Feb 16, 2022
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Photo-of-June-Veecock-HeadshotJune Veecock, trade unionist and anti-racism activist, “ruffled a lot of feathers” and made important gains when advocating for the rights of racialized workers in the workplace and within the labour movement.

June Veecock first worked as an inspector for the Ministry of Labour and Social Security in her native Guyana. She became involved in her union and held executive positions and positions on committees. When she came to Canada, she was determined to get a unionized job and appreciated that “workers represented by unions are in a much better position.”[1] Veecock worked her first unionized job in Canada as a Patients’ Trust Clerk at a hospital in Toronto in the late 1970s. She became active in her union as a member of the Women’s Committee.[2]

Veecock began attending labour and human rights conferences. She notes that she “started pushing around women of colour issues and made a lot of enemies. I ruffled a lot of feathers, because I was always reminding white women that we had to do things differently. You don’t wait until the last minute to invite Black women to speak; instead you need to involve them throughout the struggle.”[3] With this in mind, she organized a conference for the Federation on issues of race and the participation of workers of colour in unions. The conference drew nearly 400 racialized trade unionists. One of the speakers, Dr. Linda Murray, discussed the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). This sparked Veecock’s idea to establish a chapter of the CBTU. In fact, Veecock recalls writing “are you interested in joining a chapter of the CBTU?” on blank pages from her notebook during Dr. Murray’s speech and handing those notes to trusted trade unionists at the convention.

Veecock attended her first CBTU convention in California and was very moved when she saw Black and racialized workers in attendance. She shares: “I had a vision that if we could get a vibrant CBTU in Canada then perhaps we could really move the labour movement to look at how they do things here.” Veecock explains that at first there was some pushback and fear that a CBTU chapter would divide the labour movement, when its goal was to do the opposite. The CBTU has been effective in empowering Black workers and workers of colour to both participate in and challenge their unions, specifically around issues of racism and representation, and to bring Black workers into the labour movement. The CBTU received its chapter status in 1996.[4] Veecock remained committed to attending CBTU conventions and supporting other members in attending, usually women of colour. She is also careful to note that prior to the Canadian chapter of CBTU there was a group of Black workers and activists who had been organizing under the name of the Ontario Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; she recognizes that this critical anti-racism work was happening long before she got involved.

One of the main goals of the CBTU has been to change union practices. For example, through the CBTU, Veecock organized a campaign that evaluated the hiring practices of unions. The CBTU published a report titled “Who Makes the Grade: 1993 Report Card on Hiring Practices of Unions and Labour Organization” which “painted a damning picture of the tenuous presence and absence in some cases of racialized workers on staff.”[5] The CBTU saw improvement following the Report Card and many unions responded by developing internal employment equity plans, although members of the CBTU have noted that there remains “a significant under-representation of African-Canadians and racialized staff within the labour movement.”[6]

Throughout Veecock’s career she held many positions in trade unions and labour organizations and was the first woman from a racialized community to work for a central labour organization in a senior position. She began as the Director of Human Rights for the Ontario Federation of Labour in 1986, where she was responsible for the Federation’s anti-racism and equity programs. She held that position for 19 years.[7] Veecock tells us that she is proud of the work she did while at the Federation and is fortunate for the organizational support that she received, especially from Julie Davis to whom she reported.

Veecock has also been recognized for her role in an important systemic discrimination case at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, alongside Dr. Akua Benjamin of the Congress of Black Women. In the early 1990s, a group of racialized nurses at a Toronto area Hospital brought a claim for discrimination to the Human Rights Commission. This human rights case was supported by Veecock and the Ontario Federation of Labour, among other organizations. The nurses explained that, among other things, “access to professional development and training, shift assignments, disciplinary actions and promotions were based on racial factors, and that [white] nurses received preferential treatment” and that the Hospital refused to support them when they were abused and harassed by patients and their families.[8] Veecock recalls first being approached by one of the Black nurses about the racial discrimination that she was experiencing at work and responding that “if things are as bad as you’re telling me, then there have got to be other nurses experiencing this.” She knew then, and after speaking with others, that these issues were systemic and longstanding.

