Sam Raven, president of the Terrace Kitimat District Labour Council (TDLC), says labour activism is her way of strengthening the community around her. (Photo courtesy Sam Raven)

The reluctant activist: Smithers woman follows in dad’s union footsteps

Sam Raven could never understand why her father spent so much time helping others; now she does

Sam Raven grew up watching her dad toil as a union activist and she never understood why he would work so hard for what seemed to be little reward. Now she is an ardent labour activist herself.

The 33-year-old mother of three lives in Smithers where she was born and raised, and she has strong ties to the Skeena region. She is the president of the Terrace & District Labour Council (TDLC) and, prior to COVID-19, she travelled from Smithers to Terrace for monthly TDLC meetings.

Raven said that for her, labour activism is not just for strengthening the rights of union workers — it’s a way to strengthen her community and society at large.

Her father was involved with the Teamsters union through his job at CN Rail and she used to watch him work.

“Ironically, it actually made me not want to get involved because I saw how busy he was,” she said. “He had a lot of meetings constantly and I just remember thinking ‘Why would you take so much time to do all this for other people?’ and most of the time he wouldn’t even get a thank-you.”

But her feelings changed when, at 18 years old, she moved away from the Bulkley Valley to the Kootenays, where she worked three jobs simultaneously and still struggled to make ends meet. She worked at a book store, a gas station and a resort.

“I think that’s really where it put a bit of a fire in me, in the sense that I was working three jobs and I was barely making my rent,” she said. “I was living off Ichiban and bread that was from the bargain bin. There was a while where I actually was homeless, even though I was working three jobs. I was living in a tent. It just seemed incredible that I was doing everything right—I never stole, I never broke the law, I did right, I always paid my taxes, but it just wasn’t working.”

Raven said the job at the gas station was particularly strenuous, but also a blessing because that’s where she met her now-husband. They started a family and moved back to the Bulkley Valley in 2007. Raven was a stay-at-home mom for a while, caring for her daughter, who is now 13, and her boys, who are now nine and 11.

In 2013, she began working as a community support worker with the High Road Services Society in Smithers, an organization that supports adults with developmental disabilities. Through that, she joined the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU.)

She quickly became a BCGEU steward at her workplace.

“I just saw that people weren’t having anyone fight for their rights. So I did not want to be an activist. It’s just one of those things when you see something that’s wrong and you just need to step in,” she said.

She found that some people were resistant to her status as a steward, and she wanted to find a way to make a real difference. That’s when she began to specialize in health and safety, forming a health and safety committee for her worksite.

“It’s very divisive. If you tell any manager that you’re a steward, immediately [they] shut down … It’s the big bad union, right,” she said. “For health and safety, I think we can all have common ground, where we want everyone to go home without any mental, physical or emotional trauma.”

Her role with the BCGEU grew from there. She is still a steward, but now she also serves as first vice-chair of BCGEU Local 312 and she facilitates health and safety courses for the union.

This past winter, Raven attended a labour conference in the Lower Mainland organized by the Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella labour group that includes most unions in Canada. At the conference she was approached and asked if she would become involved with the revival of the Terrace & District Labour Council (TDLC).

The TDLC is essentially a local arm of the Canadian Labour Congress, though it has not been active in recent years. Raven said she is working to bring it back to life and she is actively seeking representatives of unions in the area who may want to join. She had planned to host a big Labour Day event in Terrace to kick off the revival, but COVID-19 kiboshed the planned event. Hopefully she will be able to plan an event for Labour Day 2021, she said.

The real strength of an umbrella organization like the TDLC, Raven said, is that it can advocate for generalized causes that a single union might not prioritize. It’s a way to strengthen society as a whole.

“This is really neat because you have so many different unions that will come and sit around the table and think about what we can do as a whole … one of our campaigns is actually getting a national pharmacare system.” she said.

“You do what you can to help everybody. The national pharmacare system is a perfect example. Most unionized workers have a benefit system. I have benefits. I don’t need pharmacare, but other people do. So we can use our collective voice as labour and say ‘you know what, this is something everybody should have.’”

Raven said one of her proudest moments as a labour activist came when she was marching in Terrace’s Riverboat Days parade last year next to the BCGEU’s pride-themed float.

“This one person comes out of the crowd, this teenager probably about 13, 14 [years old] and just said ‘this is best float ever’ and they asked if they could walk with us, and we said ‘absolutely,’” she said. “They grabbed a rainbow flag and, pure joy, they said this is the first time they’ve felt that they can be themselves in Terrace … I tear up just thinking about it, actually.”

It’s moments like that, Raven said, that make her excited to reboot the TDLC and make it part of the community again.

“To me that’s what the labour movement is. It’s that inclusivity, it’s where we want to know everybody and you don’t have to worry about saying the right thing or the wrong thing it’s just about being you. And how can we support you in that?” she said.

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