Labour activist Olenuk mourned

Thomas Olenuk, a well-known union activist who was most recently president of the Edmonton and District Labour Council, has died at the age of 57.

Thomas Olenuk, 57, was a fixture in the labour movement in Edmonton for decades. He died Nov. 19. (CBC)"He had been battling some health issues," said Perri Garvin, a close friend and vice-president of the Edmonton District Labour Council. "Unfortunately, he was taken from us much too early."

Olenuk came to Edmonton in the early 1970s as a university student, Garvin said, seeking a Masters degree in English.

"He got a job with Canada Post to pay the bills, and they went on strike shortly thereafter and he just became a social activist out of that, and fighting for workers' rights."

Olenuk spent 11 years with the Postal Workers' Union, becoming president of the Edmonton local.

In his career, he also served on the executive of the Alberta Federation of Labour, the AFL's environment committee, as director of the Alberta Environment Network, with the Alberta Capital Region United Way campaign, the Leadership Council of Vibrant Communities Edmonton and the governance committee of the Edmonton Community Foundation.

"He was there when I first got active and he's been a fixture, frankly, in the labour movement especially here in Edmonton, for more than 20 years, pushing 30 years," said Gil McGowan, AFL president.

The annual Labout Day barbecue for the unemployed is a legacy of Thomas Olenuk's passion for helping the underdog, says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. (CBC)"He was the first to be on the picket line when there was a crisis, to show support for workers who were either locked out or on strike," said McGowan.

Olenuk was also instrumental in turning Labour Day celebrations from a parade into a barbecue for the unemployed, McGowan said. The event celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

"It's a legacy for him," McGowan said.

"We'll all admit that sometimes he was a little bit gruff. He was a little bit rough around the edges. He called things as he saw them and sometimes that rubbed people the wrong way, but his heart was always in the right place and he made a difference in this community."

A celebration of Olenuk's life is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at NorQuest College, at 10215 108 St. in Edmonton.

CBC News, Fri Nov 27 2009

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