The 16th annual Labour Community Service Award Dinner and Celebration was held on Friday, February 7. This award was established in 1999 by United Way of Saskatoon and Area in partnership with the Saskatoon & District Labour Council. The award recognizes and honours a trade unionist who has demonstrated outstanding service and dedication to our community through volunteer work. This event is held in conjunction with the SDLC Annual General Meeting.
The dinner was emceed by Barb Byers, Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress and about 120 union delegates and community friends attended this important initiative. The recipient of the 2014 Labour Community Service Award was the late Brother Howard Willems, Public Service Alliance of Canada Local 40022 member.
Howard worked as an inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for more than 30 years before retiring in 2012. Our Brother was an active and loyal member of Public Service Alliance of Canada Local 40022 (Agriculture Union). First elected as vice-president of Saskatoon's local, he went on to become Local President, Regional Vice-President, and in 2005 was elected as one of the National Executive Vice-Presidents.
Willems was also recognized as a tireless volunteer in our community. He assisted with his annual United Way workplace campaign and, along with his partner, hosted the annual United Way garage sale fundraiser at their home. He assisted with Growing our Future Urban Gardening Projects and assisted the Saskatchewan Zimbabwe Committee with shipping 1 million packets of seeds to alleviate food shortages caused by a catastrophic crop failure. He served on the Board of Directors of Core Neighbourhood Youth Co-op – a skills building and alternative education program for Saskatoon youth – an agency that credits his volunteer work with their development and growth. A bike-a-thon fundraiser which he established, continues with the dollars raised being split between Core Neighbourhood Youth Co-op and Nashi. All of these volunteer initiatives mentioned (plus more) speak to his commitment to enriching and building a stronger community for all.
One of his greatest passions was Occupational Health and Safety. He appreciated the inherent work dangers faced by not only his members but by all working people. He served on local and regional OH & S committees from 1995 – 2011... and was a members of a National Policy OH&S committee for 6 years. In 2004 he began working with Bob Sass on OH&S and asbestos related issues. He was an exceptional and vibrant facilitator in health and safety training. His battle with asbestos became highly personal in 2010, when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma...a once-rare lung cancer linked to workplace exposure to asbestos. After his diagnosis, he passionately dedicated the final years of his life to advocating for asbestos awareness and protection. Together with Bob Sass, he transformed the Saskatchewan Ban Asbestos Committee to the Saskatchewan Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (SADAO) and actively worked to establish a public registry. He also strived to provide information to victims of asbestos-related diseases.
Unfortunately Howard lost his battle with cancer November 8, 2012. However, his love for family and friends; his passion for community, the labour movement, and health and safety; and, his sense of fairness and loyalty... remains with us.
Our Brother was awarded the rare recognition as a Life Member of the Agriculture Union and is the highest honour this union can bestow on a member. It was a unanimous decision recognizing not only his role in health and safety but also for his overall efforts in the fields of social advocacy and political action. These are words from PSAC which capture our recipient's spirit: "Howard was more than a union member and political (and community) activist, though he wore those titles well. He was the embodiment of hope and optimism; a true trailblazer who turned despair into determination and never stopped fighting."
Howard's wife Brenda accepted the award on Howard's behalf.