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BCTF zone meetings: Where members meet on local issues

A simplified map showing the seven regional zones of the BC Teachers' Federation.

What are zone meetings?

All 76 locals and sublocals across the province are divided into seven regional zones. Every year, in the fall and spring, the BCTF organizes what is known as “zone meetings.” The zone meetings are an opportunity for members to gather and discuss regional issues.

Who attends zone meetings?

Within every local there are released union officials, meaning they are on leave from their teaching position to work on behalf of the union, and there are volunteers, members who are doing union work in addition to their teaching duties.

Which union positions are released and which are volunteer positions depends on the size of the local and the workload of the role. At zone meetings there can be a combination of released and volunteer members in attendance.

Generally, local presidents attend zone meetings, as it is a chance for them to connect with other local presidents and work together on regional issues that are important to their members but may not get as much attention at provincial meetings.

Also in attendance are committee chairs or representatives from different local committees. Every local has several committees focused on different areas of union work: for example, bargaining committees, professional development committees, social justice committees, health and safety committees, and Aboriginal education committees.

What happens at zone meetings?

At the zone meetings members have a chance to meet other members who do the same type of union work as them in a different local. This creates opportunities for discussion, strategizing, and collaboration to tackle issues.

Zone meetings also open pathways for dialogue between members on local committees and members on provincial committees. Each committee gathering at zone meetings is facilitated by a member who sits on the provincial advisory committee for the same topic. The facilitator can bring notes from the meeting back to the provincial advisory committee to inform that committee’s recommendations to the BCTF Executive Committee.

The following pages are snapshots from four different committee meetings in four different zones.

Okanagan PD chairs (L to R): Robert French, Tamara Nunes, Shawna Mitchell, Teri Allen Innis, Barb Huva, Kyla Hadden, Holly Jezovit, Dave Mackenzie, Jessica Okayama. Anna Chudnovsky photo.

Professional development at the Okanagan Zone Meeting: Improving the profession, increasing our expertise, and exploring our curiosities

Dave Mackenzie, professional development (PD) chair from Vernon and new local president, welcomes members to the professional development meeting at Okanagan zones by playing some catchy tunes from his iPhone. This group is fired up: they’ve come with a clear intention—to strengthen locals’ abilities to support the professional development of their membership.

“How we build our profession, how we increase our expertise, this allows us to improve ourselves, follow our passions, and explore our curiosities,” says Dave.

These folks are on a mission to make access to professional development opportunities more consistent and fair across the province. In rural locals, areas more removed from urban centres, professional development opportunities are few and far between. The “big deal” conferences all take place in the Lower Mainland, they say, and so travel and accommodation costs are prohibitive. What’s more, local language on professional development differs across the province. In some locals, funds are allocated directly to each member to bank over time and use at their leisure. In other locals, members send an application to the PD chair of the local each time they have costs associated with professional development.

"Sometimes it feels like union work is defensive only...But professional development is inspiring stuff: it's how we improve our profession..."

In some ways, the pandemic made it easier for members from remote locals to access conferences and workshops, but now most professional development has returned to in-person programming, and many locals are, yet again, feeling isolated from opportunities to increase their professional expertise.

The PD chairs used zones as an opportunity to learn from one another and brainstorm together. How do folks in Kelowna disperse funds? What’s the uptake from new members in professional development? How are we communicating these opportunities to new members so that they too can participate?

“Professional development is a celebration of our work and our value. It’s the making of professionals. It should be treated as such,” says Teri Allen Innis, PD chair from Kamloops. “Sometimes it feels like union work is defensive only. We support members being disciplined; we take grievances to the employer; we defend the collective agreement. But professional development is inspiring stuff: it’s how we improve our profession; it’s how we build our professional expertise.”

As the meeting wraps up, the group makes plans to meet again to discuss strategies to strengthen local collective agreement language on professional development. The group is excited about the opportunity to share ideas, and they’re motivated to do the work together.

Dave puts on some more tunes as the group heads out for lunch. One thing is certain: there will be more to come from this group of local activists.

Central Coast Aboriginal education contacts (L to R): Catherine Quanstrom, Charmaine Peal, Marla Gamble, Stephanie Muldoe, Teressa Seymour. Amy Smart photo.

Aboriginal education at the North Coast Zone Meeting: Empowering teachers and students to engage in reconciliation

The questions that come up at a meeting of the North Coast Aboriginal education contacts are complex and personal.

