CUPE Ontario is proud to celebrate February as Black History Month and recognize it as a time to reflect on the enormous and ongoing contributions of Black communities in our province and in the labour movement. It is also an occasion to reaffirm our commitment to carrying out the work of racial justice and to our collective and ongoing battle against systemic anti-Black racism and discrimination.
The theme for Black History Month 2024 is “Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build.” The theme celebrates the contributions and accomplishments of Black Canadians and Black folks living in Canada and embraces hope for the future. The theme further aligns with the final year of the International Decade for People of African Descent, which recognizes that the human rights of people of African descent must be respected and protected.
We see the future taking shape at CUPE Ontario, where we celebrate the growing emergence of Black leaders in our union. We are fortunate to have as our inspiration CUPE Ontario’s Secretary-Treasurer Yolanda McClean. Yolanda made history as the first Black woman to be elected to that position, has been an integral member of Ontario’s labour movement for decades, and encourages others unflaggingly in their activism. We are also proud of Yolanda’s longtime leadership role as president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Canada.
The work of CUPE Ontario’s Racial Justice committee, chaired by Valerie Joseph, also keeps us alive to the goals for fostering inclusion and equality for Black members of CUPE. Whether through sponsorship of the Racial Justice and Human Right conference, webinars like The Impact of COVID-19 on Black Women, or joyful participation in Carnival events across the province, the committee’s work challenges anti-Black racism and champions equity for all racialized members.
We have seen a new group of Black leaders come into their own through CUPE Ontario’s Women in Leadership Development (WILD) program. WILD is the first of its kind in our union: a program that has equipped 15 Black, racialized and Indigenous women to take on leadership roles in our union. This program, approved and supported by CUPE Ontario’s membership and by CUPE National, has been an unqualified success. We look with pride at the real successes of the first cohort of WILD graduates; all are enriching our union through their activism, joining CUPE Ontario provincial committees, sitting on their local executives, and even joining CUPE National staff.
WILD is one of the major milestones of CUPE Ontario’s Anti-Racism Organizational Action Plan (AROAP), which was adopted in 2019. Although the pandemic affected the pace of progress, slowly but surely AROAP is being implemented across our union, as we fulfill members’ mandate to tackle systemic barriers to full participation in our union by Black, Indigenous and racialized workers.
While we prepare for the next incarnation of WILD, CUPE Ontario continues the fight to engage Black members in grassroot organizing and education. This year, spots have been reserved at CUPE Ontario’s spring school to train activists from Black, Indigenous and racialized groups, as a way of ensuring greater participation and representation among these workers and of building capacity to overcome the barriers posed by racism and discrimination.
Finally we see more Black members represented among scholarship recipients, on bargaining councils and sector committees, and in spring and fall schools. The presence of these activists ensures that CUPE Ontario’s overall membership is reflected in these vital union forums and that they are positioned for leadership in our union.
Celebrating Black History Month is an essential part of fighting back against white supremacy; it helps to overcome the lies and the divisions created by the right, which we see embodied day to day in Ford’s Conservatives.
This important work is connected to the understanding that we are all living history each day, and that the achievements being made in CUPE Ontario rely on the strong foundation of so many other Black leaders, members and activists in our union and in our movement. This work must and will continue, not only as a way to honour Black history, but in recognition of the words of African American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
CUPE Ontario will continue to work towards justice, recognition and development, the theme of the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent.