"We want our kids to grow up to become whatever they want to be; to have fulfilling lives and not to be disadvantaged from the beginning," says Mike Ballard, who works as a fishery officer field supervisor for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in Campbell River, B.C. A Métis, Ballard is speaking of the reasons behind the union campaign called "Justice for Aboriginal Peoples - It's Time." Launched by the Public Service Alliance of Canada on last year's National Aboriginal Day (June 21), it is meant to raise public awareness about the issues facing Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and to ensure the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the federal government, is acted upon.
"We are asking for quality of life, as per the UN Declaration," Ballard says. "There are 116 boil-water advisories on reserves. This is because there's no treatment." Ballard says a lack of adequate infrastructure also results in substandard housing and education.
Ballard is a member of Local 20147, the Union of Environment Workers, which is a component of the PSAC. He is also an original member of the PSAC's Aboriginal Peoples' Circle, the 12-member equity group at the heart of the campaign. The circle is comprised of one male and one female member, each pair representing one of six regions in Canada. Members network, attend workshops and conferences and engage in supportive actions in and outside the workplace. The campaign for justice is their campaign.
MAKING THINGS RIGHT
"Canadians need to see the value of First Nations people," says Ballard. "Some of our most vulnerable citizens are from this community." He says the reserve system has created a lot of social and economic problems, at times reflected by the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people incarcerated in Canadian prisons. The only alternative is moving to the city, where many risk getting lost, and don't always fit in. The years of oppression "drag the country down," Ballard observes.
"The world is enchanted by First Nations culture and our contributions in art, traditions, storytelling, history and culture," he says, calling the campaign an opportunity for Canadians to make things right for Aboriginal people. The UN declaration is a hollow promise, unless the federal government implements its contents. "We need to embrace this document," says Ballard.
Joey Dunphy is new to the PSAC's Aboriginal Peoples' Circle. He works with border services in Edmundston, New Brunswick and has been a PSAC member for about four years, in the Customs and Immigration (CIU) component. Dunphy is a Maliseet, speaks fluent French and English, and says his newborn son motivates his desire to better the lives of Aboriginal people. "I want the government to respect the UN declaration and be held accountable so that my son has the same possibilities as other Canadians."
HEALTHY COMMUNITIES ON ALL RESERVES
While some reserves function well because of positive economic development, Dunphy also speaks about those with boil-water advisories. "We want healthy communities on all reserves," he says. "The government helps Third World countries with donations. We should look within Canada."
Dunphy is involved in both PSAC and his employer group, supporting diversity and equity hiring. "Unions are there to help," Dunphy says, but observes that not all Aboriginal people see it this way. He hopes to change this perception. "I plan to network within the Atlantic region. I will be a contact for whatever members need and will work for members and non-members of PSAC on Aboriginal issues." As well, Dunphy says there are plans to organize local band office staff. "Some First Nations band offices change and there are mass firings," he says. "A union offers job security, which is important in today's world."
He says the PSAC National Aboriginal Peoples' Conference in Yellowknife, held in the fall of 2011, was amazing. "I got to meet co-workers from across the country. Some are older than me but want the same things: a better environment, more jobs and equal treatment."
SPIRITUALITY INTO POLITICS
Sandra Lockhart isn't only interested in bread-and-butter union issues. Social justice also motivates this Cree woman who moved to Yellowknife several years ago, and who is now the coordinator of the Aboriginal Wellness Program at Stanton Territorial Health Authority. A member of Union of Northern Workers Local 11 (PSAC), Lockhart is also the Circle's northern representative. "We need to bring more equality into our lives," she says, "and work is part of our lives."
Lockhart is sceptical about the federal government supporting Aboriginal peoples' rights. "We have no equity hiring in the North," she says. "We have 'priority hiring,' and there's shaming among Aboriginal people if you get hired this way. Those who do get in have entry-level jobs and may not be as assertive as they could be, so there are few promotions."
"There is not enough Aboriginal [union] involvement in the North, in comparison to our numbers," Lockhart also observes.
Lockhart believes keeping one's balance as an activist is an ongoing challenge. "I rely on cultural teachings," she says. "I bring spirituality into my politics. We need to talk about the pain of growth in the union."
A topic at the Yellowknife conference was "environmental racism." Lockhart explains the unique term, step-by-step. "All our relationships are interdependent," she says. "We are responsible to everyone. The earth nurtures us and we need to give back. If we don't, there are consequences."
And then there is capitalism. "When we push back against it, people say, 'Oh those Aboriginals,'" she says. "We need to think about sustainability, but our society doesn't think far ahead. When we say 'don't touch our water' or 'stop developing on our land,' it [the debate] becomes based on race rather than sustainability. We have to get mad to get people to listen, even though we have presented the facts."
"The earth has the medicines we need and if we get sick the earth will provide, but we are slaughtering the earth," Lockhart says. "It all began with land and now it's about resources. We are signing international agreements giving away our jobs and resources."
"Our rights are only as strong as our responsibility," she says. "PSAC is taking ownership. We are pushing back, not just fighting back. We are holding ourselves accountable."
