Léa & Great Friends

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Léa Roback’s Biography

Courtesy of Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

LEA ROBACK (1903-2000) Lea was born in Montreal, on Guilbault street, in 1903, in a Jewish family of Polish origin, but spent her childhood in Beauport, where her father practised his trade as a tailor, and ran a general store with his wife Fanny. The only Jewish family in the village, with their nine children, they got along well with their Beauport neighbours because, as Lea says, “they were all poor like us.”

The family returns to Montreal in 1915. Lea starts working as a receptionist for a dyer, and later on as a cashier at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Guy Street. There’s a brothel in front of the theatre, and the young Lea gets to know some of the prostitutes, “nice girls, she says, because in the 20s there’s not a whole lot of ways for a woman without an education to earn a living.” Is this where the development of her feminist thinking and her belief in the right to an education and a good job begins? perhaps… all the same, these convictions will indeed guide her action many years later…

Lea comes from a family where reading and the arts are valued and cherished; she herself is passionate about theatre and literature. She manages to put some money aside and decides to enroll at the Université de Grenoble in 1926, to study literature.

Driven by a most unconventional adventuresome spirit, certainly uncommon for any woman of her time, she will travel a lot over the years to come. In 1929, she joins her brother Henri, a student in medicine, in Berlin. She learns to speak German there, does a few courses at the university and teaches French. Nazism is on the rise and Lea becomes keenly politicized: she marches in the streets of Berlin on May Day 1929, joins protest demonstrations with students and trade unionists, and promptly becomes part of the communist movement that spearheads the anti-fascist struggle at the time. The situation becomes increasingly dangerous both for communists and Jews, and Lea has no choice but to leave Germany and return to Montreal in the fall 1932.

She will go to work at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association for two years, then at a school for offenders in New York State. She will visit the USSR in 1934, stop in Paris to contact some anti-fascist groups, passes through New York again, and then lays down her roots definitively in Montreal.

“I’m acting out of my deepest conviction.” You have to tell yourself:
Come what may, I’m going ahead; if it succeeds, so much the better;
If not, I’ll find another way or just move on.
There is nothing sadder than people with no enthusiasm.

She is put in charge of a Marxist bookstore, the Modern Book Shop, on Bleury Street, south of Sainte-Catherine. Lea is at the forefront of every struggle, and in the 1935 federal elections, works for the Communist candidate Fred Rose in the Cartier riding.

Courtesy of Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

Her activism and support of communist causes has a price of course, and Lea loses count of the number of police raids that took place during the anti-communist witch-hunts conducted by the Union Nationale Government. Until the end of her life, she always deplored the disappearance of the many books that were taken away from her. To understand the appeal of the Communist Party, here as elsewhere, one must recall the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism, the exercises of black-shirted men, with their Nazi swastikas in Lafontaine Park, the smashed store windows of Jewish-owned stores, the work of Université de Montréal students, including the bookshop where Lea worked, and the police who blithely turned a blind eye to all this violence. Lea became an active member of Solidarité féminine, a woman’s organization that was particularly involved in helping families affected by unemployment take care of their daily needs.

In Montreal, the Great Depression drags on and on, and the situation of the working class just doesn’t stop deteriorating. In the fall 1936, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU-UIOVD), headquartered in New York City, begins a campaign to organize the workers across the whole industry in Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal. The work force is almost entirely female and works in numerous insalubrious sweatshops, where they are shamelessly exploited. The Union dispatches Rose Pesotta, a veteran union organizer from New York, but the latter doesn’t speak any French; Lea is the ideal person to help her out and plays a key role, because she’s able to speak French to the francophone workers who constitute some 60% of the 5,000 workers and just as easily converse in Yiddish and English to the other workers, an overwhelming majority of whom are Jewish. After three weeks, a collective agreement is signed and the strikers celebrate their victory. A year later however, the contract is broken in the face of a Union, weakened by anti-communist purges. Lea leaves the garment workers in 1939, without however ever abandoning the struggle to improve the condition of working women.

In 1942, Lea works on the production assembly line at the RCA Victor plant in Saint-Henri, that counts some 4,000 workers, about 40% of whom are women. Today, a few streets from the plant, there is a street that bears her name, Lea Roback Street. The organizer succeeds, without having to resort to a strike, in organizing an Industrial Union in the plant, but as Lea so aptly says: “It’s impossible to affirm that so and so, she organized the union, never. It’s always, always the rank and file […] If people don’t want a union, you can’t shove it down their throats.”

All my life I have stood with the working men and women.
I was proud to belong to the rank-and-file.
Whenever I said “we,” I meant “we,” what we could achieve together.
That’s what I loved.

