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Interview with CUPW National President, Denis Lemelin on Harper, Solidarity with Chief Spence and Idle No More

'This dictatorship has to cease. It will come from the streets, that's for sure.'

by Miles Howe

Denis Lemelin and CUPW members [Photo: CUPW]
Denis Lemelin and CUPW members [Photo: CUPW]

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) – On Dec. 17, Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) president Denis Lemelin penned a letter of solidarity to Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, honouring her for her “courageous stand in defence of the land against the moral bankruptcy of the Canadian state.”

Since then, other unions, including the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Employees – Nova Scotia, have joined the 54,000 member-strong CUPW in voicing their support for Chief Spence and the Idle No More movement. On a day where actions are planned across the country, we caught up with two-term president Denis Lemelin in Ottawa.

Halifax Media Co-op: CUPW is active in a lot of causes around the world. What does it mean to you right now, what we're seeing in the Indigenous community, and why now as a point in history for your union to get behind that cause? Why lend your voice to it?

Denis Lemelin: I think it's part of our orientation. We're looking at what's happening in Canada and Quebec, and all the First Nations people have been under attack. We have a position of self-determination for the First Nations, and self-governance. What we saw now with the new bill, bill C-45, attacking issues around the right to vote in regards to land, and the fact that Chief Spence has initiated a hunger strike, I think it's important because it's the rights of the People.

It's a matter of rights. This Harper government is really attacking the rights of the people. They attacked us with our right to negotiate and our right to strike last year and we got support from many groups. Now what's happening with the Aboriginal groups and First Nations is the same thing. They're under attack. People have to stand up and give them support and make their cause yours.

HMC: What is your impression of the Idle No More campaign? Are you seeing it as a fluid grassroots movement?

DL: That's what we see. Now we see when injustices are occurring and people feel like they are under attack, I think spontaneously there's a group of people who decide 'Okay, we have to stand up here.' And when people are standing up for their rights, I think it is the responsibility of unions like us and community groups to give support and be proud of it.

What Chief Spence has done with her hunger strike has really ignited something. People say 'No we cannot let go. We have to give support.' Because she's only asking to meet with Stephen Harper. She's just demanding that they meet so that they can discuss to speak about all the issues of land and resources. So I think it's the kind of movement, when it's coming from grassroots, when it's coming from people, I think we have to support it.

It's like the Occupy movement last year, when they said 'Okay, we're the 99% and we're under attack from the 1%.' The Harper government is like the voice of this corporate group who want to attack the people and get rid of our rights.

HMC: If we look back at Occupy, we saw a state-sanctioned force come in and dismantle it. Even though out of that we have a lot of people who became very much more active in their lives, people also became more polarized. How do you see the Idle No More movement playing out in a positive light?

DL: I think the fact is for us people are standing up for their rights. I think at some point people were feeling that in Canada we were an exception in the world, we are not as people, or workers, or Aboriginal groups, or community groups; we're not under attack. There was this sentiment.

Now people are feeling that what's happening in the States, or in the South, or in Europe, people are feeling 'Okay, we're too under attack.' It seems people are realizing now. So I think the most important thing is the level of awareness. People are more aware. They can identify where this government and big corporations are attacking the people. I think it will take time, maybe, but at some point people are taking a cause for themselves, saying 'Okay, we have to win. We have to give support.' I think that's the way.

There are activities happening in one sector, like the labour movement. Now it's the Aboriginal people. You saw what happened in Ontario with the teachers. More and more it appears that people have to stand up.

HMC: Do you think Harper's mode of operating, in terms of throwing huge omnibus bills together that effect a great different number of communities, is something of a blessing in disguise in the fact that it begins to unite everyone, rather than people sticking with their pet cause?

DL: That's one of the points. It's like the American way of doing budgets. These kind of omnibus bills, you put everything on it, and when they implement it, people realize. It happened last year, and people's level of awareness went up. Now this year, people are realizing that it's a way of proceeding and it's a non-democratic way of debating.

People are seeing what's happening in the House of Commons. There's no debate there. It's just a dictatorship of the Harper government, deciding what they want to do. I think people are realizing that the only way we can change that, it's not first in the House of Commons, it's in the street.

The only way we can say to the Harper government 'We understand what you are saying and what you are doing. We understand what you want to achieve. You want to destroy this democratic country. Now we understand, so we'll move on it and we'll organize against you.'

So I think this dictatorship has to cease. It will come from the streets, that's for sure.

HCM: The 21st of December is slated to be a big day of action across the country. What are you planning on doing, and are you encouraging your members to take part and show solidarity with Indigenous-lead actions?

DL: Absolutely. Here in Ottawa we will be with Chief Spence. There will be a demonstration going from Victoria Island to the House. We're already inviting all our members to participate.

We received an invitation to read our letter in different places in the country, and we will do that because we feel it's important. We feel it's important that we be there with the people fighting for their rights.

I think the most important thing to realize is that the strength is coming from the streets. The strength comes from taking a cause for yourself and really fighting for that. And I think that's really what people have to do now. It's time to really get active and do our thing. That's the only way to show Harper that we are still around and still fighting and that he has to go.

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