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A Celebration of black history in OPSEU: Fred Upshaw

Black history month

Michael Hamilton, inSolidarity

February has always been known as Black History Month. Every year we celebrate leaders within the black community who strive to inspire the people and communities around them.

OPSEU is no different. OPSEU has striven to become a more inclusive union that recognizes various races, ethnicities and sexes. The road hasn’t been perfect, but there has been a more conscious effort to allow those who are less fortunate to have a bigger say in the union’s direction. OPSEU, through the work of its equity committees, has made efforts to educate members on its history and how they can become more involved in the labour movement.

The Coalition of Racialized Workers ( CoRW ) held a celebration last month in honour of former OPSEU President Fred Upshaw. Fred served as OPSEU President from 1990 to 1995. He was the first black trade unionist to lead a major Canadian union, and it was a huge step forward for the black community and the labour movement.

Fred always maintained that, although progress was being made within the black community, there was still more work to be done for minorities to feel welcomed within the workforce and society. Fred managed to secure wage increases for public sector employees and was responsible for human rights legislation within OPSEU contracts. Fred’s mandate also included allowing Crown employees to strike, when necessary, and enacting pay equity initiatives across the board.

The event that was held featured various guest speakers whom Fred had inspired directly or indirectly. Peter Thompson, the chair of the CoRW, was the MC for the evening. Peter has been an OPSEU member for the past 30 years and has spoken highly of the influence Fred had on his own career. From there, Attasha Jordan introduced all of the speakers and what their respective backgrounds were.

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas started off the conversation by sharing stories about how Fred had inspired him and was a good friend. He spoke of their days on the board and discussed the impact of Fred’s legacy today. 

Marie Clark Walker, who is the Canadian Labour Council’s (CLC) secretary-treasurer, spoke about the effect Fred had on her and her mother. She said Fred made it his duty to push Marie to be the best, and she is the first African-Canadian woman to be elected as CLC secretary-treasurer.

The gathering also heard from Felicia Samuel, who recently was elected to the executive of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. Felicia spoke of the hard road she travelled to get to the position she is at now and having to overcome the barriers that were placed in her way because of her colour, and that she’s a woman.

Rechev Browne, who is an activist and the creator of the 15 and Fairness campaign, outlined his struggles of being a young black male in today’s society. Butterfly Gopaul, who is also a member of OPSEU and serves in the Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty movement, talked about what it’s like to have to raise children in today’s society and knowing the pressures of being a visible minority. The final speaker, Carlotta Ewing,  who works in the Brampton Courthouse and is also a shop steward, explained the difficulties she has had to overcome in her career.

The speakers all had one thing in common: Even though there have been improvements in the black community, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. All of them were inspired by the work Fred did throughout his career.

I too am a visible minority, and I know how it feels when you are looked down at because of your skin colour. I’ve always tried to have a positive outlook, even though at times it is extremely difficult. I never met Fred Upshaw, but listening to the incredible impact he has had on the labour movement and people keeps me inspired that I am on the right path in life.

Black History Month only happens once a year, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing the work that good people are doing all year round. Be kind to one another and treat people with the same respect that you would like to be treated with. You would be surprised at the difference it can make, not only in the workforce, but in life as a whole.

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