"We have to rock the boat, not just inside our own union, but inside ourselves," Lockhart believes. "In poverty-stricken countries, Aboriginal people are getting killed for standing up for their beliefs. Here, residential schools took our language; environmental racism is about taking our source of life. We are pushing back for humanity as a whole."
SPIRIT IN A MATERIAL WORLD
"When we have to declare that our lives are sacred, we are in trouble," adds Lockhart. "Everyone is indigenous to the earth. If we got rid of the 'indigenous problem,' who would take our place?" she asks, then proceeds to answer her own question. "There is a movement to get rid of the messenger, but we would end up living without spirit in a material world."
Lockhart says, "We need to shift from 'I' to 'we.' All living things need to be protected -- one can't live without the other."
Alisha Bigelow, a member of Union of Taxation Employees Local 50021 (UTE/PSAC), has been a Prairie representative of the circle since the equity group began. A Cree woman, she lives and works in Winnipeg. Bigelow says, "It is our time to stand up for issues important to us." She, too, is campaigning for clean and accessible water for all Aboriginal communities. Bigelow has been filling bottles with "unclean" water and delivering them to Members of Parliament. She includes her contact information on the bottle label, with the words: "Let's have a drink!"
VOICES ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Reaching out to people who are interested in Aboriginal people's issues and who truly want to see a change is a primary objective of the campaign, according to Bigelow. "There is more to us then what people see in the streets. We have talents, we have great advice to give, and we have culture and ceremonies that we share, nation to nation," she says.
Bigelow sees distinct cultural and traditional differences among the Aboriginal peoples in the six regions represented by circle members. "We combine our knowledge to get the message out, understanding we are Aboriginal people with not necessarily the same concerns across the country, but with a voice that can reach across the country, whether it is my campaign or someone else's."
Bigelow was one of several union members who took part in the video made for the campaign "Justice for Aboriginal Peoples -- It's Time." "All Aboriginal people deserve a voice and I believe this video shows the reality and the faces of Aboriginal people willing to work and campaign for their rights and justice," she says. "As one of Canada's largest unions, I am proud we started this campaign."
NO JUSTICE FOR MISSING WOMEN
Marion McLarty, a Métis from Saskatchewan, has lived in six different parts of Canada, including Newfoundland. She now works for Parks Canada in Vancouver, and has been an activist in PSAC for seven years as a member of Union of National Employees Local 20150 (UNE), a PSAC component. She is in her second three-year term with the circle.
"The work in the circle is fantastic," McLarty says. "We supported the Sharon McIvor court case. I was able to thank her in person for her struggle." McIvor challenged a discriminatory section of the Indian Act, which disenfranchised Aboriginal women who married non-Aboriginals. Her long fight, which began in the 1980s, continues says McLarty, and the circle will continue to lend their support to her.
"I have been active with women's issues for a long time," McLarty says, "including the issue of the Downtown Eastside missing and murdered women." McLarty says the disproportionate violence committed against Aboriginal women and the lack of justice is a major concern. "I lived in Ontario for 10 years and witnessed [serial killer, Paul] Bernardo's arrest and trial. Seeing the public outcry and attention given to the Bernardo trial and then coming here and seeing the lack of justice on missing women when people knew who was involved -- it was disgusting."
McLarty is critical of the ongoing missing women inquiry in B.C., which is following the trial and sentencing of serial killer Robert Pickton. She is particularly critical of the lack of funding made available to women's advocacy groups, compared to funding given to the RCMP. Several women's groups have boycotted the inquiry as a result.
DEFINING OUR ISSUES
"Aboriginal rights within unions are also a big battle," McLarty says. "The number of Aboriginals in attendance in all unions is small."
There are special hiring policy agreements for Aboriginals within select departments of the federal government. But this can create a problem in itself, with statistics showing that 75 per cent of Aboriginals hired by the federal government are only within these sections. "This creates a ghetto," McLarty says, "with few opportunities to move to other departments." "Most positions are entry level with low pay, and Aboriginals don't see a future. They experience racism, and may also feel they only got hired because of the special hiring policy and have the perception they are working with the enemy. They feel they are working for our colonizers; working for people implementing programs that have been so destructive."
McLarty says the circle tries to reach out to Aboriginal members, offering regional training courses on the topics such as trade unions, and defining Aboriginal voices. She says the union has also developed a program on Aboriginal awareness for all members. McLarty has served as a co-facilitator, leading discussions on the history of colonization; the impact of residential schools; and general Aboriginal awareness. She says this current campaign is for everybody, and is about making the government accountable to the UN Declaration. "We want restored funding for 'Sisters in Spirit,'" McLarty also says, referring to the women's group which has, among other actions, advocated on missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
"We want an end to the need for boil-water advisories on reserves. We have had to fight when we leave our land and it is hard to not be assimilated. We are facing looming cuts to Aboriginal programs and transfer payments to bands, which we need to maintain our infrastructure."
"B.C. doesn't have historic treaties," McLarty points out. "Conditions on reserves, especially in the Interior, include the basic need for telecommunication." As a result of urban and rural disparities, many Aboriginal people are being forced off their land, she adds.
"We need to define our issues, not have others define them," McLarty says. "We want self-determination and self-government. This campaign is good timing."
Janet Nicol is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and regular blogger.