The past is a map to a better tomorrow: International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21)


On March 21st, we join workers across the world in observing the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Established by the United Nations in 1966, this day honours and commemorates the lives lost in the Sharpeville massacre sixty-four years ago. On March 21st, 1960, colonial police open fired on peaceful demonstrators protesting the racist segregationist “pass laws” of apartheid-era South Africa. This open exercise of state violence killed 69 people and injured hundreds more.

This year’s theme, “A Decade of Recognition, Justice, and Development: Implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent,” marks the closing year of the United Nation’s International Decade for People of African Descent. Reflecting on the horrors of yesterday reminds us that when it comes to systemic violence like racism and global anti-blackness, economic and political powers conspire to entrench it. Racial discrimination is not only an injustice we must combat in our workplaces and political arenas, but also an embedded part of the systemic structures and institutions of today.

We call upon all OPSEU/SEFPO members to exercise expansive solidarity when it comes to equity. To reckon with the history of racial discrimination in our workplaces and in Canada is to reckon with interconnected and global systems of oppression.

In South Africa, March 21s­­t is observed as a public holiday, also recognized as Human Rights Day by anti-apartheid activist and the late President of South Africa Nelson Mandela. Canada stands to learn from this commemorative day.

We can see the collusion of power to maintain global systems of oppression laid bare in Canada’s support for the apartheid regime in Israel (Amnesty International). In recent news, South Africa has mounted proceedings against Israeli’s genocidal campaign in Gaza ­­­at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the court ruling has affirmed the harm caused and recommended a ceasefire. Canada, nevertheless, had elected to back Israel through this legal challenge.

The Canadian federal government has also faced a myriad of domestic human rights criticisms and proceedings over the decades concerning the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children in child welfare services. In some provinces, Indigenous youth make up as much as 74% of children in care. Indigenous rights advocates have pointed to this as a perpetuation of the “Sixties Scoop,” the systemic and violent state separation of Indigenous families.

Across Canada, long-standing racist border detention processes and preferential federal immigration policies reinforce racial discrimination with political power. Black and racialized detainees, and African asylum-seekers in particular, face far longer detention periods.

Police-involved deaths have also been on the rise since 2000, disproportionately affecting Indigenous and Black communities. While only 3.5% of the Canadian population, Black people make up nearly 1/10th of the total incarcerated population. Indigenous Peoples make up a third of all incarcerated individuals, while only 5% of the adult population in Canada.

These racial disparities extend to every realm. As trade unionists, we understand that our struggles against healthcare inequity, pay inequity, discriminatory hiring practices, unemployment, and underemployment disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and racialized workers – and are inseparable from the struggle against racism.

As part of this effort to do right by history, OPSEU/SEFPO has newly created and filled seven new Equity Board Seats that will allow the union to meet the member-led demands for diverse representation on the Executive Board. Over a decade in the making, this effort flowed from recommendations from the Social Mapping Project, pushed for and steered by the Coalition of Racialized Workers (CoRW). We are grateful to the work of rank-and-file members in passing the Constitutional Amendment for these seats at 2023 Convention and the Board Equity Committee (BEC) for dedicating countless hours to ensure they are filled through a fair and equitable process. The union welcomes the seven individuals newly elected to our Executive Board and welcomes the Black and Indigenous women amongst them taking their seats.

Change takes time but starts with today – OPSEU/SEFPO is making efforts to address long overdue structural change head-on. In recent years, members have successfully moved changes to OPSEU/SEFPO’s Constitution, adopting the language:

“to actively identify and dismantle anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and all forms of racism and discrimination within its systems and structures so that all members have full access to services and can fully participate in the Union” as an aim/purpose of the Union;

and “mandatory OPSEU/SEFPO training on dismantling anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism and other forms of racism and discrimination” as an obligation of elected leaders within 60 days of taking office.

Education is one necessary road forward towards an anti-racist future. The Dismantling Systemic Racism Program (DSRP)  is now mandatory for all our elected leaders, who can contact their staff representative to arrange access.

On Saturday, March 23rd, 2024, the Coalition of Racialized Workers will host their first round of elections since formally becoming a Committee of OPSEU/SEFPO. This is an opportunity to mobilize Black and racialized members towards shaping progress for the Union and to elect their representatives, as well as a space to explore and discuss critical strategies that will advance the Union’s priorities on dismantling anti-Black racism through sustainable and meaningful change.

These are steps towards unifying our union behind an anti-racist future. We honour today as a call to action for the work to come. As we aspire to a future free of racial discrimination, we must reckon with the fact that global systems of anti-blackness, xenophobia, and religious intolerance will persist so long as policies, borders, and institutions reinforce them.

All of us will be part of history one day – learning from the past is how we make sure that history will be kinder.

In solidarity,

Peter Thompson, Coalition of Racialized Workers (CoRW) Chair

JP Hornick, OPSEU/SEFPO President

Laurie Nancekivell, OPSEU/SEFPO First Vice President & Treasurer