For far too long, Blacks have divided themselves along hues in skin colour. In the keynote address at the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) Ontario chapter’s 17th annual awards ceremony last Saturday night, the labour organization’s international president Rev. Terry Melvin said this practice must stop.
“We have got to come together as a community because regardless of how we got here, we are in the same boat right now and we have got to be one body working together,” he said to rousing applause. “We have more in common than we have differences and I need you to take that message home with you tonight. I need you to share with somebody that you turned away because they were a little lighter or darker than you. United, you can change this country.”
In May 2012, Melvin – who is the secretary-treasurer of the powerful New York State American Federation of Labour & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) – succeeded CBTU founding president Bill Lucy whose four-decade tenure at the helm made him the longest-serving president of a national labour organization in the United States.
An ordained Baptist minister, Melvin took aim at Canada’s right wing and called on CBTU supporters and racialized workers to stand up to the Conservative government’s anti-union agenda.
“It’s not enough to talk about how somebody is trying to oppress us as labour,” he said. “It’s not enough to talk about the need to move somebody out of the way. I want to tell you that as small as you may appear to be, it’s not the size of the dog but the size of the fight in the dog that matters. I need you to find the fight inside of you that says Stephen Harper (Canada’s Prime Minister) is not going to be in office after the next election…We have got to put our boots on the ground and we have got to do whatever it takes to remove the right wing Conservatives out of office.”
The CBTU has over 50 chapters across the United States and one in Canada. The parent body granted a charter to Ontario at its 25th convention in Florida in 1995.
Melvin, who began his union career in 1980 in Western New York, promised that the organization will do whatever it takes to hold on to the gains it has made in the last 40 years and recruit young people.
“There are those who will like to see the CBTU just pack up and go away,” he said. “I have got news for you. We have been around 42 years and we will be around for another 42 years fighting the good fight…We will answer to nobody but ourselves and our community. We need to open our arms and minds to new young voices within our community to hear and be guided by their needs and interests.
“One thing I am so inspired by in the Ontario chapter and that is they have so many young people they have reached out to and brought forth to have a place at the table and to understand what this movement is all about. There are so many that think they have what they have because the boss was so good to them. But if the truth be told, there was blood, sweat and tears and I daresay people died for the contract that you are living with on this day. We must take the opportunity to educate these young people and bring them into the fold because if we don’t make them part of this movement, it’s sad to say in 15 to 20 years, there will be no movement. We have work to do and we need to stand strong and continue to be a voice for the voiceless people of colour in this community and across the globe.”
Melvin joined CBTU Ontario chapter founding president June Veecock in presenting a Leadership Award in her name to immediate past president Janice Gairey who is the Ontario Federation of Labour’s human rights and education director.
“In recognizing the tireless work you put it to grow this chapter, I am more impressed with your ability to build capacity,” Melvin told Gairey. “With you, it was just not about numbers only. It was about the work we were asking you to do, the work you knew needed to be done at the local, provincial and national levels and the work that you led and inspired others to do by your leadership that we acknowledge and applaud you this evening.”
The Bromley Armstrong Humanitarian Award and the Jack White Community Award were presented to late civil rights activist and institution builder Burnley “Rocky” Jones who passed away last August.
Armstrong is a human rights and union activist while White was one of the first Black Canadians to run for election to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario under the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation banner. The political party was the predecessor to the New Democratic Party.
Rev. Denise Gillard accepted the awards on behalf of Jones who was her uncle.
“Our family has experienced a deep loss, but we have a legacy to carry on for my uncle was a civil rights champion and one of the best kept secrets in Canada,” she said. “While we appreciate the awards, his greatest joy would be that we commit ourselves to the struggle. That was what he was about.”
University of Ontario Institute of Technology first-year kinesiology student Reneesha McCormack was the recipient of the Ann Newman Scholarship Award. Newman is a labour and community activist.
A graduate of Ascension of Our Lord Secondary School, McCormack plans to become a fitness trainer.
Canada’s youngest Member of Parliament, Rathika Sitsabaiesan, attended the celebration.
The CBTU Ontario chapter executive comprises Andrea McCormack (president), Holmann Richard (vice-president), Sharon Paris (financial secretary), Isabelle Miller (communications secretary), Megan Whitfield (recording secretary), Yolanda McLean (membership secretary), Marie Clarke Walker and Chris Wilson (members at large) and Edwina Bascombe-Buhnai and Tricia Watt (trustees).