Unifor’s first Human Rights Conference, held at the union's Family Education Centre in Port Elgin, launched with the theme of finding openings for human rights work in our workplaces and our communities.
“Everyone has a different story and everyone has openings,” said Unifor's Director, Human Rights and International Department Mohamad Alsadi. “The important thing is that each of us must use the openings we have to push this great union forward, and to make our workplaces, and this country more inclusive, democratic, safe and equitable.”
The Human Rights Conference brought the membership together to build an understanding across issues and to a forge a common resolve to push for equity and fairness. Delegates from all regions and representing both equity seeking groups and allies attended the two and half day conference.
Conversation at the Conference centered on social change and resistance as delegates explored how to translate the goal of a fairer and more just world into action.
All three Regional Directors attended the conference to listen, and be active agents of change in the union. Joie Warnock, Naureen Rizvi and Lana Payne, the Regional Directors from Western Canada, Ontario and Atlantic helped facilitate discussions and committed to bring back the work of the conference to report at the next National Executive Board.
“We created our union’s structure so that human rights work would be a priority and integrated into everything we do,” said Alsadi. “Today we have active regional committees for Aboriginal workers and workers of colour, for women, for workers with disabilities and for LGBTQ members. These committees are critical is shaping the direction of our union and they carry out incredible work at local and regional levels.”
Keynote speaker Remzi Cej, Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, told his story as a refugee and LGBTQ activist. Providing delegates with an exercise in optimism, Cej encouraged them to think of opportunities to let their optimism shine. Delegates were also challenged by 19 year-old Shania Pruden who asked every member to stop each week and think about what they did to raise the issues that Indigenous people are facing.
The role of unions in social activism was further emphasized by Professor Akua Benjamin.
“An anti-discrimination clause in a collective agreement is more valuable than all the human rights commissions,” said Benjamin. “Linking your union organizing to community struggles has been key, and we need to increase it.”
Conference attendees heard from speakers on a variety of topics including disability, Indigenous and gender equality issues.
“We need to be pressing on our governments to create affordable, accessible child care spaces, a $15 dollar minimum wage, paid domestic violence leave,” said Unifor Women's Department Director Lisa Kelly. “And we need to be bargaining equity initiatives into our collective agreements. When we build solidarity and put our needs forward, we make a real difference in workers' lives.”
Speaker Mathieu Giroux shared his experience, telling delegates that you cannot always identify a person with autism and that he finds it odd to be thought of as a person with a disability.
“To me it’s a judgement that the majority puts on a minority,” said Giroux. “I have strengths and weaknesses like everybody else.”
The work of Unifor’s Social Justice Fund (SJF) was also highlighted as delegates were introduced to the Babatjl family, one of five Syrian refugee families sponsored to come to Canada with the union's support. To date the Fund has contributed to over 1,100 projects both around the world and here in Canada.
On the final night delegates were entertained by Juno award winner Susan Aglukark at a special concert held in the auditorium on site before bonding by a roaring campfire.
“The Unifor motto is A Union for everyone,” Alsadi pointed out. “ A union for everyone demands that each of us be creative to advance human rights issues, and it demands that we analyze where there is resistance and figure out ways to push forward.”