Union action on Indigenous reconciliation more than lip service


The OPSEU Indigenous Mobilization Team at the 2017 OFL Convention

RECONCILIATION—THE BRINGING TOGETHER of a country’s peoples after a history of  brutal injustice and structural oppression—was pioneered by Nelson Mandela in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. It was the only process that offered any hope of healing deep national wounds inflicted over many generations.

In Canada, after the horrors of the residential school system had come into full public consciousness, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was signed, a package that included compensation and other assistance for survivors, and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of our own. The TRC issued its final report in December 2015: a flood of nightmarish stories of brutality and death are now on record, and a constructive series of recommendations were made to help Canada as a whole move forward.

Complex process

The process of reconciliation is not just owning up to the past. In Canada it is a long, complex, nation-to-nation process of encounter that is barely underway. Reconciliation is more than empty words: to make the healing happen requires encounter, active listening, personal commitment and concrete action.

Organized labour has tried to be an ally in this respect, and one union, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), has been exemplary.

Like many other unions, OPSEU has an Indigenous circle of members. Responding to the TRC report, the circle held its own first biennial conference in 2016 in partnership with the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne. From that conference the Indigenous Mobilizing Team was born, a unique union initiative intended to build bridges between Indigenous communities and labour. Its work was not merely educational: activist outreach and involvement was a key part of its role.

The three members of the Team were all from the OPSEU Indigenous circle: Darlene Kaboni, (Anishinaabe, from Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation), Crystal Sinclair (Cree First Nation), and Russ Jock (Akwesasne Mohawk First Nation). Their work included linkages with Indigenous representatives from other unions, PSAC, CUPW and CUPE. The activities of the Team were endorsed by the First Nations Chiefs of Ontario.

The Team took a bold partnership approach, connecting with First Nations communities in a manner that reflects Indigenous peoples’ own ways of doing things. It engaged in three long-term projects:

education and consultation on the infamous Sixties Scoop,

reforming/reimagining the criminal justice system to embody Indigenous perspectives, and

supporting Indigenous food sovereignty and water protection initiatives.

Listening is key

The key here has been listening, rather than imposing ready-made approaches upon Indigenous communities. The Team worked with other like-minded groups to address specific concerns that the communities themselves have identified as priorities. It has also fostered meetings between those communities and non-Indigenous OPSEU members. One such encounter, for example, brought together Sixties Scoop survivors and OPSEU front-line child welfare workers.

The work has continued and is being built upon by OPSEU’s Indigenous circle. This past June, the circle’s second conference, on cultural reclamation and restoration, was held on Manitoulin Island, in partnership with the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve.

Tim Vining, an OPSEU human rights officer assigned to the Team, is passionate about this on-going work.

“Reconciliation,” he says, “means building relationships that undo colonialism, ones that are based upon respect and equality. That’s our aim, and we’re making progress. It’s been a true learning experience for all of us.”
Vining also has high hopes that OPSEU will build on previous efforts to organize in Indigenous communities, pointing to the recent certification of the Native Women’s Resource Centre in Toronto as an example of the potential that can be reached.
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