Stephen Lewis gives inspiring speech at BC Federation of Labour conference in Vancouver

This week I am attending the BC Federation of Labour conference November 24-28, 2008 at the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre.  There are approximately 1200 delegates.  We have 5 delegates from CUPE 391 Vancouver Library Workers.

President Jim Sinclair gives a talk about the importance of labour unions.  He also emphasizes the challenges that migrant and immigrant workers are faced with, citing the deaths of Vietnamese-Canadians at the Fraser Valley mushroom farm, and workers from Eastern Europe working on the Golden Ears Bridge left in lurch when the contractor moves.  Sitting behind Jim, I can see Bill Saunders president of Vancouver & District Labour Council.  I met Bill in 2007 when when he gave a talk for the Anniversaries of Change Reconciliation Dinner that commemorated the 1907 riot in Chinatown by Caucasian labourers.  Immigrants and migrant workers have never had it easy in British Columbia.  Employers still exploit workers for their own personal profit.  Workers get killed in vans that don't have seat belts.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, this is shameful.

Grand Chief Edward John of the Assembly of First Nations was a special speaker for the Joint Statement with First Nations, along with 2 other chiefs.  He gave a very insightful talk about the BC 150 celebrations that occurred on Nov.19th at Fort Langley, pointing out that back in 1858, Gov. James Douglas declared the colony of British Columbia without any consultation of First Nations people who were already self-governing their own communities.  John called attention to the recent apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper who used the words that “Survivors were 'kidnapped' from their families” and acknowledged that the purpose of the residential schools was to “…take
the Indian out of the child.”

Vancouver Mayor-elect Gregor Robertson gave a welcome to delegates, and again pledged his goal to end homelessness in Vancouver by 2015.  He spoke about repairing the damage to relations with Vancouver civic unions CUPE 1004 (outside workers), CUPE 15 (inside workers) and “in particular CUPE 391” (Vancouver Library Workers).  Robertson talked about the importance of giving more respect to civic unions, but also to the citizens of Vancouver.  He said he is is asking all groups he talks with, business, unions, community groups and citizens – to give more to help end homelessness.  I believe that the role of labour and the right to work is also fundamentally important to one's self-esteem and self-worth.  Having a job will go a long way to helping end homelessness too!

Sitting in the visitors gallery, were many newly elected or re-elected politicians in the recent civic elections such as Richmond councilor Harold Steeves. From Vancouver City Council, councilor Raymond Louie and councilors-elect Andrea Reimer, Geoff Meggs and Ellen Woodsworth, Parks commissioner-elect Aaron Jasper and School trustee-elect Jane Bouey.

Stephen Lewis' address was the highlight for many conference attendees.  My fellow delegate Ed Dickson and I marvelled at Lewis' dramatic delivery and his oratory skill.  Lewis was able to address gender equity, global poverty, AIDS, the labour movement, capitalism gone bad, his work as a United Nations envoy, the G-20, the IMF, sexual abuse in the Congo, Obama, Sarah Palin, Bono, and a talk by Desmond Tutu – all as seamless interconnected issues.

Lewis recognized the work of his father David Lewis in modeling values for him, and the importance of his wife writer Michelle Landsberg in providing feminist values.  He joked that their children were all feminist, because they knew that if they weren't, they'd be disinherited.  But this set the stage for addressing the rape and sexual abuse of women in the Congo.  He shared that he is working on a piece with Eve Ensler – because she has been addressing the issue in a series of articles and media interviews.

Lewis talks about U2 rock singer Bono, who asks why is it possible for the US and other nations to find $700 billion to help bail out Wall St. but not $250 million for the agreed upon Millenium Development goals from the 2000 UN Summit.  Lewis then went through each of the Millenium Goals such as child poverty, AIDS, disease control, hunger, and sustainable environmentalism.  He said he was disgusted by corporations asking for bail outs during this latest economic disaster which was caused by big business asking for more de-regulation so “they can do what they want.”  He cited the audacity of big business to fly to meetings with government in their corporate jets asking for hand-outs of taxpayer money. 

And then Lewis brings it all back to how it is meaningful for his audience at the BC Fed convention, by praising what he loves about trade unions – that they address and give money to social justice causes.  He summed up the importance of fair wages, a fair society, and thanked trade unionists for standing up for their country and a world “for human values instead of repugnant corporate behavior.”

It was a nice
afternoon – great speeches by First Nations chiefs, Gregor Robertson,
and amazing address by Stephen Lewis.  Following his address, Lewis was given a gift.  He opened the giftwrapped package to reveal a framed print.  He described the pastoral scene with clouds, then read the quote from J.S. Woodsworth, dedicated to the Canadian labour movement.

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