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Rights activism more important than ever, conference hears

Human Rights Conference 2016 - New Realities, Different Directions

“The best response to the rise of hate is to fight harder for the good.”

So said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas as he opened the fourth biennial OPSEU Human Rights Conference this weekend. In a comment on the recent U.S. election, Thomas said Republican candidate Donald Trump had “tapped into racism, homophobia, islamophobia, and hopelessness. He made it acceptable and encouraged people to scapegoat these communities.”


OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas talks about creating spaces where important and difficult conversations around human rights to happen.

But events like the OPSEU conference offered hope in the face of despair, he said. “We need to create these spaces everywhere, because it’s in these spaces that we as a whole society can grow and prosper.”

The keynote speaker at the conference was Renu Mandhane, Ontario’s Human Rights Commissioner. She spoke of the work everyone can do, and must do, to promote an equal society, “where everyone’s human rights are a lived reality.


OPSEU Provincial Human Rights Committee guiding participants through the conference.

“The labour movement,” she noted, “was a product of people standing up for human rights – things many of us take for granted, and things too many people still struggle towards.”


Keynote speaker, Renu Mandhane, Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, talks about how participants can take up the fight for human rights in all aspects of life.

Mandhane also noted that many people think they live in a post-discrimination world when it comes to work. But the numbers – especially those relating to disability in the workplace – suggest the opposite, she said. Over the past few years, about 75 per cent of human rights complaints in Ontario (about 2,000 a year) have been work-related. She urged members to continue the important union work of advocating for workers and their rights, especially workers with disabilities.

Following Mandhane, migrant rights activist Syed Hussan gave an empowering talk on the intersections between workers’ and migrants’ rights.


Migrant rights activist Hussan Syed discusses the need to "raise the floor" for all workers.

Hussan pointed out that a staggering number of migrant workers are exempted from basic labour protections under the Employment Standards Act, and a large number of these workers are low-wage, racialized immigrant workers. Challenging all those present, Hussan spoke of how the fight for migrant workers’ rights is everyone’s fight.

“It’s about raising the floor,” he said. “If we don’t fight against the government’s treatment of migrant workers, how long until it’s us they target?”


Hip hop artist Mohammad Ali raps about race, class, and the immigrant experience.

Socialist hip hop artist Mohammad Ali gave a lively performance in the afternoon. Heads nodded along as he spoke of his experience as a racialized immigrant. He spoke of what it’s like trying to get a job with a name that hints at non-whiteness. He also highlighted the false promises made by our political leaders, singling out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his yet-unmet promise of ensuring access to post-secondary education for Indigenous youth.

Ali ended on a positive note, however. “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power,” he said. He echoed other conference presenters, reminding participants that, “we came here to learn, but the real work starts when we go back on Monday morning.”


Participants listened intently and nodded their heads along as Ali rapped about current issues.

Both Saturday and Sunday brought workshops on human rights and labour activism, where participants expanded their knowledge of human rights, labour rights, and global solidarity. Discussions exposed stereotypes, biases, and systemic issues while providing tools for responding in the community, workplace, and in the union.


Members of OPSEU Provincial Human Rights Committee pose with President Thomas, Vice-President Eduardo (Eddie) Almeida, and Executive Board Member liason Glen Archer.

Saturday night was film night. Delegates watched Pride, a dramatic film set in the 1980s, when British LGBTQ activists joined forces with striking coal miners to fight back against a Conservative government that was attacking them both.

Activists mark Transgender Day of Remembrance

November 20 marked the Transgender Day of Remembrance. The Day memorializes transgendered people who have lost their lives as a result of transphobia. It also brings attention to the violence and discrimination the transgendered community still faces.

At the OPSEU Human Rights Conference, Morgen Veres, Region 4 representative on the Provincial Human Rights Committee and Rainbow Alliance arc-en-ciel, spoke of her own journey. She talked of the myriad barriers facing transgendered people, in Canada and around the world.


Morgen Veres gives a frank and moving talk on the global fight for transgender rights.

Veres spoke of what it is like to be a person trying to navigate a complicated system of mental health practitioners and surgeons. She told how much work it was to legally change one’s name. She detailed the experience of transgendered people in remote communities, where access to supports and procedures is limited or non-existent. She pointed out how this pushes some people to risk their lives in pursuit of a body they feel comfortable in. For example, silicone parties, where participants do in-home plastic surgeries, are still happening across the globe.


Veres received a standing ovation from conference participants by the end of her moving talk.

While recognizing that Canada is ahead of the curve in terms of transgender rights, there is still much to be done to make every space a safe place for everyone.

Following her talk, Veres projected pictures of transgendered people who have lost their lives to transphobia. The entire room fell silent as participants read the names and looked at the faces of those lost.

The conference ended with the Travelling Song, performed by Krista Maracle, Chair of OPSEU’s Indigenous Circle.


OPSEU's Indigenous Circle closes out the conference with a performance of the Travelling Song.