How do you teach elementary students about the tragedies of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in a way that is age-appropriate but honest? How do you handle the weight of such topics when they happen in your own community? How do you empower kids to be advocates?

Stephanie Muldoe, who is facilitating the session, has books on hand and a list of resources that she passes around the group of five women. The chance to share across communities like this and to elevate Aboriginal education is part of what attracted her to volunteer with the union. It’s a common story from the Aboriginal education contacts.

"I really feel the union has made me stronger in the sense that it gives me courage to know that I can stand up for myself, stand up for members, and also stand up for the kids."

“I wanted a platform to share different perspectives to a larger audience,” Muldoe said. “Not in a forceful way, but to say, ‘Here’s some material. If you’re doing that, check this out.’”

“If someone reads the materials that the committee thinks is important, that’s a win,” she said.

Charmaine Peal, of the Nisga’a Teachers’ Union, said she joined the union committee because she wanted to help other teachers find the information they need to help bring more Indigenous knowledge into all classrooms.

She remembers feeling excited when she heard on the radio that updated curriculum meant teachers would be able to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into all classroom subjects.

“I’m able to teach my students not only math and the English language. Now I can teach them about the history of the Nisga’a and how we see that world,” she said, adding that about 99% of her students are Indigenous.

Peal, who teaches Grades 3 and 4, said she made the decision to teach in her community after experiencing significant teacher turnover as a student herself. When she was growing up, teachers would arrive for one- or two-year assignments and move on.

“It was a struggle,” she said. “I saw a need for my community and the nation that we have teachers who are from there, because they will know what the students need. That’s why I was persistent in staying here: to provide that stability for the students.”

Marla Gamble, who is Haida and teaches in Tsimshian territory, said she has volunteered with the union on and off through her 23-year career.

Gamble said she incorporates Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in every subject that she teaches and doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects.

The Grades 4 and 5 students in her class are at an age where they have a real sense of empathy and resiliency, and a drive to do what’s right. They understand what happened at residential schools and what inter-generational trauma means. Gamble said she tries to create a caring environment and encourages them to think about how they can make positive contributions.

“As an Indigenous person who feels fortunate to have graduated and gone to university, I feel I am obligated to use that position to help lift up Indigenous people and also create allies. That’s what it is about for me.”

Gamble said she’s been pleased to see a broader understanding of Indigenous experiences and perspectives in the general public, especially over the past seven or eight years. “Whether someone is Indigenous or not, there are now ample learning resources available,” she said.

Beyond a space to advocate for Aboriginal education, Gamble said her union work has given her social opportunities, as well as tools to support her colleagues.

“I really feel the union has made me stronger in the sense that it gives me courage to know that I can stand up for myself, stand up for members, and also stand up for the kids. It’s helped me really understand the collective agreement and what my rights are. It has allowed that professional autonomy and that sense that what I’m doing is right.”

Bargaining chairs Denise Anderson (left) and Laurie Andrews (right) at the Vancouver Island Zone Meeting. Rich Overgaard photo.

Local bargaining at the Vancouver Island Zone Meeting: The reward is helping fellow teachers do their jobs even better

As local bargaining chairs from across Vancouver Island settle in for another session of learning and sharing strategies at the spring zone meetings, two teachers from different locals strike up a conversation about why they both looked so familiar to each other. What came next filled the room with smiles, as two high school friends from the 1980s were able to reconnect and share memories from their time as high school students in Nanaimo.

As it turned out, Laurie Andrews, now living in Powell River, and Denise Anderson, from the Comox Valley, were both members of the Nanaimo District Senior Secondary (NDSS) grad class of 1987. Thirty-six years later, they ended up sitting across the table from each other as teachers sharing strategies about how to engage members in the bargaining process.

At the next break, we interviewed Denise and Laurie as they caught up with each other and talked about how and they got engaged with their union and local bargaining.

What just happened in there? How did you reconnect?

Denise: I recognized Laurie from my high school days at NDSS. It’s been what? Two or three years now? (Laughter)

Laurie: It was great to see each other and such a surprise—even more of a surprise that our paths haven’t crossed sooner, considering our involvement with our locals and the BCTF.

Why did you take on the role of bargaining chair?

Denise: It’s important for to me to know what is happening at the local and provincial level. What happens at bargaining totally impacts my livelihood, my work, and my work-life balance.

