Canadian Council focuses on mental health awareness on closing day

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A woman with short blonde hair speaks at the Unifor podium.

Unifor’s Canadian Council focused on supporting mental health in the workplace on the third and final day. 

Former Team Canada member, motivational speaker, and firefighter Kendra Fisher shared her personal journey with mental illness and the isolation that cost her the dream of playing hockey in the Olympics.

“To understand what anxiety feels like, I want you to image trying to put the treadmill up to an awkward speed. And on an incline. You’re going to start to feel that burn in your legs and feel out of breath,” said Fisher. 

“Now, I want to picture breathing only through a drinking straw. I want you to imagine something in your life that terrifies you. Now think of something that broke your heart. Now, I want you to put that feeling altogether.”

Fisher moved to from Kincardine, Ont. to Toronto for high school to chase her dreams of becoming a member of Team Canada. When she graduated from the private girls’ school she attended, she was in a car collision, which left her with a broken vertebra.

Through physiotherapy, she was able to recover, but she began to notice anxiety creeping up.

During Fisher’s 10-year journey, she discovered diagnoses of general anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression, and agoraphobia. She took medication and saw a psychologist, who recommended she see a nutritionist and naturopath, take up running and sign up for yoga classes.

It was when she learned to control her breathing in yoga, to tell her body that she was safe, she began to cry in the studio.

“It was the first time in seven years I realized I had been fighting, running and just trying to survive,” she said. “I had a breakthrough.”

Fisher became member of Canada’s national women’s inline hockey team and represented the country at multiple world championships.

However, despite finding her own solutions for her mental health, she often labelled herself as “pathetic” and it wasn’t until a hockey player she knew died by suicide, did she realize she needed to share her own story to increase understanding of mental illness.

“We put so much pressure on ourselves and we are terrified to let people know about our reality, that we’re struggling,” she said.

“You know what the cool thing about showing up  for yourself and other people is? When you do it, horrible things never seem to happen. It’s when we isolate and push others, that’s when we hit tragedy, that’s when hit crisis. It changes lives and saves lives.”

Newly elected Ontario Regional Director Samia Hashi told delegates that in any given year, one in five Canadians experience mental illness, adding up to one-third of all Canadian in their lifetime.  

“These struggles aren’t a topic that any one of us should shy away from,” she said.

Panel of people sitting on white chairs.

Following Fisher’s speech, Unifor delegates heard a panel discussion about how mental health isn’t something workers can check at the door when they get to work.

The panel was chaired by Executive Assistant to the National Secretary-Treasurer Sari Sairanen. She was joined by Niki Lundquist, Senior Director, Equity and Education, Vinay Sharma, Director of Health, Safety and the Environment, Mike Byrne, National Staff Representative and National Employee and Family Assistance Program liaison, and Hugo Desgagné, National Representative, Health, Safety and Environment Department in Montreal.

“Although the range of psychological injuries can be related to workload or to insecurity at work and harassment, the most concerning thing consistently, is the size of the psychological injury by the time it gets to the union,” said Byrne. 

“These issues that could have been solved at an earlier stage, due to the stigma around it, they have been exasperated to the point where our members are missing work, sometimes they’re lashing out at others at work, because they’re in their trauma, they’re self-medicating that can lead to addiction.”

Lundquist said there was a recent study that 49% of the workforce are dealing with “profound stress and strain and it’s everyday life and burnout is taking its toll on people and I don’t think that’s surprising to all of us who work with other workers who are impacted by economic realities and the insecurities of our workplaces.”

“Because I work with the Human Rights (department) for some time, I have to recognize the added strain of those experiencing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, ableism. You carry the weight of those experiences with you in your life,” she said.

Sharma spoke about prevention and screening at workplaces to help with mental health, while Desgagné said through discussions with the employer, the union has to remind them there is an obligation to provide healthy and safe work environments – both mental and physical.

“We are there to put pressure on the employer, because the buck stops with them,” said Desgagné. “Why are people stressed? There is a shortage of labour, along with overtime and work-life balance issues. We have to talk about mental health.”

Support for Unifor striking and locked-out members continued with an announcement that $200,000 was donated in total from Unifor National, Locals and delegates.

On the final day, there was also a report by the union’s Ethics Task Force, chaired by Former Assistant the National President and former Member of Parliament Peggy Nash about six recommendations where improvements that will strengthen Unifor’s ability to uphold its code.

“We think this will create the time and place for the right conversations to take place,” said Nash. “Now, we advocate for the kind of values and principles enshrined in the Code of Ethics by ensuring we adhere to these principles internally. It underpins what we advocate for in the public and across the country.”

The task force’s report was adopted by Canadian Council and the report will be delivered to Unifor’s National Executive Board in the fall.

Unifor National President Lana Payne announced that in in an important show of respect and awareness building toward Reconciliation, Unifor is installing Land Acknowledgement artwork in all of its regional offices, starting with the office in Halifax. 

At Friday’s gala, Mi’kmaq artist Lorne Julien from Millbrook First Nation began a mural that will hang proudly above a granite plaque in the Halifax office.

Payne and Quebec Regional Director Daniel Cloutier also recognized two long-serving Unifor members who are set to retire – Tullio DiPonti and Yves Guérette.

DiPonti began his career apprenticing in heating and cooling before earning his trade certificate in 1985. He proudly served as Local 2458’s Secretary-Treasurer from 2003 to 2018, when he was elected president of the local, representing 5,400 members in 60 bargaining units including health care, education, and the private sector in Windsor, Ont. and surrounding areas.

From 2013-2022, he held the position of Secretary Treasurer for the Ontario Regional Council Executive Board. 

Guérette spent eight years as president of the Forestry Council, using his experience, exemplary integrity, determined leadership and community development skills to support forestry workers across the country. He was also the president of Local 299 for 17 years and president of the Forestry Industry Council.

Lana Payne waves to the delegates at Canadian Council

A number of resolutions were passed, including support for families seeking justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirited across Canada.

In her closing remarks, Payne re-emphasized now is the time to fight for workers.

“We celebrated 10 years in style,” she said. “We are Unifor!”

Read our Canadian Council Day 1 wrap story

Read our Canadian Council Day 2 wrap story