This article first appeared in JustInfo, a Department of Justice Canada publication, on March 23, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.
Sandra Leduc: A Life in Motion
by Stephen Bindman, Special Advisor, Wrongful Convictions
To suggest Sandra Leduc likes adventure is a slight understatement.
Consider the last six months of her life.
In late November, she returned to the Department of Justice and Ottawa after a two-year posting with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) in Afghanistan.
On April 2, she leaves for two months to climb Mount Everest in her continuing quest to scale the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.
And then a week after her return from Nepal, she leaves for a two-year secondment with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to work for the Canadian Mission in the Palestinian Territories as a legal reform advisor.
“I like challenges,” says the ebullient 34-year-old lawyer, whose home position is in the Aboriginal Law and Strategic Policy section.
“Most people think I’m nuts. I’m definitely an adrenalin junkie, but adrenalin rushes can be triggered in many different ways. It’s not necessarily from doing a particular sport. For me, I get an adrenalin rush from doing something new and something that’s difficult and that can be an intellectual activity. I find I get motivated by people who have those similar pursuits.”
Sandra, who joined the Department in 2002 after starting law school at McGill University at age 17, has lived in nine countries on four continents, can fly a plane, and can read and write in Hindi, Arabic and Dari.
But she says she comes by her wanderlust naturally.
“Sometimes I don’t feel very much like an original because my father was exactly like this. He started backpacking in the early 70s, rode a motorcycle most of his life, started the skydiving club at the University of Montreal, and became a diplomat.”
First there was Afghanistan.
Sandra applied to a public service wide competition and was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Kabul in charge of Rule of Law files — including justice, corrections, and human rights.
Her work included political reporting back to Ottawa on Rule of Law issues, implementing and coordinating DFAIT programming in the justice and corrections sectors, working with senior officials within the Afghan government to understand and help them achieve their government’s needs, and representing Canada at bilateral and multilateral international meetings.
For the first year, she lived in a converted three-metre wide blast-proof metal shipping container with two tiny windows that didn’t open. In the second year, she got her own room in a house.
The Embassy staff lived in a compound with no ability to walk anywhere else other than the length of the street on which the compound was situated.
“It meant you couldn’t do the ordinary things you could do here, like going to the movie theatre on weekends or grocery shopping.
“It meant your best friends were your colleagues. We ate all our three meals a day together, maybe had a drink at the bar on the compound together after work, and worked long hours side by side. So you had to learn to get along and set aside differences because it was the only way you were going to survive those long extended hours together.”
“I had an amazing experience. Part of the reason I loved it is that it provided an opportunity to understand what it means to live in a conflict zone, to understand political and socio-economic dynamics in one of the most challenging geopolitical hotspots in the world in a way that isn’t ever fully captured by the media, and to see how our efforts, however small, are actually having an impact on the ground.”
Sandra also valued the whole-of-government approach of the mission, working together with colleagues from several other departments.
Working six to seven 12-to-14 hour work days every week, every few months, the diplomats were allowed a few days of leave. While many of her colleagues returned home, not surprisingly — given her interests — Sandra chose to travel.
But of course, not any ordinary travel. During her posting and following her departure, she visited 24 countries, including places most tourists avoid — such as North Korea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
“They were absolute eye openers, completely different.”
And then there is the mountain climbing.
Among the Seven Summits, she has already scaled Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in Alaska, Aconcagua in Argentina, Elbrus in Russia and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
The Everest climb will cost more than $55,000 and take two months, including travel and getting acclimatized to the altitude. She currently trains two hours a day, including intensive cardio sessions to prepare her heart for extended periods of elevated heart rate at altitude, a lot of running, biking, and yoga to work on her balance.
She says mountain climbing gives her the unique satisfaction of going to very remote places on the globe that few others have visited.
And there is the pushing of personal limits — seeing how far you can extend yourself outside your comfort zone.
“It’s very simple when you think about it. There’s one goal that you work to achieve over months and months of mental and physical preparation and once you are there, both of those combine together. There’s nothing else that can interfere with that single-mindedness.
“It’s very hard to describe the rush that you feel once you have achieved that kind of goal. It’s one of those things that nothing and no one can take that away from you when you’ve actually ‘summitted’ a mountain. It’s just an incredible life experience and it gets addictive, quite frankly.”
Sandra is extremely grateful to her home section (Aboriginal Law and Strategic Policy) for being supportive and for being a place where she has found files and colleagues that provide her with the kind of intellectual stimulation she craves.
“My experience in Afghanistan has taught me that the Department of Justice has a lot to offer on an international scale. Other departments see that potential and it is up to us to capitalize on it. We certainly have a lot to gain both professionally and personally, and collectively and individually, by becoming involved in these kinds of international activities.”