Their days began at 5:30am. Before breakfast, morning chores included cleaning washrooms, milking cows and sweeping floors. After morning mass and three hours of classes, there was more work to be done. Children prepared meals for the following day, weeded gardens and chopped wood. It was forbidden to speak in their mother tongue or to interact with their siblings. If they were lucky, there were a couple of hours to play and study. Students worked more hours than a full-time worker does today. They had no sick days or weekends off. The youngest among them was five.
For over a century, the Canadian government placed over 150,000 Indigenous children in residential schools where they were subject to forced labour, physical and sexual abuse and starvation. An estimated 6000 died. Taken from their families, often forcibly, a third of these children would never return home. Save-On-Foods member Dulcie August is a residential school survivor: she knows this story too well. “Most of my friends are gone now,” she says. August belongs to the Squamish First Nation and is the sibling of former Squamish Chief Joe Mathias. “My friends committed suicide or got into drugs,” she continues. “They just couldn’t handle remembering anymore.”
Shamefully, the last residential school did not close until 1996 and the destructive legacies of colonization continue to this day. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) called the residential school system a policy of cultural genocide. Established in 2008, the TRC interviewed nearly 7000 residential school survivors. In its final report, delivered seven years later, it explained how the Canadian government accomplished cultural genocide by eliminating Indigenous governments, ignoring Indigenous rights, terminating the treaties and through assimilation causing the erasure of Indigenous people as legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada.
The focus of the TRC was to understand the legacy of the residential school system in order to lay the foundation for reconciliation. Its 94 calls to action are not only an invitation to begin that process: they are an indictment of the inequitable relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous that remains ongoing. For Canada’s First Nations, colonization has not ended.
“We didn’t choose to go live in a reserve,” says Gary Johnson, a shop steward at Safeway in Powell River. “It was the government who put us there.” Johnson belongs to the Gitsan and Carrier bands from the Glen Vowell and Babine Nations, and grew up on a reserve in northern BC.
Along with the residential school system, the reserve system was forced upon the First Nations in British Columbia, a province where the vast majority of land is unceded. That means it was never formally relinquished through the signing of treaties. Aboriginal title is an unresolved issue that causes conflict with settler society over natural resources across Canada. In BC, however, the courts have been decisive in recent years that the government does not have clear title to the land.
A 2014 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada was particularly momentous for Indigenous land rights. The ruling acknowledged the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s entitlement to their ancestral land not signed away in treaties. Today many of the land claims launched by BC’s First Nations are unresolved or abandoned. But shortly after being elected in 2017, the NDP agreed to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signaling its commitment to reconciliation and land recognition.
Respect for Indigenous land is part of reconciliation, says Judy Wilson, Chief of the Neskonlith First Nation. “When you look at reserve creation and how they placed us on 0.2 percent of the land base of Canada, while the Crown assumed their title to 99.8 percent, that was not coexisting with Indigenous people.” Chief Wilson is a leader in land defense against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, a project that proposes to cross her band’s territory without their consent. Despite fierce opposition from the Neskonlith and other First Nations, individuals and community organizations, the pipeline is being pushed by the federal government. “The pipeline threatens our culture, our spirituality and our identity, our way of life,” Chief Wilson told the media at Kinder Morgan’s Annual General Meeting in Texas. “That means, fundamentally, more to us than anything…”
Dispossession of the land is more than a physical loss to Indigenous people. “The essential harm of colonization is that the living relationship between our people and our land has been severed,” writes Taiaiake Alfred in his essay It’s All About the Land. “By fraud, abuse, violence and sheer force of numbers, white society had forced us into the situation of being refugees and trespassers in our own homelands and we are prevented from maintaining the physical, spiritual and cultural relationships necessary for our continuation as nations.”
The colonial legacy of land dispossession surfaces in the labour movement. UFCW 1518’s main office, for example, sits on the traditional territory of the Qayqayt First Nation. A plaque in the foyer offers this recognition. “By acknowledging the history of this land, we recognize the injustice that took place,” says President Ivan Limpright. “It is a small but necessary step toward reconciliation, toward righting a wrong that we ourselves didn’t commit, but that we are all responsible to rectify.”
That’s why UFCW 1518’s meeting rooms have been renamed after the First Nations in regions where many union members live, including Qayqayt, Sto:lo, Tsleil-Waututh, Songhees and Musqueam. Union meetings and events now begin with a territorial acknowledgement and often, a traditional welcome by the Chief of the Qayqayt First Nation, Rhonda Larrabee. “When members come to a union meeting at Qayqayt Hall and hear about the truth of the land, the learning begins, and hopefully, the healing too,” adds President Limpright.
