First Nations Women Rising

"The Aboriginal women's community may not have the resources of other communities but they have something to say," says Holly Page, equity and human rights officer for the British Columbia Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU). "It has been very difficult for these women to get their messages out." Page says many Aboriginal people don't see unions as their allies either. "There are myths and misconceptions about unions and debates within some communities about whether unions are beneficial. Unions need to do some relationship building."

Page should know. She is both Aboriginal and on staff with a union representing 65,000 members across B.C. with access to resources her Aboriginal sisters need. "Our union will print leaflets, buy food from Costco for events, and get the message out to our members," Page says. And what are the messages? A top concern is the continued violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside; along the "Highway of Tears" in northern B.C., and in communities across Canada.

Aboriginal women have organized several "Walk 4 Justice" events and the February 14 Women's Memorial March. "It's been grassroots, and our union can help," says Page.

Walk 4 Justice participants have travelled from northern B.C. to Vancouver, and from the West Coast to Ottawa twice. They are demanding a government inquiry into the more than 580 Aboriginal women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered across the nation. In fact, Aboriginal women are five times more likely to be murdered than other women in Canada.

"We supported the walkers," Page says. "People should know about what they are doing. The BCGEU has provided resources like t-shirts, flyers and other in-kind needs. The union logo on Walk 4 Justice supplies makes the solidarity connection clear. We also arranged to have members greet the walkers on various points along the route."

"Unions aren't just about contracts," Page says. "They are a jump-start for social justice. Union members are community members, and they care about their community."

Page also uses social networking tools, a way for the union to share information with union members and listen to what they have to say, too. "There is a leader inside every Aboriginal woman," Page believes, "no matter how beaten down. Unions need to do outreach so these women can carry on."

"I was into drinking and drugs - the whole scene. I came out of it at 30. It took three years to recover; to be able to sit still. It takes time to recover. I moved to the North (from Saskatchewan) and met an Aboriginal leader who became my husband. He decolonized me. He took me to the land to teach me. It was an experience I can't put into words."
Sandra Lockhart

"We can come together, regardless of background," says Lorene Oikawa, a Japanese-Canadian and BCGEU member. Oikawa has been with the union for 25 years and is now in her second term as vice-president.

Oikawa recalls her work on a committee to commemorate the historic Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. "There are connections with the Japanese-Canadian, First Nations, and even the labour community," Oikawa says about the historic park. "Freedom of speech was fought for by union members."

Cherry trees (Sakura) planted by first-generation Japanese-Canadians were at risk of being cut down by city officials. Oikawa and others protested and now the trees remain, unlike the Japanese-Canadians who were removed from the neighbourhood and sent to internment camps during the Second World War.

"It was decided to move one of the cherry trees to another area of the park," Oikawa says. "A First Nations drumming group volunteered to sing a song to the spirit of the tree." Japanese and First Nations cultures identified with the uprooting of their cultures in this symbolic gesture, Oikawa says.

Residential schooling resulted in a painful uprooting of First Nations culture and identity, too, and Oikawa says the BCGEU supports the ongoing reconciliation work to bring healing to the community. For over a century, the Canadian government and church groups operated schools for Aboriginal children and teens across Canada as a means to assimilate them into the dominant culture. The forced dislocation from family and the erasure of cultural identity, along with abuses committed by the school staff, have had a shattering impact. In 2008 the federal government made a formal apology to all First Nations people and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"Survivors are telling their truths," Oikawa says. "At a public education initiative last year, representatives from the churches were there, too. The first residential school was in Mission, B.C. in 1863 and the last school in B.C. closed in 1986." Oikawa says there are an estimated 14,000 survivors of the residential school system in B.C. alone. "We can educate our members about these facts and support the reconciliation work."

Poverty is another hardship for Aboriginal women, pushing them into high-risk situations, including homelessness and the sex trade industry. "Women of colour and Aboriginal women are not getting full pay," Oikawa adds. "Aboriginal women face gender and racial discrimination. It's a double battle." Statistics confirm this, as the average annual income for an Aboriginal woman is $13,300, compared to $18,200 for Aboriginal men and $19,350 for non-Aboriginal women.

"We support First Nations initiatives within our union and we encourage participation," Oikawa says. "The union provides a safe, welcoming place to express concerns. It's about building trust, which is a process. We don't assume we know the answers and there is still more to do. The union is strengthened when all members are stronger."

