Sandra is a Personal Support Worker (PSW) at ParaMed Home Health Care Toronto and a full-time Practical Nursing student. Originally from Colombia, she has been passionate about humanity and social justice since her youth, and at 18 years old she became the youngest leader in her healthcare union while working as a medical assistant.
“I was an active member who helped to write meeting minutes and promoted participation in rallies and assemblies. After that, I became a public leader in Bogota, and I lived in one of the city’s areas called Usme. This area had more than two million people living in precarious conditions, and public services such as hospitals, daycares and schools all suffered from poor management.”
It was then that Sandra and other members from her union called a major strike to negotiate improvements in the area with all the public service managers and the health minister. She was the General Secretary in the Usme Civil Movement from 1990 to 1993 and is proud of how much has changed since then.
“There are still leaders working in the community to this day, and I keep in touch with them from time to time. Hearing what they have to say makes me feel so accomplished after taking the initiative all those years ago.”
In 1993, Sandra began work at a communications company in Bogota, and was soon recognized for her innovative ideas and political experience. She was elected to an executive position in her union for a term of two years and was the first member in the union’s history to get elected in such a short time frame.
Sandra then became a human rights representative in the Colombian Labour Congress and the Communications Union in Bogota. This had implications for her safety, and she talks about how her unwavering focus towards human rights advocacy kept her from being afraid despite her position.
“In 2001, 184 of our leaders were assassinated by death squads; more than 1000 received death threats, over 300 were jailed, and thousands of others were fired for simply being activists or unionized workers. I was aware of my situation as a union leader, but I never felt fear. I was an unusual leader.”
“I was passionate about defending workers’ rights and public services as part of our public patrimony. The most important thing for me was working with the community to strengthen public services and strategic sectors like communications, and I never stopped believing in that.”
When Sandra was elected two years later as General Secretary in the Communications Union, however, the danger to her life and her family became clear. Her family needed a way out, and when they got the opportunity to move to Canada, it changed their lives forever.
“Due to my commitments to my community and the union workers, I was fired from my job, received death threats and was displaced from my home. I didn’t realize how serious this all was until the paramilitaries came to my house to kidnap us in 2002. I decided to have us relocate to another town for a few months, until the representatives from the Colombian Labour Congress told me that I must leave Colombia.”
“The Canadian Labour Congress sponsored me and my family to save our lives. I will always be thankful to my brothers in Colombia, and to my brothers in Canada who welcomed us here with open arms.”
Sandra hasn’t forgotten her roots, however, and contributes heavily to social justice efforts in both Colombia and Canada. This helped her learn the power of the international solidarity:
“Even though I began a new life in Canada, I nevertheless belong to both lands. I am still doing solidarity work for Colombia and have been helping with the organization of a new union at ParaMed as well. No matter which part of the planet it is, globalization is all around us. It’s so important to continue working for social justice and solidarity between the North and South, so that we see a world where everyone can live in peace.”