The Métropolitain

Madeleine Parent

Par Alan Hustak le 18 mai 2012

Madeleine Parent was a diminutive but fearless union organizer, labour leader and community activist who devoted her life to improving the cause of working women and to the creation of uniquely Canadian labour unions. Parent, who was 93 when she died March 12 helped to create the Candian Textile and Chemical Workers Union, organized women in Ontario, was active in the Féderation des femmes du Québec, fought for abortion on demand in the 1950s, and championed the rights of aboriginal women. 

“Madeleine was a bit forgotten,” said Monique Simard, a former president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux,  “But she is best defined through the brand of unionism with which she was identified for more than 50 years: struggling, committed, never opportunistic, determined, stubborn and courageous....she always pushed the limits at her own risk and was prepared to take the consequences of her actions.”

Madeline Parent, the only daughter in a well-to-do family, was born in Montreal, Nov 11, 1918. She was sent to the Villa Maria convent school, where even as a youngster she was disturbed by the inequity between the privileged nuns and the students and the working women who cooked and scrubbed floors at the convent.  She continued her education at Trafalgar School for Girls and in 1937 enrolled at McGill.

A caption under her graduation picture was prophetic: “Give up what perished long ago, and let us love the living.”  Parent obtained her arts degree in 1940 and went to work teaching English to French-speaking garment workers. She went to work as a secretary for The Montreal Trades and Labour Council, and soon became preoccupied with union activity.

She was influenced by Léa Roback a free-thinking Communist and activist. She and  Roback  organized  workers in the six Montreal Cotton Dominion Textile Mills, and in 1946 they took part in strikes at mills in Valleyfield and Lachute  which led to the first collective agreement with the International Ladies Garment Workers  Union.

parent.jpegDenounced as a heritic by the Roman Catholic Church for her union activities in and harassed as a Communist by Quebec’s Premier, Maurice Duplessis, Parent was required to carry her birth certificate with her to counter rumours that she had been smuggled into Canada during the Second World War on a Russian submarine. She  was arrested for her activism and in 1948 convicted of seditious conspiracy. She never spent any time in jail. The Quebec Appeal Court ordered a new trial, and her case dragged on for seven years until a judge refused to tolerate any more delays. Always self-assured, Ms. Parent never doubted that women would one day win their struggle for equality. “I believe young women of all origins and circumstances will, in their own way, continue the struggle against long standing injustices, building coalitions with their sisters around the world and with men who care. They will overcome,” she said in a speech 60 years ago.     

In 1968 Parent moved to Ontario. There she campaigned for pay equity for women, and fought against U.S. dominated labour unions in Canada.  She sat on the steering committee of the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women and contributed to the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. In her 80’s she was one of the 60,000 protesters who marched against the North American Free Trade Agreement at the 2001 Quebec Summit, and was a vehement critic of U.S Involement in Iraq.  Although she supported the principle of Quebec sovereignty and endorsed Pauline Marois bid for the leadership of the Parti Quebecois in 2007 Parent was never a card carrying member of any political party.

“I don’t think any party would want me,” she once said. “I am a very argumentative member.” 

McGill university honoured her in 2001 with a with a seminar in her name.

Parent was twice married, first in 1941 to Val Bjarnason, a student from British Columbia, and then in 1952 to union organizer Kent Rowley, who died in 1978. 

They had no children.

“Every time we thought of starting a family, something more pressing came up,” she once told a reporter, “Another strike, another cause, another negotiating session.”