"We are all sisters and an attack against one woman is an attack against us all," Oikawa believes. "We think we don't have power but when we get together, we do."

"I would hear that the union is bad because it's an institution like the government. I knew nothing about it. When I became a nurse, I was placed into a union. I had no choice and I was angry. But my husband was excited that I was in the Public Service Alliance of Canada. He said they recognized who we are. But I had been traumatized. It takes years of recovery. I had shunned who I was. It is still painful to admit this. It is important to educate non-Aboriginal people and our own people. We must tread carefully because we are all born into a racist society. It is a systemic problem."
Sandra Lockhart

Darla Leard is Metis and a Canadian Labour Congress representative for the Prairie region. She was on the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's Aboriginal Committee in 2001 when it commissioned the development of the course "Unionism on Turtle Island." The committee worked closely with designers Barb Thomas and D'Arcy Martin and the result was a ground-breaking course that's offered in a variety of versions at various union educationals across Canada. Leard is now one of many facilitators of the course. She emphasizes that the development of the course involved many other activists, such as Bill Anderson and Don Moran, just to name a few.

"Turtle Island" is what, traditionally, First Nations people called North America, before the Europeans arrived. "There are many variations of the story, depending on where you are from," says Leard. "But the point is, 'Turtle Island' and the original peoples were here long before the Europeans, and that's really where we start from in the course."

"We break down assumptions by examining cultural values - both union values and Aboriginal - in order to experience another way of seeing, being and doing," says Leard. "By exploring the history, we aim to have participants recognize the impact of colonization on Aboriginal peoples, in order to create a new understanding within the labour movement."

As the course description explains, the training was originally "designed for non-Aboriginal workers who want to learn more about Aboriginal issues and who want to work in solidarity with their First Nations brothers and sisters." However, over time, many Aboriginal union members expressed an interest in taking the course, which only helped build its popularity. "We knew our course was validated at that point," says Leard. "It meant a lot to know that our Aboriginal sisters and brothers wanted to participate, too."

At the SFL's annual Prairie School for Union Women, a version of the course, called "Union Women on Turtle Island," is frequently one of the workshops offered. In this course, says Leard, "participants explore both the historical role of Aboriginal women and then more contemporary issues and, finally, aim to work towards strategies to build sisterhood."

"There can be misconceptions," Leard observes. "We discovered people who lived their whole lives in Saskatchewan and knew nothing about Aboriginal people. These workshops really started to break down barriers between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people."

Leard acknowledges that trade unions have not always been inclusive, but points out that it was oppressive government policies over generations that laid the groundwork. She also points out that many Aboriginal women have not been in the workforce very long, and so have not had a long history of union participation. "Aboriginal people were excluded from segments of society. But the demographics have changed. The faces of our unions are changing. There is more diversity," she says. "And, in fact, unions have a long history of fighting racism. Equality for all is fundamentally what unions believe in."

Leard says the Aboriginal committee supports both the broader issues in society, such as health care, the long-gun registry and pensions, and also focusses on issues that have a direct impact on Aboriginal people, such as access to clean water on reserves, poverty, and violence against women.

"We need to ask what our collective responsibility is," says Leard. "How can we support Aboriginal women and the community? How can we bring the bigger issues to the local level?" Leard says significant changes have been made within unions to make Aboriginal issues part of their mandate. "After hundreds of years of systematic discrimination, it is our duty to help rectify these problems."

Women make up 54 per cent of the CLC membership, Leard points out, and Aboriginal women are the fastest growing segment. "Aboriginal women are getting more education and are in greater numbers in the workforce," she says. "They are a force to be reckoned with. The mindset has changed. Aboriginal women are our next leaders. I see such potential. Historically, they were the leaders - the keepers of the fire. After 500 years of resistance, these women are rising up and getting to positions of power."

"When I got involved in PSAC's North Aboriginal People's Committee I started to understand unions. A collective agreement is like a treaty. PSAC is supportive of treaties, land claims and employment equity. People have to understand that we are all treaty people. We are putting our nationhood at risk if this isn't acknowledged (by Canadians) Life doesn't start and stop at work - we are part of society. We have to support all people moving forward to achieve human rights. This got me involved in my union. I can educate within my union and in society."
Sandra Lockhart

When Gladys Radek and Bernie Williams put on their walking shoes and left Vancouver in 2008, they had two stories to deliver to the Prime Minister. Radek's story was about the loss of her niece, who disappeared in 2005 along Highway 16 in northern British Columbia (known as the Highway of Tears), and Williams' was of the murder of her mother and two sisters. Arriving in the capital city some months later along with supporters, they had gathered hundreds of stories from families of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.

