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Colombian unionist Maria Fernanda Bolanos is on her way home with a month of Canadian memories, new ideas and enthusiasm for the continuing struggle for workers’ rights in the wake of the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement.

“I feel strengthened by this visit,” Bolanos said, in reflecting on an often rigorous tour of four provinces. “And I feel very good that Canadian unions are concerned about my country and willing to help.” She also appreciated “the sense of pride, unity and cooperation” that she saw at the various levels of CUPE.

“We also need to keep strengthening our solidarity to work against privatization,” she said. “There is real relevance to international solidarity in making that struggle visible to the rest of the world.”

As she told groups throughout her tour, Canadian unions and workers have their problems, but they have certain freedoms that don’t exist in Colombia. She called on unions to use those freedoms to fight privatization and free trade.

Mentorship programs for young workers are also at the top of her priority list after meeting with young activists in CUPE and other unions. The 34-year-old municipal worker chairs her union’s youth committee and recently represented her region at a Public Service International youth conference in the Caribbean.

Added to that is the work that must be done with women in coping with what free trade will do to their lives. Already, multinational corporations have displaced millions of women and children in a horrifying cycle of violence. Paramilitary squads steal their land, often murder their husbands, and sell the property to corporate interests.

“This will increase with free trade,” Bolanos said, “and cheap labour will mean fewer decent jobs.” She noted that even at the minimum wage in Canada, a Colombian female worker could afford to hire four domestic workers.

She found widespread agreement among all those that she met with one notable exception. During her final debriefing at a Toronto restaurant, she learned that the server was also Colombian. After a brief exchange, it became clear that the server was a supporter of the current Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, a strong free trader and fierce opponent of trade unionism.

“This shows the importance of continuing to reveal the other side of life in Colombia,” Bolanos said. “It is the side that this Colombian living in Toronto has never seen, has forgotten or doesn’t care to know. It is the side of the millions of displaced people who are barely able to survive.”


Earlier in the week, Bolanos visited Courtenay on Vancouver Island where she attended a public reception and discussion about privatization with Canadian Union of Postal Worker members. She also met with an Amnesty International representative.

At a meeting with NDP member of Parliament Catherine Bell, Bolanos stressed the need for Canada to protest against the free trade agreement and for the New Democratic Party to continue opposing it.

At meetings with the BC Government Employees Union and CUPE’s Hospital Employees’ Union, Bolanos shared strategies on how to directly engage youth, emphasizing the need to reach out to temporary and contract workers. She had similar discussions with Steelworkers members who said her strategies would be useful in their union.

Bolanos’s tour began July 13 in Toronto and finished there on Aug. 14.

RV with files from Kirsten Daub of CoDevelopment Canada.