Convention Diary, Day Two: Union Activism and Aboriginal Activism

November 26, 2014

My day? Well, I woke up. I ate. I worked. I went home. I slept.

As if it was so easy. I’m a union activist, and an Aboriginal activist. Other activists and their families will know what this means: long hours of listening and teaching, and speaking out passionately again and again, like a scratched record skipping a beat.

Yesterday started at 7:30 a.m. at the United Way breakfast, honoring the volunteers who tirelessly dedicate their time to the United Way of the Lower Mainland and their important campaigns to fight bullying, support seniors and help families move out of poverty. CUPE 402 President Jeannie Kilby spoke about how the Union Counselling program (a partnership between the United Way and the labour movement) has helped workers who’ve struggled with traumatic issues at work. I wasn’t able to stay until the end of the breakfast because as a Sergeant at Arms I had to be at the Convention Centre at 8:15 a.m., 45 minutes prior to the doors opening, so I had to duck out. 

Tuesday’s convention proceedings began with us Sergeants checking credentials as people walked in the door. After the initial onslaught of excited BC Fed representatives, I sat down to work. 

I am an Aboriginal woman. I was born on Haida Gwaii and my Haida name is Daat Sii, which means Little Bird ot Tricky Raven. I’m deeply committed to pushing the Canadian federal government into initiating an inquiry into the hundreds of murdered and missing indigenous women. I decided to run for chair of the BC Fed Aboriginal Caucus and I spent part of Tuesday morning creating a bio for the BC Fed Aboriginal Workers Facebook page and garnering support.  

At lunch the delegates to the convention launched a campaign to raise B.C.’s minimum wage to $15 with a rally outside of the convention centre. Despite the pouring rain, spirits were high as we listened to music before the speakers came on stage. We were blessed with the wisdom and support of speakers like Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and newly re-elected Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. (I managed to grab a photo both of them and a funky new umbrella from the Province newspaper that has the Sunday cartoons all over it!) 

Once the rally was over we caught up with our caucus group and had lunch, then zipped back to the convention centre to open the doors. After a while, I sat down to prepare myself for speaking at the mic during the Human Rights report about murdered and missing indigenous women.  

My knees were knocking and I was sweating with anxiety but I completed my remarks in time for the BC Fed Human Rights committee report. We sat at the head stage in front of the convention delegation and presented our report.  

Unfortunately, there was only 15 minutes given for the Human Rights committee to speak to the issues of four groups: LGBTQ, workers of color, workers with disabilities and aboriginals. While I supported the resolutions in the report, I was so disappointed such little time was given to speak to these issues I got up to the con microphone to express my concern, and then immediately launched a plea for the BC Federation of Labour to support the Canadian Labour Congress campaign to call an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.

It’s hard to believe how long… and how short three minutes can be. Despite my nervousness, I got into the groove and poured my heart into taking about why the Harper Government needs to call an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and before I knew it, I’d forgotten my churning stomach, my knees quit knocking, the words rolled off my tongue and my three minutes were up.

Following the Human Rights committee report came the tribute to departing BC Fed president Jim Sinclair. We listened to the many touching words of farewell and of thanks. (I was pleased to learn Jim had at one point worked for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs on wild salmon protection.) He will be a sorely missed from the BC Fed but without a doubt we’ll see him advocating on behalf of working people again.

The Aboriginal Caucus met at 5:10 p.m. and we were all late, as we all wanted to watch Jim’s tribute. It was election time for the Aboriginal Caucus Rep and three hard-working, committed members of the Caucus put their names forward for chair: April Duffield, Michelle Woods and myself. 

I am incredibly proud and humbled to say I was elected the BC Federation of Labour Aboriginal Caucus Representative.

I brought six goals to the delegates: 

1) Murdered and missing women
I will keep speaking on this issue until one of three things happens: I lose my voice; the Harper government actually acts on what the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch has told them to do: call an inquiry. Or… I die!

2) Improve Aboriginal representation among our union activist ranks 
It has to be done. There has to be buy-in from the BC Fed and from the affiliate unions. Then First Nations union members need to be identified invited to make a home in the BC Federation of Labour.

(3) Identify Aboriginal issues on which the BC Fed can act 
Following the principle “Not about us without us” this must be done with the help of the Aboriginals across the province.

(4) Communication
Telephone conferences don’t seem to be working. What will improve people’s presence at meetings? 

(5) Reconciliation
I’ve done work on reconciliation with Chief Robert Joseph. The only way First Nations people and Canadians can move forward in healing is through reconciliation. My dream is that all members of the BC Fed Aboriginal Caucus receive training by Chief Bobby Joe so they can carry their teachings out through the province. 

(6) Unity
Despite there being three candidates for election, I want there to be unity in this Caucus. I am so grateful for the passion and efforts of the other candidates. Their skills are considerable and I expect to rely on them and work with them in partnership and solidarity.  

From there, I left for the hotel, wiped the rain from my clothes, refreshed myself and went downstairs at the Hyatt Hotel to the Equity Caucus where we watched four dynamic speakers on the Equity Panel:

  • Adrienne Smith – new lawyer, speaking about gender equality and removing the sex identification on birth certificates, the rights of gender fluid people and Harriet Cunningham from Comox – a courageous young lady leading this issue.
  • Natalie (hopefully someone will supply me with her last name) who spoke on discrimination and three leading cases: not discriminating against female fire fighters because of gender; deaf people and lack of interpretative devices; and Terri-Lynn Garry who is paid $1.25/hour less than other workers.
  • Jessie Uppal from the Steelworkers, an incredible speaker, who talke about discrimination against workers of color. She spoke about the tree planters from Burundi and the Congo who weren’t getting paid, the lack of sanitation and food they faced. Workers there faced racism, sexism and there are questions outstanding about a workplace death. At some Tim Hortons, temporary foreign workers are not getting paid as much Canadian employees, employers are renting houses to them and the workers are returning home to find the employer going through their things, or the employer eating at their table. At one McDonalds a 18-year employee was told she wasn’t doing a good enough job and that her wage would be reduced by $6.00 an hour. She could take it or she could or quit.
  • And lastly, but by no means at least, Chief Joe Alphonse who spoke about winning the game-changing Tsilhquot’in Nation vs. B.C. government land claim court case and what it means to the Tsilhqot’in people, and for First Nations self-determination in this province and across Canada.

When it was over, my cousin Cheryl (past chair of the BC Fed Aboriginal Caucus) and I met her sister Bonnie and had dinner at 9:30 pm. Then back to the hotel for a hot bath and I hit the sheets and was out like a light by 11:30 pm.

Day two – over!