"It was the pain of the families that got to me," Radek says, "and the fact that nothing has happened to bring justice to the victims. Even on the holidays this year, I talked to a family member who said to me: 'I've gone through my entire life savings to keep up the public awareness of my daughter's case.'"

"Women and children need our own healing centres," Radek says. "We know how to look after ourselves. We just need the opportunity to do so. Children of missing and murdered women are at a loss and need a place to go to meet others and to know they are not alone."

Radek wants more effective social safety nets to assist women and children in poverty. She says Aboriginal women experience greater risks when they move to cities. "They fall between the cracks," she says. "They can lose their children; they can lose their lives."

The walk had 13 ongoing participants, Radek says, with more women joining and leaving the walk at different points along the Vancouver-Ottawa route. "It was a community-driven effort. Funds were used for gas, food and accommodation. The unions were great, providing campsites and hotel accommodations for us. There were elders and children on the walk, too."

These determined women gathered stories and pictures from the families of victims along the way and brought a significant amount of data to Parliament Hill.

And what was the Prime Minister's reaction? "It was a zero response," Radek says. But she also points out that some politicians, at all levels, have been supportive. At the root of the overall inaction, Radek believes, is racism and classism. "Aboriginal women are not loved and valued. We are vulnerable targets," she says, adding: "We are not afraid to use the word 'genocide.'"

Radek is also critical of the government's withdrawal of funds to Sisters in Spirit, an important group building a database of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. "What more can we do to bring attention to these crimes?" Radek says. "Thousands of family members across Canada have been affected."

Radek is a believer in coalitions and building bridges. She points to the recent success of including Vancouver police in the planning process for the annual Valentine Day vigil for the murdered and missing women of the Downtown Eastside. "Maybe they will understand what we are doing instead of seeing this as a protest," she says.

Radek says another positive initiative is Sisterwatch, a police tip line in the city's Downtown Eastside. More public phones have also been installed and notices of missing women are posted in public locations. All these strategies build bridges between the community and the police, Radek says.

Plans are underway for another walk this year. The paths to the capital will be expanded, Radek says, to include walkers from the far North and the Maritimes. Ongoing information about the Walk 4 Justice is available on Facebook. Meantime Radek has been recognized for her work, voted among the top 10 Champions of Change in a Canada-wide contest co-sponsored by CBC News.

Radek's heart is with the people she is fighting for and she appreciates all the individuals and groups, including trade unions, who assist in this work. "A huge thank-you to all supporters helping us to give family members of victims a voice," Radek says.

"I am still carrying internalized racism. I want to clarify this, too: as Aboriginal people, our women have specific issues. If you harm one person, you harm everyone. This is our holistic way of seeing. Women are life-givers and keepers of our culture. Once a woman's heart is down, the whole nation is down."
Sandra Lockhart

A member of the Nisga'a Nation, Christine Stewart says her union has given both her as an individual and First Nations people in B.C. in general much support, but the fight isn't over. "We need to keep moving forward, she says, "and look at how race impacts on grievances, bargaining and social justice work." Stewart is a high school counsellor in Vancouver and a long-time activist with the B.C. Teacher's Federation. Stewart is also one of the first Aboriginal teachers elected to the BCTF's executive committee.

"When I started as a support worker in the classroom, I witnessed my colleagues not being treated well by teachers," Stewart says. "The racism was intense." But since those early days in the elementary school system, Stewart has seen a lot of positive changes. She has played a role, including a four-year BCTF staff position as the Aboriginal administrative officer.

"Race and class are at the centre," Stewart believes. "We have to really work through issues and support and learn in a respectful way." She feels it is so important for people to see each other not just with their eyes, but with their hearts, too.

Stewart believes education is a critical component to strengthening Aboriginal communities. "My grandparents never finished high school," she says. Education is key for them."

The BCTF has developed numerous First Nations resource materials for teachers. As well, the teachers' union has an Aboriginal advisory committee and the Aboriginal Education Association, a specialist group of teachers. The federation's overall policy aims to integrate the objectives of Aboriginal education into union structures and practices.

