Increasingly, women are stepping forward to lead in their workplaces and local unions. Taking on the role of Women’s Advocate, as stewards and recording secretaries, and as Local President means there is better representation through every level of Unifor.
“The big question we ask ourselves is ‘How do we give union sisters the tools to succeed as leaders and decision-makers’ and that inspired a lot of what we talked about at the B.C. Regional Women’s Conference,” said Tracey Ramsey, Unifor Women’s Department Director. “We took the opportunity to bring sisters together with some incredible B.C. women leaders and talk about current challenges, and some of the ground-breaking changes women are making.”
In an emotional start to the three-day conference, former NDP MLA Melanie Mark delivered a keynote speech centred on thriving through trauma and reflecting on her time in government. She said she relies on key “R” words to guide her: Relationships, Remarkable, Reconciliation, Reciprocity, Results, Regeneration, Responsibility, Rights, Resourcefulness, and Relentlessness.
“In politics, people may call me difficult, but in reality, I was getting things done because I’m a leader who is capable,” said Mark. “The urgency to get things done is a real thing if you’re fighting for people’s lives and when you’re the only one who keeps pushing, it’s easy to label you as difficult instead of determined.”
Mark also encouraged the nearly 80 women gathered not to be afraid to “throw someone out of your canoe.”
“Don’t be afraid to let go of people who are holding you back, no matter who it is,” she added.
After a morning of workshops, day two focused on talking to women who hold leadership positions within the union to demystify the process and to share some valuable lessons learned.
The Shifting Power panel moderated by Krista Lee Hanson, President of the Road Transportation Council, invited three women involved in different positions of leadership and influence: Margaret Olal, a National Organizer in B.C., Sybil Joseph, Chair of the B.C. Regional Women’s Committee, Karen Berry, President of Local 531 and Danni Fitzpatrick, Chair of the B.C. Regional Pride Committee.
The afternoon’s Speaking Out panel took a different format. Seated on stools in the four corners of the room, Ontario Regional Director Samia Hashi, Atlantic Regional Director Jennifer Murray, National Indigenous Relations Representative Gina Smoke, and Executive Assistant to the National President Roxanne Dubois shared memories of their first time speaking on behalf of the union, their method of preparing speeches and public remarks, and some of the personal successes they have had in using their voices for progress.
“I learned to just speak from the heart and speak on what I know,” shared Gina Smoke. “When you speak what’s in your heart, it’s hard for people to criticize that.”
“I don’t think we ever overcome the nerves,” said Samia Hashi. “But the more you are in these spaces, and standing at a mic, the more you get used to it and the more your body doesn’t react as strongly to those nerves.”
“One thing I learned is to know your audience,” said Roxanne Dubois. “Preparing for any speech, or council or anytime you’ll have a mic in front of you - even if you just have 30 seconds to jot down a few thoughts - it will help you. And practice. The more you practice the easier it gets.”
“You don’t learn to drive in order to drive, you learn it to get places and the same goes for public speaking – we learn how to do it to make change,” Dubois added.
On the final morning of the conference, National President Lana Payne joined the group via video conference and spoke about the amazing things happening in the union, like the first Gender Equity Advisory Group meeting in the auto sector during this summer’s round of auto bargaining.
Inspired by Lana’s historic place as the union’s first woman president, women in the room were eager to hear about her experiences and how she navigated – and continues to navigate – the challenges of being a woman in leadership.
Sisters also heard from Access B.C.’s Sophie Choong, a student and volunteer with the group that pushed government for free prescription contraception in the province. This is one component of the union’s demand for Reproductive Justice and an inspiration to members in other provinces to replicate B.C.’s victory.
Sign up for updates from the Women’s Department at unifor.org/women.