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June 14, 2010

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A time to celebrate…and a time to make things better

June 21st is National Aboriginal Day. This is a time to celebrate the cultures and contributions of our First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The Canadian Union of Public Employees has been proud to participate in this celebration every year since it was proclaimed in 1996. In some cases, our members not only attend the events but are instrumental in organizing them. Last year, at a National Aboriginal Day event held at Ship’s Point in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, kids learned how to create their own spirit stones and do sidewalk chalk art that captured the day’s activities. In Vancouver, one CUPE local hosted a salmon dinner and an elder’s presentation on cedar bark weaving. This year, a big party lasting four days is scheduled for Oppenheimer Park. See our “Events” page for more information.

While June 21 is set aside for celebration, it is also a day to remember that governments continue to neglect the deplorable conditions faced by First Peoples and have failed to provide for the basic necessities such as safe water, health care and economic sustainability. The inability of governments to recognize that these necessities are fundamental rights of citizenship is one reason that CUPE uses National Aboriginal Day to express solidarity with aboriginal peoples and support all efforts to improve their livelihood. Beyond simply wages, benefits and working conditions for the union’s aboriginal members, CUPE is also dedicated to advocating for First Peoples’ rights in the larger community. Education is one of the most important ways of doing this, and some of our most effective work has been in training, literacy and skill development.

In Bella Bella, CUPE has worked with the local hospital and the Heiltsuk First Nation to complete an essential skills needs assessment aimed at supporting workers in a time of significant technological and economic change. In the Kootenays, CUPE 4165 is involved in an aboriginal education enhancement agreement with the Ktunaxa Nation. The agreement is aimed at increasing awareness of aboriginal cultures, histories and languages as well as increasing the number of aboriginal language classes in the school district and communities and the use of aboriginal content books in classes and libraries. In Surrey, CUPE 402 municipal workers signed on to a community literacy and essential skills plan. In School Districts 61 and 62 in Victoria and Sooke, CUPE Locals 382 and 459, respectively, have signed aboriginal education enhancement agreements. And in Northern communities including Burns Lake, Fraser Lake, Vanderhoof and Fort St. James, CUPE 4177 sponsors a $500 scholarship in each community to assist students preparing to graduate and move on to post-secondary education.

There are other encouraging developments. In Prince George, CUPE’s UNBC local has its own aboriginal support committee. On Vancouver Island, the union has organized aboriginal school support staff who work for the Cowichan tribes into Local 606. CUPE also continues to provide bullying and harassment training for First Nations organizations, and aboriginal sensitivity training to staff. In September, aboriginal sensitivity training will be provided to the CUPE BC executive board.

CUPE BC is firmly committed to furthering First Peoples’ rights. In addition to hosting two province-wide aboriginal gatherings, CUPE’s B.C. division has added an aboriginal vice president position, and one alternate, to its executive board, and established an aboriginal working group that reports back to the union about where more work is needed on aboriginal issues, both in the workplace and in the union itself.

And so, as we celebrate the vibrancy and great traditions of our First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples on National Aboriginal Day, CUPE BC reaffirms its commitment to fight for equality, justice, full inclusion and the right to self-government for all aboriginal peoples.

Barry O’Neill is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, B.C. division.