OPSEU/SEFPO proudly represents thousands of members identifying as Black or of African Caribbean descent. In part one of this Black History Month series of OPSEU/SEFPO Talk, First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida sits down with three Black OPSEU/SEFPO activists – Coleen Houlder, Selvin (Junior) Lennon, and Megan Carter.

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Almeida 00:01: Hello everyone, and welcome to OPSEU/SEFPO Talk! 

I am Eddy Almeida. I am your First Vice-President and Treasurer of OPSEU/SEFPO and we are proud to represent thousands of members that identify as Black or of African Caribbean descent.  

Black members at OPSEU/SEFPO are leading the way and making sure their voices are heard in Sectors, Divisions and committees.  Joining us today, we have three such active members who are contributing to the betterment of our union’s work and we’d like to welcome Coleen Houlder, Selvin Junior Lennon and Megan Carter. Welcome folks.

Houlder, Lennon, Carter 00:44: Thank you.

Almeida 00:45: So Coleen Houlder works at the Ministry of Attorney General as a law clerk. Coleen was the Chair of the OPS Unified Bargaining team and Coleen is also the MERC Vice Chair and she is the President of her Local 524.

Selvin Junior Lennon works at the Ministry of Transportation and is the shop steward for Local 542. Selvin Junior is actively involved at the Region 5 Coalition of Racialized Workers.

Megan Carter is a member of our CAAT-S team and currently the EERC Vice Chair. Megan is also President of her local of 557. 

So thank you Coleen, Megan and Selvin Junior for taking the time to be here today and Happy Black History month. 

Houlder, Lennon, Carter 01:34: Thank you, appreciate it.

Almeida 01:37: So we’re going to start off. Coleen we’re put you in the hot seat first. So why is Black History Month important and why is it recognized in February? 

Houlder 01:47: Eddy, thank you so much for that stellar introduction and thanks for once again putting me on the hot seat. It seems to be the seat that I’ve been put on a lot lately, so here we go. I think though, Black History Month is very important because we are all black Canadians. We all came from somewhere else but we are black Canadians. Our forefathers have built this country that we now call home. Now, I mean, my great grandmother was a slave, I’m told but quite frankly I didn’t learn a lot from my great grandmother so I had to learn about black history here in Canada once I became an adult. Believe it or not because the schools that I went to didn’t really teach me any of that, right. So I find that this month allows us some time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of black Canadians to Canada’s culture and its history, ok. It’s an important month because it plays a large part in shaping the country’s heritage and identity since like the early 1600’s. Now we’ve made sacrifices going really far back. War of 1812, I can go on and on but I know we don’t have time for that and this time of year gives Canadians the opportunities to learn about the slaves that settled in the Maritimes, eventually, you know, escaping through the underground railroad. All of that I learned as an adult, cause I wasn’t aware of any of that. I learned about Carter G Woodson, father of black history and so on designating the week of February as Negro History week, that’s back in 1926. Before I was born, obviously, and it’s a time that helps us to promote and educate people about black history and about the culture. Ok, so, fast forward from that, that month, it coincides with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, ok, and so, they were instrumental in the emancipation of slaves and you know former slave, that’s Douglass was a former slave, prominent leader in the abolitionist movement and fought to end slavery. So, again we’re talking about black history here in Canada. Ok, we sometimes get it mixed up with black history in America but we’re trying to stick to what’s happened in Canada. I recall in 1995, at least I was born then, when my good friend Jean Augustine, she by the way was the first African Canadian woman who was elected to parliament. I had the pleasure of working with her because I worked with the MPP in the exact same electoral district so she brought a motion to parliament and it got carried unanimously. Ok, that was awesome but then 13 years later, Senator Donald Oliver, who’s the first black man appointed to the senate he introduced a motion recognizing the contributions of black Canadians in February as Black History Month. So, of course this too received unanimous approval and was adopted. 

Almeida 05:13: Thanks. Wow, you know that was a teaching moment for me. That was, I learned a few things I did not know. That’s awesome! So I’ve got a few other questions I’m going to go now to everyone, so what does the theme “February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day” mean to each of you? I’m going to start Selvin Junior if you could.

Lennon 05:37: Well, thank you very much Eddy for having me here today. What does February and Forever mean to me? It means everything, black history for me is everything. As a young person growing up here they consider me a first generation Canadian so I’ve had the pleasure of watching this country grow and mature and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the growth in our black community and recognizing and being recognized as a black Canadian. So what it means to me is you know, everything. In terms of moving forward as a black Canadian we are able to set our sights on bigger and better things for this country and bring us closer together. So, celebrating everyday as black history month for me is everything.

Almeida 06:28: Awesome! Megan.

Carter 06:30: Yeah, for me it’s that anti-black racism is the way of life. It should be a way of life like starting a new habit. It requires the conscious decision to pursue it as a goal and being able where to facing the facts about racism so continuing celebrating today, tomorrow and every day because people that are black are that every single day and forever. 

Almeida 06:54: Absolutely, thanks. Coleen.

Houlder 06:56: So for me this theme is perfect for recognizing and highlighting the fact that black Canadians have made and continue to make daily contributions to the fabric of the Canadian culture and it’s wonderful that we are able to openly celebrate black history without fear of retribution. That is huge. So I would say to everyone, lets continue to celebrate and educate throughout the year.

Almeida 07:21: Right. So next for Megan, I’m gonna put you in the seat now. So, how can your union do meaningful work, not just for black history month but 365 days of the year. What can your union do?

Carter 07:38: Yeah, like, you know, OPSEU has done some really good work at opening the dialogue starting that work but there’s a lot more work to be done. And you also need to remember that OPSEU, you know we tell our members as local presidents we are all the union, right. So all of our members, we all need to do that work but within OPSEU itself and looking at its own labour, you know, organization and every organization needs to look at what racial biases exists within their own selves so that members can take that away to their own locals and ask their organizations what they’re doing. So, OPSEU cannot rely on one or two coalitions to do the work they we all need to do it collectively with all our members and ways that we can, the number one thing we also need to look at is diversifying stewardship right. While we do have representation when you’re looking like at the social mapping report, it’s not reflective of OPSEU members and increasing representation across the board. So, especially we need to look at increasing representation in leadership roles within our locals and within OPSEU and looking at board and the top priorities. We need to educate presidents on how to approach members in their own locals who identify as black and get them involved in the union in the ways that are purposeful and meaningful to them. We need to remember that racial members are racial all year long not just once a month or you know, once a year. When issues arise in the workplace that are about equity we need to let all of our members know so we rally behind them and when members say I don’t know where to begin the work on anti-black racism or where to start or how to identify their own racial biases we need to bring in training on people who can do that work and educate them so that the few black people that do, do that work are not the ones that always have to point it out and I also think that the last point is to make a conscious effort to deliver educations, meetings, conferences like OPSEU is doing and continue we need to continue doing that work but we need to look at what is relevant to black communities and we know certain social issues that affect black members only, we need to link those issues and bring them up in a way that help them in those trainings.   

Almeida 09:47: Excellent. Thank you for that. That’s a lot of food for thought. So Selvin Junior, can you share some information in regards for our members who are listening regards to upcoming Black History Month events and which is currently going to be hosted by the Coalition of Racialized Workers and maybe even expand on what you think we should be doing or what you would like to see in the future in regards to future activities? 

Lennon 10:14: So, the Coalition of Racialized Workers this year has come up with two different forums. There’ll be one on February the 12th starting at 2pm till 5 or 2pm till 5:30. It’s going to be put on by Region 2 and Region 5. These, this time will be broken down, we will be having a video montage of what I think it’s a black four black women what they’ve done in our Canadian society. There’s also going to be Paul Bailey he’s from the Black Health Alliance. There’s going to be Robert Small from who’s a part of the panel. Kathy McDonald who is from PBSB or PDSB sorry. There’s going to be drumming performances, it’s called Kpath folk performers drumming group. There’s going to be black boys coding which is something I personally love because I believe in our society now that young black boys need to understand that they can diversify what they can do. We don’t always have to go in the direction of sports or you know be an athlete or be an entertainer. We can also do coding, we can do business different business endeavors as well and there’s one person one other spoken word young lady, her name is Makeda Joefield-Jacobs and she’s gonna be doing a rendition of her spoken work. So, you know, what we would like to see in this time is to have everyone come out, it’s for everybody. Just contact the equity group via email and they will send the link but we would definitely like everybody to be involved and come on out. 

