CUPE BC wraps up historic 1st “worker of colour” conference

Harry Bains MLA and Raj Sihota lead workshops on political activism.

I entered the plenary room looking forward to hearing Yolanda McLean, CUPE National Diversity Vice President.  On my way to my seat, I was greeted by a few people that I had met the day before.

“I saw you on TV yesterday, good job,” they said referring to the the Global News story about cultural diversity in BC.

See the story at: and scroll down to WORLD CLASS BC FEB 26.

I sat down with my fellow CUPE 391 Vancouver library workers to listen to Yolanda McLean speak about human rights, and how it is important for CUPE members to show support for fellow workers, particularly with issues that are prevalent amongst workers of colour.  Following McLean's address, all the delegates were invited to the front to be part of a large group picture.

We started our second set of workshops next, and this was something I was really looking forward to.  “Walking the Walk – Political Arena.”  As soon as I walked into the room, I was greeted by workshop facilitators Harry Bains MLA, and Raj Sihota.  I had first met Raj while she had worked for MLA Joy McPhail, and both Joy and Jenny Kwan had attended the 2005 Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner wearing each other's chinese cheong-sam dress and long tartan skirt.

Raj first shared her personal story, working in the MLA offices of Jenny Kwan and Joy McPhail, as well as running for office herself, and becoming a community outreach worker for the NDP.  She said she had grown up in Kamloops as a Social Credit supporter, but it was while she was at UBC she became inspired by the Mike Harcourt leadership.

Harry told his story about coming to Canada from India, and working hard in foundries and mills to make money, often putting his education aside.  Eventually he became involved in his local unions, and quickly became influential helping to make the mill overcome racist incidents in the work place and one of the strongest and most productive unions in the area.

“Be proud of your union,” Harry told our workshop.  “A lot of people don't know how labour history has help shaped society.  Weekends, 40 hour work weeks, are benefits fought for by unions, as well as health and safety in the workplace, and collective bargaining.” 

It was a very inspiring workshop, with incredible input from all the participants. Most importantly, I liked how Harry talked about overcoming barriers by changing consciousness by union activism.  As people of colour, we began to understand more how cultural differences and traditional behaviors have often prevented people from becoming more active in the union, or simply speaking out when things are unfair.  We discussed how many new immigrants can be intimidated because they are not comfortable speaking in English, or asserting themselves in public because they do not want to draw attention to themselves.  I pointed out that this was often the case for Chinese-Canadian workers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  They kept their heads down, worked hard, and settled for less wages to avoid racism and worse treatment.

The 1907 Anti-Asian riots in Chinatown and Japantown had been the labour workers who had believed that Asians were taking jobs away from White workers.  History has since revealed that it was Chinese workers who helped build  the Canadian transcontinental railway, enabling White workers to come to BC and Canada, displacing Chinese labourers.

During the afternoon plenary sessions, each of the workshops reported back from the two days.  These topics included addressing Diversity in the: Union; Workplace; Community; Political Arena, as well as racial profiling. I had been “delegated” to report back from our “Political Arena” workshop. 

I gave a good talk, introducing my fellow CUPE 391 Vancouver library workers to the audience stating that Harry had said to be proud of your union.  These were people who each had been very involved during our 3 month civic library strike.  I had next introduced my workshop companions introducing them by name and asking them to stand up.  In the middle of my report, as I began stating that sometimes it's
uncomfortable speaking about politics in the workplace – the
electricity suddenly cut out.  I used the sudden power outage to
humouressly stress my point.  “Somebody obviously really doesn't want
us talking about politics in the workplace…” as many people laughed
along with me.  It was good to share what we had learned from Harry Bains and Raj Sihota, distilling their knowledge with our own experiences.  Our solutions to racial barriers included: creating role models; changing consciousness; becoming more involved in the union; education programs; and most important of all… identifying and supporting activists in the union. 

It was a good day, I was inspired by the workshops and the speakers.  I had made new friends, and increased my networks.  I had spread the word about Gung Haggis Fat Choy to my CUPE brothers and sisters, and finished off the day by receiving complements on my presentation.

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