Stewart praises the second signings of the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreements, a series of educational goals created through a collaborative partnership between Aboriginal communities and school districts, including local teacher unions. (These agreements are available online.) Decision-making and goal-setting are shared to meet the educational needs of Aboriginal students, including making them feel safe and respected.

Stewart says Aboriginal women on the West Coast have always had leadership positions, coming from matrilineal societies. "I used to argue with my grannies and aunts that the way they functioned was feminist," she says. "Aboriginal women are strong. We care about our kids and want the best for them."

"My union recognizes who we are as Aboriginal women in Canada. We need allies - this is a key word for us. We want our allies to co-exist with us. Too many groups have been providers rather than allies. We know how to help ourselves. Advocacy keeps us centred as women. We keep our balance with men and are allies with them, too. Our work is for the whole. We don't break it up."
Sandra Lockhart

Ellen Woodsworth is on the outside looking in as a concerned non-Aboriginal woman. But, as a Vancouver city councillor with an extensive background as a social activist, she has listened keenly to First Nations' concerns. Woodsworth believes municipal governments have a responsibility to support status and non-status First Nations people. "We can help with job training programs, hiring policies and human rights initiatives," she says. "At the National Conference for Women Transforming Cities, we have discussed how Aboriginal women are targeted and discriminated against."

Woodsworth supports the demand for an inquiry into missing and murdered women and says people must continue to show up for the annual February 14 vigil. "We, as a city, need to get police to support the concerns of Aboriginal women. We need to use our full resources to fund Aboriginal women's organizations and support affirmative action in hiring."

Several reasons account for the vulnerability of Aboriginal women in Vancouver, Woodsworth says. "They are women, they are Aboriginal, they are poor, and they are separated from their communities. These women gravitate to the Downtown Eastside because there is already a community there. But,unfortunately, they are also preyed upon."

"Aboriginal women have been outspoken about the violence they experience. They have led the call and organized marches," Woodsworth adds. "They are the leadership."

She says Aboriginal women have also taken the lead on issues of clean water, affordable housing and poverty. "If we pay attention to these issues, this will be better for all women. It is the responsibility of government and unions to listen and respond to what Aboriginal women are saying."

"We have been lobbying the federal government to make National Aboriginal Day an official holiday for all Aboriginal people. Federal employees should not have to negotiate for this. We have also been campaigning with Sisters in Spirit. We also campaign for childcare and housing. We have been involved with the Status of Women Standing Committee. In the North, Aboriginal languages are recognized. March is Aboriginal Language Month here in the North West Territories. You cannot recognize a language without culture. This opens a door for us."
Sandra Lockhart

Positioned in Ottawa, the heart of political power in Canada, Patty Ducharme believes more women, including Aboriginal women, need to become involved in government. The Ottawa-based trade unionist has made many trips
"to the hill" to protest on behalf of Aboriginal women's rights. Ducharme also happens to be a Metis, and national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"We have to make room for people to participate at all levels," Ducharme says. "From the number 2 seat in my union I still see people marginalizing people." She says it is to a union's detriment when members stereotype and don't see all a person can contribute.

"Unions are one of the last democratic institutions left," Ducharme asserts. She accuses the current Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper of discouraging, rather than encouraging, citizen participation.

Ducharme urges unions and other institutions to make space for Aboriginal women; provide the tools and training; become good listeners; and to respect the process. "PSAC is doing that," she says, "and so are some other unions."

Among PSAC initiatives are regionally based Aboriginal peoples' circles. In December 2010 members marched on Parliament to support Sharon McIvor's fight to eliminate gender discrimination in the Indian Act. "We also participated in vigils conducted by Sisters in Spirit," Ducharme says. The union also pushes for employment equity practices, even within its own structure. "We have to be a good employer, too," Ducharme says.

"First Nations children on reserves receive $3,000 less funding per student than their provincial counterparts," Ducharme notes. "It's similar with health care." Letters, petitions and protests are some of the ways the Public Service Alliance of Canada is bringing these issues to the government's attention.

"We shouldn't accept the wage disparity for Aboriginal women," Ducharme says. "We all have to take responsibility. There is still a huge amount of work to be done."

"There is a power greater than ourselves. We have a protocol: when we open and close our meetings we invite elders to pray. We don't want to continue the cycle of hurt. We believe in a reliance on the creator at our meetings. We also acknowledge the traditional territories we are in and encourage our union to do this, too."
Sandra Lockhart

Janet Nicol is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and regular blogger.