It’s one thing to be unionized but when the union organization that you belong to boasts over 300,000 members, it can be difficult to know just where you and your fellow workers stand within it. That’s why a delegation from the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) recently traveled north to touch base with local union members among the Cree and Inuit.

On April 2 and 3, after touring Kuujjuaq, the CSN group visited Chisasibi to meet with employees from different sectors who are all part of the CSN. The delegation included CSN vice-president Louis Roy, the vice-president of the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS-CSN), Laurier Goulet, and Sylvie Joly, their tour organizer and union advisor.

“The main thing was that there was unity. There was no ‘me’ or ‘I.’ They are members of the CSN as are we. There was a great sense of us being all together,” said Joly.

While in Chisasibi, the Montreal group toured the hospital, various administrative buildings, a group home and even some maintenance workers’ buildings. The majority of CSN members in Chisasibi are employees of Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. The idea was to visit union members while they are in the throes of their daily routines at their places of work.

Though Joly admitted that initially many were slow to talk to the union heads, once the conversation got rolling, there was so much discussion that delegates were unable to make some of their stops on the planned tour. Joly was sorry that she and her colleagues did not get to meet with all the workers they had intended to but this was her only regret about the trip.

“The main point was to meet the members because we are nearing new negotiations with the government for the public sector. So we were up there to meet the people and ask what they were expecting from their spokespeople in terms of what they would like them to be bringing to the government on their behalf,” said Joly.

The CSN will be going back to the bargaining table on behalf of many of unionized workers in March 2010 to negotiate a new contract for them as the old one will be expiring.

According to Rebecca Swallow, the president of the union of employees of the CBHSSJB, not only did the tour go extremely well, but the employees also had the chance to ask the union leaders questions that were most specific to them.

“The main question was about our collective agreement and how there is a clause that states that our employees can take traditional holidays but that they are unpaid like Goose Break. They were wondering how come it was like that within the Cree Health Board? They were asking if we could put that on the table,” said Swallow.

Though the CSN tour had a serious tone about it, it was not devoid of Cree hospitality and tradition. During two days, the delegation visited the local band office to meet Deputy Chief Daisy House and on the Friday the community held a feast for the visitors that almost 200 local workers attended. The guests were treated to a performance by the Chisasibi Junior Drummers to give the evening a traditional tone.

In keeping with tradition in Chisasibi, many of the local union members also doubled as entertainers for the evening to provide fiddle music and, of course, square dancing.

“Every time an entertainer came up, I would tell the visitors that the entertainer was an employee too and that they have different talents,” said Swallow, laughing.

According to Joly, not only did a great deal of bonding happen between union members and the delegates, the CSN representatives were able to firmly establish their presence within the community.

“In the north, in all of the Cree communities too, we as the CSN are there for these people and their needs. CSN is also a member of the community that is doing its share to try to improve the working conditions for those in the north. It goes both ways,” said Joly.

Returning to Montreal, Joly said that she and the other delegates were both happy and exhausted from having had such an intense and incredible experience in Chisasibi. She said that while in the north everyone laughed and cried together and in the process became a stronger union.