Laurie: I’ve been involved in the union from the early days of my career in different ways. I’ve been on different committees, and I was the PD chair for the local, which put me into the local bargaining process. I grew up in a house where my dad was a union activist. It was always part of who I am and my journey as a teacher.

What do you say to members who haven’t engaged with their local?

Denise: I come at it like it’s your professional responsibility to be informed. This is your livelihood; this is your job. We’re important members of our community, of our society, and there’s a lot to learn, but it only takes one little step to get engaged and move forward. It’s incredibly important for members to engage, even if it’s just dipping their toes in at first by filling out a survey or attending a general meeting. We need staff reps, we need people attending workshops, because we can’t make improvements together without being together.

Laurie: I definitely encourage members to get involved. It can be hard, but it is so rewarding to help members—your fellow teachers—in their work and lives. We do such important work and it’s amazing to be one of the people helping them do that.

When it comes to bargaining, this is how we make improvements and help teachers do their jobs even better. But it’s a team. It takes a group of us and feedback and engagement from the members. We can’t do it without them.

When Laurie and Denise returned to the meeting, the group of local bargainers shared experiences and successes about member engagement.

Discussions focused on how member engagement drives awareness and change. The group agreed that when members engage with their union, locals can find better ways to support them, make improvements for them, and organize together to drive political change and workplace improvements.

So the next time you hear about a local townhall, school visit, general meeting, focus group, listening session, or survey—participate. This is how your local bargaining team finds out about your priorities, the improvements you need, and how teachers can work together to make gains.

Health and safety rep Larry Dureski at the North Central Zone Meeting. Sunjum Jhaj photo.

Health and safety at the North Central Zone Meeting: Collaboration and connection are at the centre of union work

What do you do if you experience a violent incident at school? What are the first steps for reporting unsafe work? Who can you contact if you frequently see unshovelled snow in front of your school? Or what if your mobility and accessibility needs are not met? The health and safety committee in each local can help guide members through all these issues and many more.

The work of health and safety committees is wide and varied. They deal with emerging issues in their locals and at school sites, but they also plan so they can proactively get ahead of issues.

"...without doing the union work, I would've burnt out a long time ago. This work feeds the soul."

At the zone meeting, the health and safety contacts came prepared with questions and scenarios to get feedback from others who have first-hand experience with similar issues.

One issue stood out in particular: violence in schools.

Each local from this zone had numerous violent incidents occur in the last school year alone. The team shared stories of triumph and struggle where members and union representatives worked to get employers to act when repeated violent incidents occurred in the same school or classroom. Some members who came from locals with limited or no formal procedures in place took notes to bring back and discuss with their district administration.

There can often be a stigma associated with reporting violent incidents. Some-times, teachers feel their teaching capabilities will be judged or they will be blamed in some way for having a violent student in their class. Getting members to report violent incidents and break this stigma is an important part of creating safety plans to deal with violence.

The work of the health and safety committee has proven to be challenging time and time again. When asked why they do this work, they all shared very similar answers: to support their colleagues and make schools safer for everyone in the building.

“When we make work environments safe for teachers, we also make it safer for students,” said Larry Dureski.

“I am able to do something important for staff members. I can make a difference and help my colleagues,” said Grant Gray.

Grant has been involved with the health and safety committee for over 10 years. Each year at zones, while working collaboratively to address issues, Grant gets to connect with some of the health and safety volunteers from other locals. Lyle Warbinek, Andy Closkey, and Grant Gray have been meeting up at the North Central Health and Safety Zone Meeting every year for over 10 years. The “three stooges,” as they are jokingly referred to, don’t get many opportunities to catch up with one another throughout the school year. But each year at zones they support each other in their work to advocate for their colleagues.

Larry Dureski also has a long-standing history of volunteering with the union. As a member of the provincial Health and Safety Advisory Committee, Larry was the facilitator for the North Central Health and Safety Zone Meeting. Larry has also volunteered in other roles with the union, including staff rep and on the Judicial Council.

In his facilitator role Larry has travelled to many parts of our province, always bringing along his trusted running shoes, ready to explore some new trails in the region.

Larry describes his work with the union as an opportunity for professional development. Through union work, he has had a chance to connect with colleagues across the province. The conversations with colleagues, sharing of ideas, and collaborative learning all enrich his teaching practice.

“I’ve been teaching for 36 years. If I just taught music without doing the union work, I would’ve burnt out a long time ago. This work feeds the soul,” said Larry.


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