Almeida 12:13: Awesome.

Lennon 10:14: Thank you.    

Almeida 12:15: Very good. So civil rights leaders like Fredrick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw unions as essential to achieve racial, social and economic justice. There’s no doubt that labour is a great equalizer. So, how should your union work on a call to action with the larger labour movement to do this work effectively? So, I’m gonna start… Megan. 

Carter 12:40: Sure (laughing) 

Almeida 12:41: I’m gonna start with you.   

Carter 12:43: No problem. Yeah, I think we really need to like speak up like we need to demand justice when members bring issues of racial inequalities to the workplace and we need to let members know and demand those workplaces address those issues together and I think the only way to do that is if we do it collectively and also I think something to think about is continue to donate to causes which are already leading the way in that type of work. So, we can seek those causes out in the communities that OPSEU already serving. Things like black youth Toronto, black youth help line, food for black led mental health all those things they are doing that work so let’s join in and help move the labour movement that way instead of reinventing wheel.     

Almeida 13:27: Awesome, awesome. Selvin

Lennon 13:29: And you know what, just to piggy back off of what she said, I absolutely believe that we need to do to it in a collective space. I think that OPSEU is doing a lot but there’s so much more that we could be doing. In terms of fostering more, you know, diversity in OPSEU and then diversity on the local level. I think it’s we need more call to action to our groups of diversity and foster those conversations, those difficult ones that we tend to not want to have and encourage our employers to work alongside us to call those injustices out and be the leaders in to making all that happen. So, I believe we can get there.  

Almeida 14:16: Thank you, Coleen.

Houlder 14:18: I really like that guys. I want to piggy back off of Megan and Selvin and I do believe that labour can certainly be a great equalizer. Ok, now in general unions hold employers accountable for their actions, especially when workers are black and marginalized. Unions educate their members about the impacts of racism and inequity. Now this helps to create a better society. Now, the reality is that black workers continue to face systemic barriers, acts of racism, discrimination and bias and OPSEU/SEFPO can play a large part by calling for long term concrete government action to address these issues. As the first black woman to be elected as the chair of the bargaining team, I’m proud to say that the new OPS Unified collective agreement exemplifies OPSEU/SEFPOs continuing efforts in addressing issues of diversity and inclusion within the Ontario Public Service. OPSEU/SEFPO is committed to fostering a more inclusive, diverse, equitable, anti-racist, accessible and respectful workplace free from such discrimination and harassment and as such, has enshrined new language in the collective agreement. I like to start from the grassroots, I feel like that’s going to at least give us a leg up, ok. Now, in addition, a joint working group has been reviewing our collective agreement with an aim to identifying the systemic barriers that may exist and to resolve on going issues in regards to diversity and inclusion specific to BIPOC members. This will ensure increase transparency with regards to the hiring process and systemic barriers relating to anti-black racism and accountability. Now, don’t get me wrong, so much more work to be done. We know this and we can’t do it during this podcast but we can just continue to build those blocks. Let’s get her done.         

Almeida 16:18: Excellent, thank you. First off I want to thank you Coleen, I want to thank Megan and Selvin for being on our podcast today, and for your leadership within OPSEU/SEFPO. The work that you’re doing work is obviously shifting the work we do the dialogues we’re having the decolonization for the labour movement and makes our union obviously stronger. So with that I’m gonna say until next time stay safe and Happy Black History Month folks. 

Houlder, Lennon, Carter 16:50: Thank you.