Simpson is first Canadian national union Black female leader

Simpson is first Canadian national union Black female leader

July 19, 2019

Nearly 30 years after being a shop steward in her workplace, Jan Simpson is the first Black woman to lead a national union in Canada.

The postal worker was elected national President at the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) convention in Toronto. 

Simpson is honoured to be part of a progressive union that values diversity and continues to challenge the status quo.

“This position comes with a lot of responsibility,” she acknowledged. “We are fighting with a government that’s anti-worker and we are not going to let up.”

With federal elections due to take place on or before October 21, Simpson has pledged to make postal issues an electoral priority for all candidates and citizens. She has also promised to continue to support the ‘Delivering Community Power’ campaign launched in 2016 by the CUPW to advance part of its vision for the postal service and to work with new allies on a new basis. 

“The post office of the future must include new and expanding services like postal banking, service to seniors and climate-friendly delivery models,’ she said. “The time for change is now.”

Marie Clarke-Walker, who in 2017 made history by becoming the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) first racialized female secretary-treasurer, said Simpson’s election is significant for many reasons.

“The fact that Black and other racialized women make up the majority of workers and have been working in this country for hundreds of years means it was way past time for a racialized woman leader,” she said. “Also, she’s leading one of the most militant national unions and that’s noteworthy because she’s a woman of Caribbean heritage. Today, there’s still a deficit when it comes to women in leadership and it’s even greater when you look at racialized women.”

After her election to the CLC in 2002, Clarke-Walker promised she would be the standard bearer when it comes to women leaders in unions and, more importantly, racialized women.

“I encourage them to run for office in their unions and community which is part of what we do as members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists,” she added. “Jan was someone who did just that. She was a member who was always asking questions and wouldn’t rest until she got an answer she understood. She climbed the ladder and set her goals, not allowing anyone to stop her. Her determination is part of what will make her a good leader who has the ability to be a bridge builder and unifier.”

CBTU founding President and retired Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) human rights director June Veecock said Simpson’s achievement is seminal.

“When I heard that this lady was elected, the first thing that came to my mind is that the important work that I was engaged in wasn’t in vain,” she said. “I am talking about the work of the OFL Human Rights Committee that put equity and inclusion on labour’s agenda and the work of all of those activists who challenged the labour movement to make changes. The CUPW, for the most part, has been a male-dominated union and for her to reach these heights means she has to be very good.”

Coming from Barbados at age three, Simpson started working at Canada Post in 1985 as a Postal Clerk in the Toronto sortation plant. She has been assigned to various letter depots and currently holds a bilingual retail position in Pickering.

Finding organizing for the CUPW, which she started 12 years ago, to be rewarding and challenging, Simpson was elected the national union representative responsible for external organizing in 2011, making her the first Black woman elected to the CUPW national office.

“To say we are ecstatic about one of our members being elected national president of a trade union is an understatement,” said CBTU President and Canadian Union of Public Employees second Vice-President Yolanda McClean. “One of the objectives of the CBTU is to work within the framework of the trade union movement to advocate for Black trade unionists and create a vehicle for advancing the inclusion of workers of African descent. Jan’s election is, in our view, both history in the making and our mission statement at work.”

Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Ontario regional coordinator Christopher Wilson hailed Simpson’s appointment.

“Jan has been a longstanding activist within the community who has consistently advocated through the CBTU for greater diversity and inclusion within the labour movement,” he pointed out. “As the first Black woman elected to the presidency of any national union, she is breaking barriers, giving voice to our community and advancing the working class struggle for economic equality.”

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