year.

We know that we have child welfare issues in Canada.  We don’t often talk about the following statistics from the developing world:

•    150 million girls and 73 million boys experiencing forced sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual violence;

•    more than 100 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation;

•    218 million children were involved in child labour in 2004.

We know that one million Palestinians had their public infrastructure bombed this summer and today live without power, without income or the basic necessities of life.

We know that Canada and the world stand silent while civil war is waged in the Darfur region of Sudan.  2.5 million citizens have been displaced—over  400,000 have been killed, and the world watches and does nothing.

We know that 42 Canadians have died in Afghanistan, that thousands of brave Canadians are mired in a war that has no winners, no purpose,  and no end in sight. 

I re-affirm our call for the Harper government to bring these troops home, to quit propping up the warlords and to immediately assign Canadian forces to peace keeping duties in Darfur.

We know that the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa has reached proportions that are staggering, that the human suffering rises as we in the West sit by.  We also know that science and drugs could turn this situation around, but that our government refuses to confront the grip that the pharmaceutical industry has on treatment drugs.

In the name of Canada’s largest union representing 1 in  in 64 Canadians, I call on Stephen Harper to confront the drug-patent protection lock that exists and to send drugs, free of charge, in our name—to confront the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa.

It is unfathomable to me that our country—Canada one of the richest nations on earth is more focussed on tax cuts than the sharing of our collective wealth.

On your behalf, I call upon all parties in Parliament, on the Harper government to set a clear timetable to establish and reach the global target of 0.7% of our GDP to foreign aid and development.  It is a blight on each and everyone of us that we refuse to meet this base level of international support.

Our conference this week provides us with a huge opportunity to face our internal challenges and goals as a democratic trade union.

To face key national challenges and move our union into areas we must become involved in.

How on earth in 2006 can we tolerate the ongoing treatment Aboriginal citizens receive in Canada:

•    Our failure to honour treaty rights.

•    Our failure to provide even basic necessities for thousands of our fellow citizens.

We learned two weeks ago of the plight of 2,300 Canadians, residents of Pikangikum, 2.5 hours north of Kenora, Ontario.

Only 20 out of 387 houses hooked up to the community’s water plant.  A school built in 1986 for 250 students, which today houses 750 students!

Water pipes that have been sitting in fields since 2001.

And what did our federal government offer this community, in our name and  on our behalf—two  weeks ago?  200 new outhouses!
Well,  the community said “NO” and we must support them! A doctor from the Northwest Health Unit in Kenora called this offer “institutional racism” on the part of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs. And, he is right and we must lend our voices and our weight to this and countless other struggles!

This first National Human Rights Conference is an historical moment for our union.

We are building our union. We are building upon the work of the Sisters and Brothers who built our union in the first place.

Thank you for your hard work, for your activism day in and day out in your local communities.  And thank you for being here in Vancouver. Together we will strengthen our union’s commitment to human rights and social justice for all.