February is Black History Month By Warren Williams, President CUPE Local 15
Sisters and Brothers,
I like the sound of that. It makes me feel like I’m a part of something special. This month is Black History Month which is a time to recognize and celebrate the struggles and accomplishments of those who came before us. This probably sounds familiar to many of you, a labour movement slogan perhaps? To me, it has two meanings that are both the same, and different, depending on context.
My father’s family immigrated to Canada in 1908 from Waco, Texas via the Oklahoma territories. They came here to escape the segregationist government policies of the Southern United States.
As many black families had done, they had migrated west to Oklahoma to escape the Jim Crow laws of many states of the union. That changed when Oklahoma was granted statehood, and Jim Crow walked through the door. Members of my family; the Williams, Lane, and Mayes clans looked north to a promise of equal opportunity for all. They settled in North Battleford in west-central Saskatchewan and built a community in Maidstone.
You can visit the Shiloh Baptist Church which was built by my family. My great-grandfather, Julius Cesar Lane, was the first family member to be buried there. That small log church is now a Canadian Heritage site.
My family quickly found out that even in Canada, if you were black, segregation was the norm.
Fast forward to the fifties and sixties. This was a turbulent time of racial unrest, civil unrest, and strong union activism. Black families in the United States and Canada were standing up and saying enough is enough. Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosemary Brown, and many other black men and women in the United States and Canada were fighting for change, for equal opportunities. The Black Panthers were talking about Black Pride, Black Power, and revolution. We started calling each other brothers and sisters, not to hide who we were as our skin colour wouldn’t allow us to do that, but to remind us that we all needed to come together to stand up for one another to fight for what was right and fight for the chance to better our condition.
A similar movement had for many years been happening in labour and my uncles Lee and Roy Williams, both sleeping car porters for the CNR and CPR, were taking the fight to the federal government. At that time in Canada as in the United States, blacks were considered less than.
The railroads were a good example of this belief. It was segregation front and centre for all to see. Blacks were not allowed the same opportunities as their white co-workers. They couldn’t even belong to the union, which was no accident. It was protectionist thinking on the part of the white union members who believed in segregation as a misguided means to keep the best jobs for themselves.
My Uncle Lee had met John Diefenbaker many times in Saskatchewan, and when he became a Member of Parliament, my uncle contacted him and asked for his help. Mr. Diefenbaker sent him a letter telling him that he should look to Canada’s Fair Employment Act which had been made law in 1953. My uncle took the fight to Parliament, and after several years Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson enforced the act which is now part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It didn’t happen overnight and only happened because my Uncle Lee and people like him knew the prevailing story that they were less than was a lie. It’s a story that those in positions of privilege continue to weave today.
We, my brothers and sisters, shall continue to fight because with no justice there is no “just us.”
Printed with permission from The Voice of Our Members February 2018 issue.