OSSTF/FEESO—Racism, Oppression, Equity

black painted canvas with a beam of light coming in the corner

The history of organized labour in this country is the history of the fight for the rights of workers. However, the narrators of this history have often and repeatedly left out the stories and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and workers of colour. Our future as labour must address this glaring omission. This history has resulted in the institutional advancement of white workers over Black workers, Indigenous workers, and workers of colour. This is also part of the history of OSSTF/FEESO and we must not be afraid to meet the challenges of this legacy. We must not be complicit in maintaining the status quo.

For generations, members of Black, African, and Caribbean communities have been calling out anti-Black racism and oppression. With the increase in awareness of anti-Black racism, hatred, and violence across North America and globally, racialized peoples and co-conspirators have compelled the world to recognize the urgent need for action and change. For far too long, many of us have been ignorant of these acts and have not faced the realities of living with the detrimental impact of racism and colonialism. What is clear is that, as a society, we have normalized discrimination without acknowledging that the effects are a clear and present danger for racialized and Indigenous peoples. Such discrimination is unacceptable and the goal must be to eliminate racism and its pernicious effects of Canadian society.

Of course, OSSTF/FEESO is not immune to this troubled history of racism in Canada. We recognize that structural and systemic racism as well as colonialism is still being experienced by groups of members within OSSTF/FEESO. We are proud to be the voice of labour for over 60,000 members of Ontario’s education workforce. Yet, despite our efforts to date, we have fallen short in ensuring equity of access among our own membership. Our organizational structures have produced unintended consequences, leaving some groups in the membership out of the decision-making process. Simply put, we must recognize that there are groups of members that have been historically marginalized by our own structures, policies, and procedures. This recognition may make us uncomfortable, and it should. While it is difficult to accept our collective shortcomings, the time has come to open the organization up to a thorough review and scrutiny at both the local and provincial levels. This work is not easy, it is not quick, and it must be done.

The responsibility of those in leadership positions to do better is charged to us by our Equity Statement which, in part, says: “The marginalization of certain groups must be specifically recognized. For OSSTF/FEESO, these groups include, but are not necessarily limited to, women, people of colour, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, questioning, two-spirit, First Nations, Métis, Inuit, people with disabilities, francophone, and those whose participation is impeded because of their creed, economic circumstances or family status.” We have always made equity a priority; however, we continue to reimagine what it actually looks like in OSSTF/FEESO and we are working to better recognize the diverse narratives of members who experience oppression.

As an organization over 100 years old, OSSTF/FEESO has always grounded its work in equity. At our first Annual General Meeting in 1920 a motion was passed unanimously, formalizing that the “principle of equal pay for equal work be formally adopted into the general policy of this Federation.” Jesse Muir’s motion was a first step in the organization’s drive to use policy and practice to shape change and to enhance equity. OSSTF/FEESO’s Equity Statement is the extension of the work of our earliest members. The statement recognizes that our members must see themselves reflected in the make-up of our organization. We must see ourselves in our goals, our structures, and our practices. It is a statement that honours the steps we have taken, and that reminds us that the work of equity is ongoing: “OSSTF/FEESO is a democratic union that recognizes the importance of encouraging and supporting involvement by all members, while recognizing that some members have historically been marginalized.” This means we must regularly reflect on where we have been and where we can and must still go.

In 2007, the delegates at the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA) directed the Provincial Executive to strike a provincial work group to design a process to determine the level of participation of members of equity seeking groups. This led to the creation of the Equity Officer, an in-house staff Equity Work Group, a member-based Equity Advisory Work Group, and a budget line committed to addressing barriers to equity in OSSTF/FEESO. As these internal structures began to take shape, OSSTF/FEESO continued to build a roster of professional development workshops for members that included those that provided learning in addressing oppression and discrimination rooted in racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, colonialism, and classism. We know, however, that workshops alone do not change the structure and practices of an organization. 

The Member Participation Survey, which was concluded in 2016, showed that members of equity-seeking groups are starting to be more involved than previously. However, what was also evident is some groups are still less likely to hold formal Federation roles in many of the highest governing bodies of OSSTF/FEESO. These findings led the membership to endorse two important motions at AMPA 2016. First, it passed a motion directing OSSTF/FEESO to provide its leaders with ongoing training in equity and anti-oppression. Second, delegates at the 2016 convention also directed their union to develop a formal, intensive mentorship program designed to support members from equity-seeking groups who wish to increase their involvement in Federation leadership. These steps complement the already existing work of the provincial Human Rights Committee, the Status of Women Committee, and our dedication to projects that support international human rights and labour solidarity. This work has also led to the release of curriculum and training resources addressing homophobia, transphobia, sexism, violence against women, and poverty. Our approach to equity recognizes the importance of avoiding a single story while also embracing the uniqueness of intersectional identities on lived experiences of oppression. 

Also in 2016, in an effort to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation, OSSTF/FEESO established the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Advisory Work Group to advise the Provincial Executive on any matters related to issues affecting First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. With this, the members of the work group have been instrumental in assisting the Federation in implementing concrete actions as we continue to work towards reconciliation. 

This history does not mean we have addressed issues of inequity fully, but it does situate the organization with foundational steps to continue challenging ourselves and our structures. We are not shy of the work that needs to be done. It continues to reflect OSSTF/FEESO’s efforts across the broader labour movement, amongst our employers, and within the education system. 

