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Indigenous Steelworkers advance their rights at third national gathering

November 9, 2022 | News Articles
Image: A group of people standing outside. Everyone is surround a traditional teepee.

In early October, more than 120 Steelworkers, staff and guests met in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. for the third National Gathering of Indigenous Steelworkers.

Prior to the gathering, on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, representatives from the USW attended the grand opening of Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig (SKG), an Indigenous university and teaching lodge inspired by Chief Shingwauk who lived in the area in the 1800s and had a vision of education for Indigenous peoples.

The October gathering drew Steelworkers from across the country, with every USW district represented, demonstrating more interest in attending, learning and participating in Indigenous solidarity and a commitment to contributing to our union’s ongoing strategy for advancing the rights of Indigenous workers and communities.

A sacred fire was lit and tended to throughout the gathering, with delegates dropping in and spending time with the firekeeper inside the teepee.

The Steelworkers were honoured to have Chief Dean Sayers from Batchewana First Nation and Chief Andy Rickard from Garden River First Nation bring welcoming greetings.

Following the event, the USW caught up with a couple of the delegates to hear about their reactions.

Member reactions to the gathering

Chelsea Olar is a Health and Safety Worker Representative at Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie and a member of USW Local 2251. She is also Chair of the Women’s Welfare Committee for the local.

Olar identifies as Métis and learned about the National Gathering from the District 6 Facebook page. A week after the gathering, Olar is still digesting her experiences.

“It was a warm, welcoming environment. It made me feel comfortable. The experience was spiritually overwhelming,” Olar said.

Olar appreciated the sacred fire and being able to meet elders in her own community that she has never met before.

Being a young, female, Métis woman, and NextGen Steelworker, she is eager to start some events and connections around Indigenous culture within her own local.

Olar has suffered sexual assaults in the workplace. At the gathering, she shared her story because she felt safe and supported. She is only now connecting the assaults with her Indigenous identity, as she wore her hair in braids at the time.

She encourages others to come forward and speak about any situations they experienced, as talking about them is a part of healing.

“We need to realize these situations are still happening within our workplaces and communities. There is support and resources out there, no matter what you are experiencing,” Olar said.

Through participating in the National Gathering of Indigenous Steelworkers, Olar is continuing to discover her Métis heritage, a part of her identity that was ignored while growing up.

She hopes to get more involved and introduce her son to Indigenous culture as well.

Scott Trenaman is a full-time Health and Safety Co-chair with USW Local 5890 in Regina. He is a citizen of Métis Nation Saskatchewan and his family has Ojibwe heritage.

He learned about the National Gathering for Indigenous Steelworkers from his local union that was seeking members to attend.

Trenaman, like Olar, had a deeply emotional experience attending the gathering.

“We have a lot of common experiences from growing up. From colonization, a lot of our families were ashamed of our heritage as Indigenous people, and now we are reconnecting with that heritage, and it really hit home,” said Trenaman.

Trenaman knows that some of his family members attended residential school. Today, he is connecting that experience with trauma within his family’s history and the poverty and racism that were part of being Indigenous in the 1940s.

“Hearing the elders speak and hearing the language made me proud,” said Trenaman.

As an education facilitator within District 3, Trenaman is interested in attending and bringing the Unionism on Turtle Island course to the District.

USW National Director Marty Warren said the gathering had great value – both for the union and for those attending.

“I was honoured to attend the National Gathering, to hear Indigenous Steelworkers share their struggles and victories,” said USW National Director Marty Warren. “Providing space for our Indigenous members to connect is of great value. I am inspired by the work that our members and local unions are doing to build relationships with Indigenous communities and to spell out ways our union can take concrete action on the path of reconciliation.”

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