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Labour Views: The Role of Unions in Reconciliation

Sep 27, 2023

September 30 is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. How individuals choose to observe this day is shaped by that person’s experience of Canada.

For example, it may be a day to reflect, to grieve, or to take action. Wearing an orange shirt is a simple and significant way to acknowledge this day, but it is also important to follow up on these gestures of solidarity with meaningful actions.

Unions are no exception. The labour movement as a whole but also all members of a union have an important role – and responsibility – to ensure that Indigenous members feel safe and supported at work.

While we still have a long way to go, the Union of Northern Workers has been taking steps to improve how it represents Indigenous members. We must consider how our union encourages and supports Indigenous members to succeed within the union by getting involved and being elected to leadership positions.

Equity has long been one of the key principles of our union, and as Equity members, Indigenous workers have a designated representative on the union Executive through the UNW Equity Vice President.

The purpose of equity in the labour movement is to remove artificial barriers that prevent workers from succeeding. The overall goal is to ensure that a workforce (or union) accurately represents the population it serves.

According to the NWT Bureau of Statistics, approximately half the NWT population identifies as Indigenous. The last GNWT Public Service Report (2021-22) states that only 29 percent of public service workers identify as “Indigenous Aboriginal”.

Lately the GNWT has made a lot of noise about its commitment to Indigenous workers and steps they’re taking to make the public service more representative of the NWT population. On paper, the policies and programs they’ve developed seem to make some progress.

However, as a union, we’ve seen time and time again how these policies and programs are either ignored by employers, or implemented in a way that actually harms Indigenous workers. And unless an employer policy violates the articles of a collective agreement, legislation, or human rights, there isn’t much a union can do other than lobby for change.

The issue we commonly face with the GNWT is that policies and programs are created and destroyed at the whim of a department or minister and are not protected by legislation.

This is why it’s important to use collective bargaining to press for language in collective agreements that acknowledges and protects the rights and entitlements of Indigenous workers. We all have a responsibility to current and future Indigenous members to use our collective strength to work toward decolonizing collective agreements.

Most collective agreements include language and structures that were originally designed based on European traditions and customs, such as definitions of family and designated holidays, to name a few.

At the bargaining table, the Union has struggled with trying to convince employers to expand definitions of family that include relatives that wouldn’t be considered for bereavement or caregiver leave under more modern colonial definitions. This might include family gained through cultural adoption or acknowledgement of different types of family members living in one household.

Indigenous communities also may have culturally specific ceremonies to attend, or traditional cultural activities that require time away from work. There has been a push by unions across Canada – including the UNW here in the NWT – to include paid cultural leave in collective agreements so that Indigenous members are able to participate in these important events without giving up vacation days or taking unpaid leave.

Surprisingly, we have seen a lot of push-back on these types of proposals during bargaining. While policies and programs are waved around as proof that they care about Reconciliation, the sad reality is that when it comes to protecting these measures in a collective agreement, most employers are more concerned about dollars and cents than meaningful action. Lip service quickly turns to excuses.

Money that could go toward adding paid time off or extending family benefits is instead spent fighting members at the bargaining table.

But the UNW remains hopeful for change. There’s an election coming up, and those who are elected to serve in the next Legislative Assembly will be the ones who ultimately approve the GNWT’s bargaining mandate. If you are wondering how you as an NWT resident can take meaningful action toward Reconciliation, making it an election issue is a great place to start.

Many prospective and some returning candidates have already identified gaps in the territorial government’s approach to Reconciliation within the workplace, and we look forward to working with the next set of MLAs to achieve positive and meaningful change through our collective agreements.

We all have a role to play in Reconciliation.  The UNW – as a collective and as individual members – will continue to do our part to engage, listen, and act.