“When the social services people came after my mother passed away, they said we were going to get a good education. They promised we would get looked after every day,” explains August about they day she was taken to residential school. “It was the total opposite. All the work became routine to me at some point. For four years I did everything they said, every day, until my sister got us out of there and showed me a freedom I didn’t know I had.”
According to the TRC, the residential school was also a system of institutionalized child labour. Although the labour movement was instrumental in establishing laws regulating child labour, residential schools were somehow exempt. Education in these institutions was undermined by the significant amount of work children were forced to do. They were in the classroom for half a day and the rest of their time was spent in so-called vocational training: repetitive, unsafe and often unsupervised work that provided little in the way of skills development. Such a regimen fulfilled the purpose of operating the schools on a nearly cost-free basis, but at great expense to First Nations children.
The residential school system inflicted deep emotional and psychological damage on Indigenous children that would be passed down through generations. But that wasn’t the only damning legacy: the theft of educational and economic success of Indigenous people is another lasting scar. The inadequate and abusive learning environments contributed to the poor success rates of First Nations students, many of whom left residential school with no more than Grade 3 achievement — and sometimes without even the ability to read. This, in turn, has led to today’s chronic unemployment or under-employment of Indigenous workers as well as the cycle of poverty and addiction that afflicts many First Nations people.
While there is no consensus as to what reconciliation means, what is certain is that it is everyone’s responsibility, including unionized workers. “The labour movement stands for equality, so it just makes sense to me that our union plays a part in reconciliation,” says Johnson.
As part of its social justice mandate, UFCW Canada is committed to fostering reconciliation in workplaces and communities across the country. Using an established reconciliation framework, the Indigenous Sub-Committee fights for Indigenous justice by celebrating and promoting events aimed at educating workers and the public about First Nations rights and history. One such event is the National Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, which takes place in June in Winnipeg. Organized by UFCW 832, the annual event is an opportunity for Indigenous workers, including members of UFCW 1518, to build solidarity and celebrate their heritage.
Additionally, the sub-committee advocates for policy changes at all levels of government to advance equity for Indigenous workers throughout the country. It also supports other like-minded social justice organizations, such as the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. This work is advanced through campaigns like the one demanding an end to the discrimination of Indigenous children. The online campaign calls upon the federal government to “address the flawed delivery and inadequate funding of health care, education, and other social services for First Nations children.”
At the local level, another way unions advance reconciliation is by organizing Indigenous workers. In 1990, workers at the Vancouver Native Housing Society voted to join UFCW 1518. The society is a non-profit organization that provides affordable housing to the urban Indigenous community. “When we organize First Nations workers and bring the union to Indigenous-dominated workplaces, we bring fairness where it has systemically been lacking,” comments President Limpright. “When we acknowledge their celebrations, we honour their heritage. And when we fight for First Nations people at the level of policy, we address structural inequities that have harmed them for too long. Those are things unions can and should do.”
“I see injustice all over the place,” says Johnson. “Our people get mistreated for being native and it’s because people are biased in their perception of what it means to be Indigenous.” In order for the labour movement to account for its role in colonization, unions need to reevaluate their practices in everything from organizing and hiring to member engagement and education. They also need to ensure they are actively reaching out to First Nations communities in order to foster a better understanding of their needs in the reconciliation process.
“Growing up in school people used to call me a squaw,” recounts Save-On-Foods member and shop steward Anita Letendre. “I didn’t learn until later that was a derogative term for Indigenous people.” Letendre grew up in foster care with little knowledge of her heritage. Nevertheless, she has experienced racialized oppression and prejudice her entire life, including in the workplace: “I worked at a restaurant for a while. One day a customer said to me when I went up to her table, ‘when did they start letting people like you work here? You know, Indian people.’”
UFCW Canada and locals like UFCW 1518 have taken the first steps toward reconciliation, but there is more to be done. “We must continually build opportunities for education and reconciliation into the daily work of the union,” comments President Limpright. “That’s why we invite First Nations people to our union office and our events. That connection, that firsthand learning, is essential if we are to properly address the ongoing ill effects of colonialization.”
President Limpright points to the 2018 Health Care Conference, where members and staff were invited to participate in the KAIROS Blanket Exercise. The interactive workshop brings Indigenous history to life by asking participants to take on the role of First Nations people in Canada. Standing on blankets that represent the land, they watch it slowly disappear before their eyes. With many in tears at the end, participants shared the same disbelief: How could we have not known? More importantly they asked: what can we do now that we do?
After hundreds of years of colonization, reconciliation is sure to take time. Unions are well positioned to lead the way, but the process is not entirely formal or structural; there is personal responsibility as well. “It is in our daily conversations and interactions that our success as a nation in forging a better place will ultimately be measured,” says Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC. “It is what we say to and about each other in public and private that we need to look at changing.”