PSAC course explores Indigenous issues

Issues facing Indigenous peoples, past and present, were the focus of a 4-½ day course held in Winnipeg on September 26-30.

PSAC course explores Indigenous issues

Issues facing Indigenous peoples, past and present, were the focus of a 4-½ day course held in Winnipeg on September 26-30.

Turtle Island, a term used by some Indigenous tribes to describe the continent of North America, inspired the name of the course. Unionism on Turtle Island brought together 17 PSAC members of varying age groups and experience levels from across the Prairie Region. The focus was Indigenous issues, including the history of oppression and resistance, Aboriginal issues at the bargaining table, creating a representative workforce, and opening the union to Aboriginal activists.

Learning from the past

For Melody Raabe, an Indian Registry Officer at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, this course was an opportunity to discover the history of Indigenous peoples.

“I’m almost ashamed to say that I had no idea about the true history of treaties and didn’t understand the whole story,” she explains. “I think there are a lot of people that are in the same position I was, that don’t understand the importance of the history. This why we need to share knowledge, because with knowledge comes understanding, and from there we can move forward.”

The course incorporated various themes, as well as different teaching methods and learning styles.

“Part of learning is hearing the people’s voices, so we really wanted to harvest the experiences of participants, and our role was to facilitate that journey,” explains Deanna Kimball-Cook, Regional Representative in the PSAC Winnipeg Regional Office and course co-facilitator with Sandra Ahenakew, UNE Local President and PSAC Alliance Facilitator. “Our objective was to have the participants become an agent for change; to encourage them to go out and make change in their communities and workplaces.”

One aspect of the learning focused on over 400 years of history. This was supplemented with the screening of a number of meaningful documentaries, including Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a powerful documentary about the armed, 1990 stand-off between the Mohawks, the Quebec police and the Canadian army in Kanehsatake and the village of Oka, Quebec. Also shown was Six Miles Deep, an inspiring and compelling portrait of a group of women whose actions have led a cultural reawakening in their traditionally matriarchal community.

Intimate and interactive

But it was the sharing of personal experiences and stories that proved the most beneficial for participants who spent time at the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba with two speakers who shared the history and original spirit and intent of the Treaties in Canada.

“It was really impactful for participants,” explains Kimball-Cook. “Participants reinforced what they had learned the day before, but this time they were able to hear it in a story. It was much more meaningful than reading it in a book.”

The personal learning continued when members of the community, Jo Redsky from Roseau River First Nation and Chickadee from Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation, joined the group to speak about their experiences helping in the community when called on by the women or elders. The day’s discussions emphasized learning from a different perspective and understanding that there are always three sides to every story.

United we stand

Marianne Hladun, Regional Executive Vice-President for the PSAC Prairie Region, joined course participants on Saturday, along with Alisha Bigelow and Alex George, PSAC’s National Aboriginal Peoples’ Circle (NAPC) Female & Male Representatives for the Prairies, for a discussion on PSAC campaigns, NAPC and what it means to be an ally in the community.

“As the members introduced themselves to me, they shared the various leadership roles they hold in their local, component or community,” explains Hladun. “It quickly became clear that each and every person around the table has the ability to effect change and that change started when they applied to participate in this course. Their commitment to identify themselves as allies and to share their knowledge can only advance issues facing Indigenous peoples.”

Members had the opportunity to give back by taking up a collection to raise donations for a hand drum feast in November; a youth led and youth organized community gathering to honour the sacred hand drums and feed their spirits. More than $120 was collected, which will be used by the youth to purchase supplies for the event.

On the final day, participants recognized the Sisters in Spirit vigils that happen annually across the country on October 4. No other event in Canada brings so many Aboriginal communities and Canadian citizens together to specifically celebrate, honour and support Aboriginal women and girls. In a moving observance, the participants shared a birthday cake in honour of all residential school survivors and the missing boys, girls, and women who never had a chance to celebrate their birthday.

“It was an emotional 4-½ day journey, but it was a life changing experience for all of us,” says Kimball-Cook. “When you do this kind of course, you give a part of yourself, and I’m honoured that I was able to do that for this group of amazing and thoughtful people.”

Before leaving, participants were tasked with seeking out their local Human Rights Committees and sharing what they learned and the tools they got from the course with those members, and the members within their locals.

“I came away a very different person,” says Raabe. “I was moved, and saddened, but also strengthened and empowered by what I learned. I want to learn more and share more, and be an ally to Indigenous peoples. I feel a responsibility to help them in their healing going forward. We just need to keep going, and never give up.”

A look back

Originally created in 2000 as a response to the labour movement’s growing recognition that Aboriginal workers were the most marginalized in the country, Unionism on Turtle Island was piloted at the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour‘s Summer School in Fort Qu’Appelle. Michael Desautels, PSAC Human Rights & Aboriginal Rights Program Officer, wrote the course with Holly Page, BCGEU Equity and Human Rights Officer/Aboriginal Liaison.

“It was the first gathering of its kind in labour’s history,” explains Desautels.

The course has since taken on a life of it’s own, being adapted to the needs of specific unions or regions. Two of the original participants worked with the SFL’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee to add new elements and update materials, CUPE’s education department has done the same, and PSAC has made changes to the material to use it in leadership training and union courses.

“I’m just glad that the course has life and that more and more the labour movement is making Aboriginal justice a priority in the work we do.”