Notwithstanding all her talents for persuading and mobilizing workers, Lea always refused to become a union staff representative and climb up the hierarchy. She never wanted to hold any other union positions than those that would enable her to be in the field. She says: “I’ve always been with the workers […] I liked rubbing shoulders with the people with whom I worked […] I never wanted to move out of the rank and file […] I wanted to be able to say “we” and that it really meant we.”

Once again, in 1943, she’s active in the election campaign on behalf of Fred Rose, running for the Labour Progressive Party, the rebaptized Communist Party, and this time, Rose is elected MP to represent the Montreal-Cartier riding. Lea will slowly but surely distance herself from the Communist Party and definitively leave the Party in 1958.

The 1945 Armistice, followed by the Cold War, gives rise to a massive pacifist movement. In 1960, a group of Canadian women found the Voice of Women, which becomes La Voix des Femmes in Montreal, and that unites together anglophones and francophones, such as Thérèse Casgrain, and polyglots such as Lea. She will play an active role in the organization: becoming a fixture in the streets protesting against militarization, nuclear arms, the war in Vietnam and distributing leaflets against military toys. As always, Lea takes the time to speak to people, to explain things, always keeping her cool and sporting an engaging smile in front of passers-by, who are not always as polite as she.

What’s important is learning to be human,
learning that we are all alike

The struggle against apartheid also attracts Lea’s active support over the years and she shares in the joy of victory, when Nelson Mandela is released from prison in 1990. Likewise, she never stopped fighting for and defending pay equity and a woman’s right to an abortion.

Photographie Louise de Grosbois © Fondation Léa Roback

Lea Roback was a progressive way ahead of her time. Her commitment was always rooted in solidarity and action. Her approach was shrewdly politicized, turned towards the future and decidedly feminist. It was also fed with optimism and entrenched in the certainty that she was on the side of justice and the conviction that she would help build a better world. “It’s funny, she confessed during an interview, but I never felt […] that it wasn’t worth it. It was never like that for me.“.

Look out the window. The sky’s almost covered.
Some grayish white clouds, some almost black,
but between them you can see a bit of blue.
I focus on the blue.

The filmmaker Sophie Bissonnette made a documentary on Lea Roback: Des Lumières dans la grande Noirceur (A Vision in the Darkness) with Productions Contre-Jour, in 1991.

And in 1988, Nicole Lacelle published, with Éditions du remue-ménage, her interviews with Madeleine Parent and Lea Roback.

Madeleine Parent and Lea Roback, dear friends and dedicated comrades-in-arms

Madeleine Parent, 1949, Montréal.
Photography A. G. Nakash

In 1939, when Lea Roback asked to be introduced to Madeleine Parent at the end of a meeting, she probably had no idea that she was laying the foundation for a long-lasting and very close friendship, as well as launching a remarkable activist career focused upon change and progress.

History will undoubtedly associate Madeleine’s life with the textile strikes at the end of the 1940s and early 1950s and the unremitting assault undertaken by then Premier Maurice Duplessis upon Madeleine accusing her of sedition, which ultimately led to her being sentenced to prison.

One must also bear in mind her remarkable contribution to the development of autonomous Canadian and Quebec trade unions. In 1969, she and Kent Rowley, her lifetime companion and fellow union organizer, founded the Canadian Council of Unions. At that time, 70% of unionized workers in Canada belonged to union organizations whose headquarters were located in the United States. Today, that same proportion of union members belongs to exclusively Canadian and/or Quebec-based unions.

Impossible, likewise, to overlook her commitment to the cause of women, all women and particularly aboriginal and immigrant women, whom she defended whenever and wherever and whose demands and needs she endorsed wholeheartedly.

But we can especially remember her for steadfast resolve, her commitment to the many causes that were dear to her and her attachment to the Lea Roback Foundation, of which she was a founding member, a member of the Board of Directors until 2009, and then, an honorary member. As she herself told me during a recent visit that I had with her: “Supporting the Foundation is just one more way to continue being active and involved, and giving shape and meaning to my friendship for Lea.”

Madeleine has left us. Sadness obviously fills our hearts, but also, if not more so, we must take pride. Pride in having known this pioneer of her calibre. Pride in being able to live in a society that Madeleine helped push in the direction of achieving greater equality for women, justice and solidarity.

The Board of Directors of the Lea Roback Foundation
Lorraine Pagé, President.

Madeleine Parent, “Weaver of Solidarities”

Photo prise lors de la remise des bourses d’études 2004-2005, Montréal
Photographie : Sandra Salomé ©

Born in Montreal in 1918, Madeleine Parent proved early on to be a committed activist. From 1937 to 1940, while a student at McGill University, Madeleine played an active role, demanding that the federal government grant university scholarships to young people from low-income families.

In 1942, with Kent Rowley whom she married in 1953, Madeleine led a union movement, organizing 6,000 Dominion Textile workers in Montreal and Valleyfield. The 1946 strike was very bitter, particularly in Valleyfield. It lasted 100 days but ended in victory for the union with the signing of the first collective agreements in these factories.

