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Muriel Jean Collins

Trade union activist and pioneer, mother, friend. Born on May 19, 1933, in Georgetown, Guyana; died on Nov. 12, 2013, in Toronto, after a long illness, aged 80.

Muriel Collins had a beautiful spirit, an engaging laugh and a backbone of steel.

She arrived in Canada from Guyana in 1963 with two young children, and eventually found work as a nursing attendant at Kipling Acres, one of Toronto's municipally run "homes for the aged." Understaffing and supply shortages were endemic at the time, as were administrative arbitrariness, intimidation and pettiness. These so offended Muriel's sense of fairness that she became a shop steward in her union, Local 79 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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There, she discovered her true vocation. Her co-workers trusted her as their representative. The home's residents loved her. And when she took on management, all were dumbfounded by her personal courage. By 1980, Muriel had been elected to the Local 79 executive and become a member of the citywide bargaining committee.

Inspired by Muriel, Local 79 issued two public reports in the early 1980s that – with the support of the news media – forced city hall to redress the understaffing and mismanagement in Greenacres and other homes.

Turning her attention to 600 part-time homes workers who lacked workplace representation, Muriel then became a driving force in the local's campaign to unionize and obtain a good collective agreement for them.

In the late 1980s, Muriel was named chair of CUPE's nationwide women's task force and a founding member of CUPE's national "rainbow" committee on racism, discrimination and employment equity.

During the 1990s, she was twice elected to CUPE's national executive as an Ontario vice-president – the first black woman to hold a top leadership position in Canada's largest union.

Everywhere she went, people would be struck by her quiet dignity and powerful sense of purpose. You could see it in her eyes and hear it in her speech, its natural cadence calling to mind the voice of Nelson Mandela – deliberate, measured, firm and wise. And like Madiba, she could sum up things with a knowing chuckle, and her unpretentious laugh would light up the room.

In 1989, the Toronto YWCA named her as a Woman of Distinction. And when Local 79's co-op housing project on Lombard Street in downtown Toronto was opened in 1995, it was named the Muriel Collins Co-operative in tribute to her character and accomplishments. When she retired in 1998, she was appointed to the honour roll of the Ontario Federation of Labour, with an OFL student scholarship bearing her name.

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All these opportunities and tributes were well deserved. Yet she had sought none of them. There was not a shred of artificiality or personal ambition about her. She was purely and simply a moral force who sought to serve her fellow human beings and bring them a measure of equality, respect and justice.

Muriel Collins leaves an adoring family – including her children Roger, Gavin, Andy and Dawn, their spouses, her grandchildren, and her sisters and brothers. She leaves many trade-union sisters and brothers who adored her, too.

Jeff Rose is Muriel's friend and colleague, first as president of Local 79 and then as national president of CUPE (1983-1991).

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