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Members of CUPE’s Aboriginal Council want to tackle racism in the workplace

It took long-term care worker Donna Dickison a long time to stop being ashamed of being Indian, but once she did there was no stopping her.

Donna is a member of CUPE’s Aboriginal Council and she wants to see it educate people in the workplace and society to respect and understand aboriginal peoples. And she wants to help other aboriginal people learn to take pride in their heritage.

She is active in teaching young people in schools about racism. “I get asked to speak to students and I tell them how important it is to know who they are,” she says. She rediscovered her identity as an Indian by joining the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, a Vancouver group formed in 1995.

“I had no idea who I was and connecting with AWAN, with aboriginal women, helped me rediscover myself,” she says. From there she also got involved with her union, the Hospital Employees’ Union, CUPE’s health services division in British Columbia.

“There’s lots of racism in the workplace,” she says. “But people put their head in the sand and say there is no racism. We need to educate them that it exists and must be stopped.”

Randy Saint Denis agrees that education in the workplace is key. A member of CUPE 59 in Saskatchewan, he’s co-chair of the council with Joanne Foote, another HEU long-term care worker.

“We need to keep on being positive,” he says. “But our goal has to be to stamp out racism wherever it rears its ugly head. We’ve got to address the ignorance about it in the workplace and everywhere.”

One way to do that is through hiring initiatives, says Randy. For example, CUPE Saskatchewan will sign such an agreement with the province’s inter-governmental affairs department this June.

The initiative commits the government to using companies who don’t discriminate against aboriginal people in their hiring policies and practices. Randy wants to see similar agreements signed with other departments, possibly starting with health. Ideally, he’d like to see it occur on June 21, National Aboriginal Day.

Workshop for First Nations

Another step in tackling racism was a First Nations’ caucus workshop held May 5-7 in Terrace, BC. The goal of the workshop was to build individual locals within a community of locals for the Northwest First Nations. 

We’ve done a lot of work to expose racism and help with the major fights against it,” says CUPE diversity vice-president Fred Loft. He was a council founder in 1997 when it grew out of CUPE’s Unity conference. “But it is still looking for a main focus for its work.”

Loft voiced concern that more aboriginal CUPE members don’t identify themselves. The council has no members from the Maritimes and Atlantic regions, for example. “I’ve been saying for years that it is time to come out of the woodwork,” he says. “They’ve at least got to start coming to council meetings.”

The workshop in BC was partly to find out what barriers aboriginal people face in getting involved in decision making at CUPE. “We wanted to know what they know of CUPE, what their feelings are, why they don’t come out,” says Loft.

He sees the Terrace session as the “birthing of the First Nations OTO workshops. The intention is to modify this one so that it fits every province. This is important given the differing aboriginal cultures.”

“We are still strangers to one another and that was a main goal of the council when it first started: to show that there is a place in our union for aboriginal people,” Loft says. “But if we don’t put our best foot forward and show that we are committed activists then nothing is going to happen.”

If you want to know more about aboriginal history, issues and traditions, write to CUPE Aboriginal Council, c/o CUPE Equality Branch, 1375 St. Laurent OTTAWA, Ontario K1G 0Z7. Check out cupe.ca/aboriginal for aboriginal information on-line.

Ron Verzuh