These steps matter and they have created some structural and practical change; however, despite our ongoing efforts, is it clear that in addressing colonialism, anti-Black racism, and racial discrimination in general, we have fallen well short in our efforts as a Federation. We accept this, own it, and commit to making it a priority. 

Looking closely at who we are as a union and at our recent experiences requires the organization to reconsider areas of growth and challenge. It is no longer sufficient for us to simply stop at saying we have made mistakes. Rather, we must actively identify where systemic discrimination has manifested in our structures and take concrete action in addressing them. With great humility, we are taking on this responsibility.

As events have unfolded both inside and outside the Federation, it has been an extremely difficult time for many OSSTF/FEESO members who have experienced the pain of systemic racism and the barriers it creates. The Provincial Executive has spent time reflecting on the impact of oppression and systemic racism—specifically anti-Black racism—and on the steps needed to begin to change the structure and culture in
the union.

As a starting point, we have made use of the internal expertise which exists in the Federation and we continue to work with our Equity Officer on issues of accountability and identifying the systemic barriers which exist in OSSTF/FEESO. Most importantly, the Provincial Executive has sought the expertise of an external consultant with extensive experience in assisting organizations to make the culture shift necessary to challenge all forms of oppression and discrimination—but in particular, anti-Black racism. We are pleased to be working with Kike Ojo-Thompson of the KOJO Institute. 

Over the last months we have prioritized listening to members, and we will continue to do so. Many of you have reached out to express your opinion, and while some were difficult to hear, your opinions matter. At the same time, we are also applying what we are learning in our work with the KOJO Institute to acknowledge, affirm, and take account the ways in which systemic oppression and discrimination occurs within OSSTF/FEESO. In doing so, our actions must be courageous and they must be meaningful. They must come from listening carefully to the membership—but, in particular, those with lived experiences from marginalized groups—and hearing what obstacles exist. To move forward in our commitment to addressing structural and institutional racism, our actions must also be intentional so that we can be held accountable. Over time, we will need to assess what has changed and what is the impact. Looking ahead, we will undertake an intense review of OSSTF/FEESO and to do this well we must also be prepared to reflect on our structures, policies, and priorities on an on-going basis. Regular review of our work and its efficacy in addressing systemic racism is paramount to getting this work on the right path. It is essential in our efforts to be accountable to the membership by assessing if we are sufficiently fulfilling our commitment to confronting and addressing oppression. Removing barriers to member participation is going to take courage for those in leadership positions to face our own biases and acknowledge the privileges that have benefited some of us.

Recent member experiences and feedback have led to some initial steps that OSSTF/FEESO is taking, including:

  • A review of our Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA) and recommendations to address practices, policies, and procedures that add to oppression and racism in our organization;

  • Training of Provincial Office staff and Provincial Executive;
  • Increased membership in the Equity Advisory Work Group;
  • Creating workshops and resources on Addressing Anti-Black Racism, Allyship, Black History, and Women’s History;
  • Provincial Council (September) passing a number of motions, including the establishment of equity caucuses at future OSSTF/FEESO provincial meetings and conferences, and a Black Persons and Persons of Colour Advisory Work Group.

OSSTF/FEESO commits to be a union that is principally guided by anti-oppressive approaches to decision making. For this transformational change to happen, we must have the institutional conviction to examine OSSTF/FEESO priorities, structures, rules and most especially how groups of members have not had equal access to leadership opportunities with their union. Still, we cannot do this in isolation just as a Provincial Executive. This change will need to be done together with the membership. Along the way, even with the best intentions, we may falter and misstep in our approach and/or efforts in addressing colonialism, anti-Black racism, racism, as well as other forms of discrimination. When that happens, we will also need to rely on receiving critical feedback, and be willing to consider new ideas. Together, as an organization with over 60,000 members, representing hundreds of different job classes in communities large and small, we will need to identify where systemic racism and bias exist and is normalized in our union. 

OSSTF/FEESO is also actively taking responsibility for this work as part of labour’s greater job to identify and address the ways that Canadian colonial structures have and continue to limit opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and workers of colour to take on leadership roles in the labour movement. Working with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour, as well as other labour and community partners, we must be part of a larger political force that uses anti-oppression approaches in all we do. This includes helping elect a government that believes in social justice, equity, and inclusion. It means we have to make equity an election issue and use our skills as political activists to shape the political lens of upcoming elections. In the months ahead, election readiness work will be focused, in part, on advocating for a society that openly questions its historic systems of oppression. We must act as a united labour force to help elect candidates to government who hold principles that are based in equity and social justice. 

Ultimately, we need to embrace the necessary work that is ahead of us. We need to champion new ways of thinking. We need to implement changes required to address and eliminate anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, racial and other forms of discrimination in OSSTF/FEESO and our communities. 

As an organization we will all benefit from this work and we will be stronger as a membership because of it.

About The Provincial Executive
The Provincial Executive is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Federation and oversees the Provincial Office. The Provincial Executive answers to the members through the Provincial Council. The current members include: Harvey Bischof, President; Paul Caccamo, Vice-President; Karen Littlewood, Vice-President; Earl Burt, Treasurer; Martha Hradowy, Executive Officer; Malini Leahy, Executive Officer and Dave Warda, Executive Officer.

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