I’ve been deeply moved by the many messages I have received from you following the recent deaths of two very important people in my life – my mother, Marie Thomas, and OPSEU past-President Fred Upshaw. While they were very different people with very different lives, they both played a key role in making me who I am today.
I think that, in everyone’s life, there are people you can never thank enough for how they inspired and moulded you. So indulge me for a moment while I share some observations on these two exceptional people.
My mother had seven children and worked two jobs to keep the family going. I remember her working at a dry cleaners where health and safety were of little concern to the owners. She never complained, never even mentioned it, but I’m certain the conditions there affected her health later in life. Another thing she never spoke of when we were children was her Métis heritage. It had been the source of abuse from her schoolmates and it wasn’t until much later in her life that she could begin to take well-deserved pride in her ancestry. Despite these and other hardships, she had an extraordinary sense of humour and was the most fearless person I have ever known.
I’m sure you can gather how her experiences played into my dedication to the rights of working people and the importance of diversity and the acceptance of all people.
Fred, as many OPSEU members know, was a giant in the Canadian labour movement. He was also a dear friend and my primary mentor. We shared many long drives to union events as he talked about his vision and strategies, and how he got people to work together to get things done. He could spin a great story and somewhere in each one of them was a lesson about what it was to be a leader and an agent of change.
Fred broke colour barriers, led our union through very difficult times, and laid the foundation for the powerful, progressive union we are today. It’s hard to imagine an issue that he didn’t address and make better for members – the right to strike, control of our pension plans, political rights for Crown employees, employment equity, maternity leave, human rights legislation and much more. I marvel at how much he accomplished and think about him whenever it seems like there’s just too much to do.
As different as they were, my mother and Fred shared some very valuable traits. They had an innate ability to recognize what needed to be done and an unwavering dedication to getting it done. They always looked ahead, never wasting time regretting the past. And while they never looked to start a fight, they never let up once a fight began. I hope I have been able to live up to their example.
There’s one other similarity between my mother and Fred that’s particularly relevant in the midst of our current battle against privatization. Both were shepherded through illness, old age and life, with the blessings of public services and systems that touch all of us from birth to death. My mother was in a nursing home in her later life and lovingly cared for by the CUPE members on staff – so I’ll take this opportunity to thank them and all the public sector workers who serve us all so well.
It has been a difficult time, but I take strength from the memories of my mother and Fred, and from the resolve of our 130,000 members. Together, we will continue to do what needs to be done, keep moving forward in the interests of working people, and never give up the fight, no matter what they throw at us.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union