VANCOUVER—CUPE BC’s first ever Workers of Colour conference kicked off here last night with some stirring speeches that reminded more than 75 delegates how far the union movement has come and yet how much work still needs to be done.
CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill opened the conference by noting how important it is to hear everyone’s voice in the union.
“We need to respect cultural differences and talk about diversity in everything we do,” he said. “This is an important conference that will have a significant impact on how CUPE proceeds.”
O’Neill challenged delegates to have frank discussions throughout the two-day conference and to persevere, so that the union can deal with tough issues well into the future.
O’Neill, summing up the conference mandate, quoted the late feminist Rosemary Brown, the first black woman elected to the B.C. legislature: “We must open doors and we must see to it that they remain open so that others can pass through.”
Keynote speaker Moe Sihota, the former BC Labour Minister, NDP MLA, and the first Indo-Canadian elected to a Canadian legislature and appointed to a provincial cabinet, spoke from the heart about his personal experiences as a member of an ethnic minority growing up on Vancouver Island.
Sihota recalled the time he had asked his dad about the scar on his dad’s face, and from that story, got his first understanding of equality. His father had been injured while on a picket line in the 1940’s – challenging a law that Indo-Canadians, Asians and Orientals be paid 5¢ an hour less than other workers.
Sihota said that one of his proudest moments in politics was when the BC legislature gave Workers’ Compensation coverage to farm workers. He criticized the current government’s lack of commitment – spending money for superficial things like dances and festivals, but doing very little to support diversity in our communities.
Sihota also spoke of the “cross pressures” of being a person of colour.
“To be successful,” he said, “we need to get past the colour of our skins and think about what we can do for the broader community. To resonate with that broader community we need to give hope, provide inspiration, and show leadership.”
The conference continues today (Tuesday) with a plenary session and panel discussion followed by workshops.