Small in stature, Madeleine Parent had a decidedly large impact. Few women stand as tall in the history of Canadian and Québec labour, and none, it might be argued, have left legacies of significance that link together as many causes associated with organized labour, peace movements, civil liberties, and the rights of immigrants, women, and Native peoples as did Parent. Celebrated Québec painter, sculptor, and glass maker, Marcelle Ferron, once called Parent, “The greatest figure of our time, the one who did the most to change Quebec.”1 Alongside her life-long partner, Kent Rowley, Madeleine helped, certainly, to change the face of Canadian trade unionism.
When Madeleine Parent died in a Montréal nursing home on 12 March 2012, Canadians and Québécois lost an iconic figure of the left. The outpouring of appreciative obituaries, the well-attended memorial celebrations of her life in Montréal and Toronto, and affectionate reflections of many activists touched by Madeleine’s example and schooled in her disciplined approach to social transformation all spoke of how Parent had, indeed, altered history, and very much for the better.
In remembering Madeleine Parent’s convictions, commitments, and causes, Labour/Le Travail presents commentaries by two feminist historians, Andrée Lévesque and Joan Sangster. We close this remembrance of Madeleine Parent with one of the many speeches she delivered over the course of decades of organizing, activism, and agitation. The occasion of Parent’s address was the 50th anniversary of Paul Robeson’s historic Peace Arch open-air concert. Robeson, a huge artistic talent nurtured in the Harlem Renaissance, graduated from Columbia’s Faculty of Law but renounced a legal profession because of [End Page 187]
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the racism rampant in the field in the 1920s. A distinguished theatrical and movie actor, Robeson was also a celebrated singer, his rich bass-baritone voice associated with the popularization of African American folk songs/spirituals. By the 1930s he was increasingly affiliated with radicalism, endorsing the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and becoming more and more out-spoken in his resistance to racism. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, he led mobilizations against lynch law in the American South and spoke out against the Canadian government’s proposal to deport thousands of Japanese Canadians. Targeted in the anti-communist witch-hunt of the McCarthy era, Robeson had his passport seized by the United States government, prohibiting him from leaving the country. A supporter of militant unionism, Robeson was invited to sing at the Fourth Canadian convention of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, to be held in Vancouver in February 1952. But because his international movements were restricted, his appearance before the assembled Mine-Mill delegates was blocked. In protest, Robeson [End Page 188] sang across the US-Canada border, his concert delivered from the back of a flat-bed truck at the Blaine, Washington and Douglas, British Columbia Peace Arch. A crowd of 40,000 assembled in international solidarity to hear Robeson, and demonstrate their opposition to the reactionary political climate of the times.
On 18 May 2002 a “Here We Stand, Paul Robeson Memorial Concert” was organized to commemorate the original 1952 event. Madeleine Parent was a logical person to deliver a speech, and her remarks, reprinted below, reach back to the height of the Cold War, when Robeson’s victimization moved thousands to take a stand on social justice issues. It was a period in which the related vilification of Parent was commonplace. That attack, as Lévesque and Sangster show, came from a variety of quarters, none of which managed to sustain the kind of principled dignity and defence of the downtrodden that animated Parent’s life of struggle and its varied legacies.
Bryan D. Palmer is Editor of Labour/Le Travail and Canada Research Chairat Trent University. His most recent book is Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of a Rebellious Era (2009) and in 2013 his study Revolutionary Teamsters: the Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes...