By Michael Lewis
Special to Ontario Construction Report
The Carpenters Union marked Black History Month throughout February with the theme “Honouring the Past, Inventing the Future”, celebrating accomplishments of Afro-descendant communities, while acknowledging the challenges that remain in confronting systemic racism.
“The Carpenters Regional Council stands in solidarity with our black community members, black Canadians and all people of African descent,” the council representing 16 Ontario locals said in a statement.
“We are proud of the contributions they have made and continue to make to build our union and our country. We strive to promote equity, diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for all people within our organization.
“We will be unveiling the Carpenters Union coin commemorating the Second Construction Battalion of Nova Scotia,” the only all black, battalion-sized expeditionary force in Canadian history, at this month’s Black History Month showcase event in Vaughan, the union says.
Following lobbying by battalion descendants, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and defence minister Anita Anand apologized last July on behalf of the Canadian government for the racism and harassment that members of the battalion endured before, during and well after their service in World War 1.
The Canadian Mint in announcing a $20 face value, pure silver coin commemorating the battalion said members persevered and served with distinction, risking their lives and providing vital support to the war effort as they aided Canadian Forestry Corps lumber operations in France.
The showcase event, presented in collaboration with Afroglobal Television and partners including the painters, plumbers and other construction trade unions was held at the Bellagio Boutique Event Venue on Feb. 23.
Jean Augustine, the first black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, was the keynote speaker
The event featured the official launch of a new endowment scholarship for construction and trades students at George Brown College in Toronto.
The Chris Campbell Perseverance Award will support full-time students enrolled at the Angelo DelZotto School of Construction Management and the School of Apprenticeship and Skilled Trades at the Centre for Construction and Engineering Technologies.
Campbell, the Carpenters Regional Council’s director of equity, diversity and inclusion, said the roughly $5,000 per year award will recognize the achievements of BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) students who demonstrate passion and commitment through their extra-curricular activities, volunteer work and involvement in the classroom.
The carpenters also marked February’s annual celebration of Black History Month by co-sponsoring with the Jamaican Canadian Association the annual Boonoonoonos Brunch at the Jamaican Canadian Community Centre in North York on Feb 12.
This year’s theme is Celebrating Black Youth Excellence with award recipients Cheryll Case, founder and executive director of Community in Public Planning, Carpenters Union Local 27 mentor and coach Rokhaya Gueye, Uber Canada ‘s public policy manager Yanique Williams and Julius Lyndsay, director of sustainable communities at the David Suzuki Foundation.
Campbell said Black History Month recognizes accomplishments in promoting inclusiveness in the construction trades including the appointment of several people of colour to leadership positions in the Carpenters and other unions. Still, despite decades of effort, education and calls to action, anti-black racism continues to rear its head in many sectors, including the construction industry.
Times are gradually changing, with displays of racism less common and typically less blatant these days, though he noted that many groups remain under-represented in construction, particularly at the supervisory level.
But Carpenters Ontario Regional Council representative Sean Blake said much has been accomplished to promote greater diversity amid a shortage of construction workers, including a federal government program that provides small and medium sized enterprises with financial incentives to hire first-year building trades apprentices, especially from equity deserving groups, with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Canadian District acting as an intermediary.
Blake said the union will continue to work with government, Indigenous peoples, civil society and communities to develop initiatives to combat racism, hate and bigotry, adding that members who experience or observe racist behavior are urged to report the issue to their union.
“We know that we have had a long history of black members working in the construction industry … and we know that all forms of racism have no place in our workplaces or communities.”