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Labour Views: Decolonizing Collective Agreements

Apr 10, 2024

Back in September, I wrote a Labour Views column about the role of unions in Reconciliation. In that column, which was timed to coincide with National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I stated the importance of following up on gestures of solidarity (such as wearing orange) with meaningful actions.

As activist organizations, unions work year-round to amplify the voices of under-represented workers, and advocate for equity-driven content in collective agreements. As a reminder, equity is not about giving everyone the same; it’s about leveling the playing field.

All organizations should represent the public they serve, and this can be accomplished in part by creating policies and legislation that encourage and support a diverse and culturally balanced workforce.

Collective agreements are legally binding, and this is why it is important to include clear and unmistakable language that supports fair and equitable working conditions.

Believe it or not, when an employer is willing to offer benefits and protections for a diversity of workers, they improve retention and attract more workers!

So, what does all of this have to do with Reconciliation? Over the past several years, unions have been working with Indigenous members towards decolonizing the labour movement. The labour movement was originally founded on principles of fairness and equality for all workers, and union members want to acknowledge and recognize those who faced barriers to joining workplaces in the first place.

When Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 Calls to Action in 2015, it provided a road map for all Canadians to begin the journey of Reconciliation.

Many of the recommendations call on governments to improve services to Indigenous peoples. From a labour perspective, this means ensuring that public service workers developing and delivering these services are not only trained in cultural competency (Call #57), but also that the workforce itself reflects the diversity of the public it serves.

Unionized workers use collective agreements to remove barriers and provide working conditions that encourage and support all workers to succeed on an even playing field. It’s important to remember that gaining provisions that lift some members up do not on push others down.

In terms of negotiations, removing a barrier for one group should not mean placing a new one in front of another. Decolonizing collective agreements should not be a negotiated perk that requires workers to give something up in exchange (that’s what unions call a “concession”). It is an act of Reconciliation that should be a no-brainer for any employer, especially a publicly funded employer.

And yet, our union continues to experience pushback at many bargaining tables against provisions that would improve Indigenous recruitment and retention and provide Indigenous members with working conditions that support and encourage reclaiming, relearning, and reinforcing cultural practices that were taken away.

One of the biggest battlegrounds is cultural leave. Many employers are not opposed to proving cultural leave specific to Indigenous employees, however, the amount of leave they are willing to provide is too often nothing more than a token gesture.

Cultural leave improves recruitment and retention by providing Indigenous workers with the ability to maintain traditional cultural activities and lifestyles without having to lose out on employment opportunities or advancement within the workplace.  It is comparable to and no less important than maternity/parental leave is to parents.  And like parental leave, it actually improves the workplace in the long run.

All over the NWT, participation in community hunts, harvesting camps, and other traditional activities is crucial to staying connected with the land and each other.

These activities allow people to reconnect with family and community after generations of forced separation through residential school systems; rebuild relationships through mutual cultural practices; provide traditional food from the land for their families and community; and support inter-generational healing and overall wellbeing.

Indigenous workers should not have to choose between their job and their culture. If employers are serious about Indigenous recruitment, retention, and Reconciliation, they need to provide the means for a culturally appropriate work-life balance for Indigenous workers.

Reconciliation isn’t just a word to throw around on designated days and in response to stories in the news. It’s a process that we must all move through together to break down barriers and build stronger relationships and workplaces.