More than 500 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) are in Toronto to discuss promoting human rights in the workplace and community.

The union, which represents more than 180,000 workers, including those who work for government agencies, holds annual national conferences like this one — “Equality at Work” — for members of visible minorities, women, Aboriginal, GLBTQ or those with disabilities.

Workshops focus on topics like:

  • the impact of racial discrimination in the workplace,
  • addressing mental health concerns,
  • making workplaces safe and inclusive for the GLBT community,
  • the workplace impact of domestic violence and
  • how the union can support the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

This is a “conference of conferences, where human rights are front and centre,” union president Robyn Benson told the crowd in her opening address Friday. She encouraged delegates to boldly bring forward concerns, telling them “you own the floor and you own the stage.”

Benson said current events show human rights are more important now than ever.

Attendees joined her in cries of “Shame!” as she described her disappointment with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, calling him a “racist misogynist.” She cited the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments in France and the January attack at a Quebec City mosque as reasons why we must continue fighting for equality. “We must pledge to never forget this horrific act,” she said of the Quebec City attack, telling members they must “use these memories to eradicate all forms of hatred.”

While Benson praised Canadians who opposed travel restrictions to the United States and anti-refugee policies, she didn’t shy away from criticizing Canada, expressing disappointment at a federal Liberal government she called “ever-slow to deliver” on election promises.

Benson said Justin Trudeau’s second budget, unveiled on Wednesday, “squandered the chance to make Canada a fair, just place” and instead relied on “tired” strategies of hoping wealth with trickle down to disadvantaged Canadians.

She also critiqued the government’s lack of investments in social housing and developing a child-care plan while also mentioning the need for more resources for Indigenous communities.

In the past, PSAC staged separate conferences on specific human rights issues at separate times instead of all at once. Holding one conference allows members from across Canada to come together to learn how people in different regions are experiencing similar problems.

Benson stressed PSAC’s past work, including regional conferences in 2016 that examined racism and the union’s continued support of equality for GLBTQ Canadians. She said the union will continue to tackle the problems created by precarious, part-time and temporary work and support the creation of a federal disability act. She also encouraged conference delegates to participate in the union’s campaign to encourage the government to improve access to affordable child-care across Canada and its Thirsty for Justice campaign to ensure all First Nations communities have safe drinking water.

She encouraged all members to work to support equity, and stressed those in commonly disadvantaged groups need to also work together. It’s “naïve and dangerous for us to think that our union is immune to the virus of hate,” she said, noting that blaming others is not a way to “overcome politics of division and blame.”

Friday’s opening also included talks from Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, Bonnie Brayton, executive director of the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), and Manan Massé, who represents the Quebec riding of Sainte-Marie-Saint Jacques in the National Assembly of Quebec.

The conference ends Tuesday.

Meagan Gillmore is’s labour reporter.