During the strike in Lachute in 1947, Premier Maurice Duplessis had Madeline Parent and Kent Rowley arrested for “seditious conspiracy,” linking them to the “Communist menace.” The legal proceedings ended in a not-guilty verdict in 1955. But during that period, trade union activity proved difficult and eventually impossible for Madeleine and Kent in Québec, with the American union (later found guilty of corruption) expelling them from its ranks in 1952 in the middle of a cotton-mills workers’ strike.

So, Madeleine and Kent carried on their work in Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s. They contributed to the development of a Canadian trade union movement independent of American unions.

After Kent Rowley’s death in 1978, Madeleine continued to help train the new generation of union activists until she retired in 1983. She then settled down in Québec, and applied her activist commitments to combating all forms of discrimination against women in Québec and the rest of Canada. As a pacifist, Madeleine took a stand against the armed conflicts that were growing and spreading throughout various parts of the world.

Québec painter Marcelle Ferron, one of the signatories of the Refus Global manifesto, once commented, “The greatest figure of our time, the one who did the most to change Québec, was not a signatory of the Refus Global manifesto it was trade unionist Madeleine Parent, who at the time was leading strikes in the textile industry.”

It is in this sense that Madeleine Parent is a symbol of the union movement and of many significant struggles to defend rights.

Madeleine, pioneer

Not only was Madeleine Parent a member of the Lea Roback Foundation board of directors from the outset, she was one of its founders. Her name is automatically associated with Lea Roback’s, since they fought for the same causes and were united by an unbreakable bond of friendship.

Madeleine participated, as long as her health permitted, in the Foundation’s activities. The Foundation’s mission, as well as its financial health was close to her heart. Accordingly, in the winter 2009, she donated a few personal possessions to the Foundation, most notably several valuable pieces of furniture.

Madeleine passed away on March 12, 2012.

Hélène Pedneault Lives!

Hélène Pedneault died on December 1, 2008. Born in Jonquière on April 1, 1952, this great Quebecer, indivisibly a woman of words and of action, an independentist, journalist and author, environmentalist and feminist, lives on. Her causes and commitments transcend her departure.

Hélène Pedneault was a woman who stood tall… even to excess. She was unsettling, exuberant, engaged, possessing the force of indignation, the power of revolt, the vigour of the word. The numerous causes she embraced were fundamental; her many battles, tenacious and authentic. Posthumously named the 2009 patriot of the year by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal, she will be forever linked with La Vie en rose and the Coalition Eau Secours.

Every day, events occur that would have spurred her to take up pen or microphone to denounce, persuade, mobilize. Now we are deprived of her anger and her indignation, her heart’s impulses, her dry wit and her devastating analyses.

In Mon enfance et autres tragédies politiques, Hélène Pedneault wrote: “Indignation shapes anger, directs its fire, documents it, discards futile cries and saves its breath for anger that drives change. Anger can be fruitless; indignation is fertile. Anger is the stuff of sprints; indignation is the stuff of marathons. Anger burns out quickly like a lighted match; indignation burns on like an Olympic flame. I could talk about this at length. I’ve been engaged in both since I was floating in the amniotic fluid, and perhaps before.” So we see what fueled her battles: indignation.

Independentist from the outset, in her Lettre d’amour au Québec, she let her pen flow with emotion: “It is out of love that I want to see you free. That’s what lovers the world over should say. May you be a poet, an explorer, creative and original, open-armed and noble-tongued. Prove to me that a country about to be born is not condemned to adopt the old habits of countries crumbling under the weight of centuries. Together, you and I will forge something new. I promise. Something unique. Something astonishing. Something of love.”

A cofounder of Coalition Eau Secours, she ennobled the term Porteurs et porteuses d’eau (Water bearers), reminding us that “Like language, water is a fundamental symbol: not only is it part of our heritage; it is part of our collective unconscious. Water nourishes our bodies, our imaginations, our literature, our cinema, our songs. To harm water is to damage our most precious possession, is to rob us of our identity. To interfere with Québec’s water is to interfere with the French language, as if water were our mother tongue.”

The feminist that she was, the one who wrote Les chroniques délinquantes in La vie en rose and “Du pain et des roses Pour changer les choses […] Pour qu’on se repose Du pain et des roses,“ a song that came to symbolize the cause of women, could never abandon, despite the silence imposed by death, her vital and indestructible feminist commitment; she has continued to move forward.

We must see her decision to make the Léa-Roback Foundation her sole legatee in that light. By associating her name with the Foundation, created in honor of the feminist and early trade unionist, whom she loved and admired, a foundation that awards scholarships to socioeconomically disadvantaged and socially engaged women every year, she put into action the words she’d previously penned: “Education is more than a right; it is a duty.”