National Post

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Wednesday, September 08, 1999

Allegations of racism rock Saskatchewan union
Paul Waldie
National Post

A running feud between Saskatchewan's biggest union and a leading feminist broke open yesterday with allegations of racism and harassment.

The battle pits the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU) against Kripa Sekhar, a union member and head of the Saskatchewan Action Committee on the Status of Women (SAC).

The fight has been raging behind the scenes for months, but it became public yesterday when the news of a harassment complaint to the union by five SAC members came out. Ms. Sekhar, 51, who is also a vice-president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, alleges that many union members are racists and that a small group of women is trying to oust her from the union because of her views.

"Racism within the union is a fact, there is no denying it," she said from her office in Regina. "I've had it with these people."

Doug Blanc, president of the SGEU, said Ms. Sekhar's concerns are being investigated and that there is no move to oust her.

"We don't kick anybody out of the union," he said yesterday. "We don't operate that way."

But Mr. Blanc paused when asked about Ms. Sekhar and her allegations.

"I don't know," he said. "I like Kripa, don't get me wrong, Kripa is a very capable woman, but she has experienced, I think, a lot of racism in her life. So, she's kind of dwelling on it a little bit."

The battle began in November, 1998, during an SGEU conference in Saskatoon on equity. Ms. Sekhar had been active in the SGEU for years -- all SAC employees are members of the union -- and decided to run for a position on a human rights committee. She lost, and after the vote stepped to a microphone and accused union members of failing to back her because she was the only woman of colour to stand for election.

"I said, 'I'm really disgusted. Who says racism in the women's movement is dead. It's still alive, you see it everywhere.' "

She added that she felt she'd been discriminated against because of her colour.

"If it was any other white woman in my place, who had done the work that I had done, there would have been no questions and no one would have challenged [her election]," she said yesterday.

This wasn't the first time Ms. Sekhar has complained about the union being racist. After a 1997 SGEU convention, she raised concerns about the union's inability to deal with racism and objected to some comments she heard during the meeting. She said one delegate sounded as if he was from a "hate group."

"It is therefore amazing that some members continue to ignore racism and discrimination and use simplistic jargon claiming we are all equal," she said in a letter to then union president Barry Nowoselsky in August, 1997.

Ms. Sekhar was so enraged at the time she suggested the union invite officials from Saskatchewan's Human Rights Commission to future conventions to act as observers.

Two months after the 1998 meeting, five women who were at the conference filed a complaint to the union about Ms. Sekhar's comments.

"They said that they found parts of this meeting inappropriate," said Mr. Blanc. "And it wasn't even just all against Kripa, it was the process in general that they had a concern against, and somehow or another it's just got blown out of proportion."

But Ms. Sekhar says the complaint was directed at her and involved an insidious move by a small group of white women to gag her.

The complaint was by "five white women who have no understanding of racism and no understanding of freedom of expression," she said yesterday.

In a letter to a union executive officer, she added: "I, for one, see this attack by five white women against a woman of colour as a racist act. Since I am a very vocal woman of colour and have made my views about racism very clear, this is an effective method of silencing me."

In the letter, dated March 1, she said she was unfairly attacked because of her colour.

"If white women are unable to come to terms with racism then let them say so openly, but let's stop pretending that discrimination has ended simply because we attend a few equity meetings, or eat a samosa or bannock."

The union appointed an investigator, Judy Bell, to review the complaint. But Ms. Sekhar objected to Ms. Bell, saying she was biased. "I have expressed concerns about the investigator because she is a white woman who has not experienced any form of institutional racism," she said yesterday.

Mr. Blanc said the concerns were unfounded.

The issue is scheduled for mediation next month. Ms. Sekhar is being backed by the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism.

"Kripa has got a huge commitment to the struggles of all people," said Robert Hughes, head of the coalition. "She has a very good ability to have her voice heard."

Ms. Sekhar intends to continue being heard.

"If they are going to accuse me of being guilty for speaking out, so be it," she said yesterday. "But I am not going to give up the right to speak."

Copyright Southam Inc.