In 1994, the case settled, and the Hospital agreed to both pay $320,000 to the complainants and to take steps to address racism in the workplace. This required the Hospital to implement new structures, policies, and trainings to tackle racism in the institution. Some have referred to this case as a “turning point” or “shift” in conversations around racism in the health care sector, and that it made organizations look at their practices through an anti-racism lens. Following the settlement, many hospitals in Ontario took advantage of the government’s new grants for anti-racism pilot projects.[9] It has been reported that after the case, the Commission received a “flood” of complaints of racism from all over Ontario. The case has been recognized as the foundation for other systemic discrimination cases that followed, including the Branson Hospital case that Veecock worked a few years later, where long-service Black managers were “reorganized” out of their positions.[10]

However, Veecock is careful to recognize the challenges of that case and the impact it had on the nurses involved. She recalls that the Commission was reluctant to accept their case as systemic. She notes that the “Human Rights Commission came out and hailed it as such a victory and it’s the first successful case of systemic human rights settled in Canada. Meanwhile, we had such a hard time with them.” This long process at the Commission, as well as the systemic discrimination that they had experienced, was extremely challenging for the nurses and had a lasting impact: several felt that they could not return to the Hospital after the case, and others were unable to return to nursing altogether.[11] In interviews, Veecock holds space for the harm caused by institutional racism and recognizes the activism of racialized workers who oppose prevailing arrangements of power.

When reflecting on her work, Veecock is proud of her accomplishments and the efforts of the organizations, workers, and unionists she worked with. She tells us: “I’ve seen change in my lifetime.” However, she fears that some organizations have become complacent and encourages workers to keep challenging both their employers and their unions. She remembers speaking to unions and saying, “look around, your staff should reflect the membership you serve.” Veecock reminds unions that they still have to “walk the talk” and encourages racialized workers to participate in all aspects of their union: “it’s your union too.”

When asked about what advice she would give to young activists who are organizing in the labour movement and around feminism and anti-racism, Veecock responded: “Well, they make me very proud as an old timer. And they have to keep going. But they also have to take care of themselves. You build support for your struggle and you keep moving. But they’ve  got to – this struggle against – and I’m speaking here of race – it’s like a marathon. You run your race; don’t drop the baton; make sure you pass it on; and it has to keep going. When you want to solve all the problems, maybe you may not see the benefits of your efforts, but the next leg hopefully will. It’s a marathon, I’m telling you.”[12] Veecock has certainly played an important role in the struggle against racism and the ongoing efforts to address the underrepresentation of Black women and racialized persons in the labour movement. There continues to be much to learn from her inspiring and effective activism over the last several decades.

A special thank you to June Veecock for speaking with us about her work for this feature.

Special thanks to Sydney Lang for her assistance in preparing this feature. 

[1] Margaret McPhail for Rise Up! Feminist Archive, “Transcript: Black Nurses Challenge Systemic Racism”

[2] Judy Rebick, “Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution” (2004), excerpt of section on June Veecock here

[3] Judy Rebick, “Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution” (2004), excerpt of section on June Veecock here

[4] Margaret McPhail for Rise Up! Feminist Archive, “Transcript: Black Nurses Challenge Systemic Racism”

[5] Ajamu Nangwaya, Thesis: Race, Resistance and Co-optation in the Canadian Labour Movement: Effecting an Equity Agenda Like Race Matters (2011) pp. 51-52

[6] Christopher Wilson, Speech at the CBTU Annual Awards Dinner: The Party is Over – It is Time for Community Building (2009) p. 6

[7] Rise Up! Digital Archive of Feminist Activism, First! June Veecock becomes Human Rights Director at Ontario Federation of Labour; 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women, June Veecock (2016)

[8] Hospital News, A history of diversity and inclusivity (2015)

[9] Hospital News, A history of diversity and inclusivity (2015)

[10] Abigail Bakan and Daiva K. Stasiulis, “Negotiating Citizenship: Migrant Women in Canada and the Global System” (2003) (pp. 135-136); Margaret McPhail for Rise Up! Feminist Archive, “Transcript: Black Nurses Challenge Systemic Racism”

[11] Margaret McPhail for Rise Up! Feminist Archive, “Transcript: Black Nurses Challenge Systemic Racism”

[12] Margaret McPhail for Rise Up! Feminist Archive, “Transcript: Black Nurses Challenge Systemic Racism”

Further Readings

Najja Nwofia Modibo, The Shattered Dreams of African Canadian Nurses, Canadian Woman Studies 23:2 (2004)

Toronto Workers’ History Project, June Veecock on the importance of documenting ourselves (2019)

Christopher Wilson, “Rooted in Unity: The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists on the Move, Together” (2019)

Toronto & York Region Labour Council’s Equity Committee, Celebrating June Veecock (2022)

About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers. 

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