Truth, Reconciliation and Education was the title and focus of the 2018 Unifor education conference, and through the power of stories, members learned why and how to unlearn the historical and deep-rooted racism and colonialism that has been inflicted on Indigenous Peoples from coast to coast to coast.
On the weekend of May 11 – 13, 100 members were filled with powerful truths as they listened to the lived experiences with colonialism and racism. Director of Education, Tim Carrie, opened the conference to say, “There will be a lot of listening and feeling over the next two days, and that is good because education got us (as Indigenous people) into this mess and it can now help you and all Canadians get us out of it.”
The opening night speaker, Jesse Wente, a CBC broadcaster, advocate and Ojibway man explained why Canadians need to focus more on the truths if we are truly to reconcile the past.
“When we don’t control our own stories it allows Canadians to continue to allow the unacceptable,” said Wente. “And if Canadian really knew our stories things would be different. So believe it, hear it, take it in, and listen to understand.”
In an effort to replace and fundamentally shift the learned ideas about Indigenous people Don Wren from Local 1-S in Saskatchewan delivered a presentation titled Decolonization 101 to unpack where and how the powerful stereotypes and prejudices have come from. Wren’s message to members both at the conference and in the union was summed up when he said, “Always learn more to unlearn the dysfunctional relationship that the state has caused.”
Janna Pratt also from Local 1-S brought the room to a quiet but engaged stillness as she shared her own personal story as a residential school survivor. Two generations of Pratt’s family went through the residential school system and she explained that this experience helped to make her into who she is today. “I had to learn to be both a fighter and a protector of myself and others,” said Pratt. “But I am not a victim. I am a survivor.”
Pratt also acknowledged the role of education in her own life to be a transformative agent of change. As a trained Discussion Leader and education facilitator for Unifor, Pratt delivers workshops for the education department and expressed that this has been a life-changing experience. “Thank you to the education department and all the other discussion leaders who taught me how to stand up here in front of all of you to tell my story,” Pratt said. “You taught me how to speak up, embrace my story, and be proud.”
Members also learned about the current struggles of Indigenous people in Canada. Even though water is a human right, access to clean drinking water still continues to be a main issue of concern on several First Nations reserves. Kelly Bondy delivered a powerful presentation to expose the truths behind access to water and the unequal conditions that First Nations communities live with. Members were reminded that just because the water may look clear in some communities it is not drinkable. To take action on this fundamental rights issue members wrote letters to the Prime Minister to demand change.
The last day of the conference closed with a panel discussion moderated by Deb Tveit, Assistant to the National President, on allyship and how to be a change agent. It was followed by an open discussion on what each of us, as members, trade unionists, and residents in Canada can do. Tveit reminded members that changing the past can sometimes feel hard but it is always worth it. “The most important skill is listening before you act, but always remember that change is never done without a struggle, so prepare for it.”
Director Carrie also issued a challenge to the union to get active and take action to tackle colonialism. Members were provided with a list of 150 action plans to aid the process of truth and reconciliation both inside our union and in the community.
After a heavy weekend of listening, learning, and unpacking ideas members thanked the conference organizers and the education department for their work to guide this important process of learning to unlearn racism. Many members commented that parts were hard to listen to, but they departed with a lot to think about.
In his closing words, Carrie offered this, “your sincerity and caring is amazing to see and feel, but now I want you to consider what you can do, and that must start today.”