restricted access A Life of Struggles
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A Life of Struggles

She was notorious, she was vilified, and she was worshiped, Madeleine Parent (1918–2012), a militant since her student days at McGill University, never left anyone indifferent. Every social movement owes her an immense debt for her leadership and the inspiration she has given over three generations of activists.

Madeleine Parent was born in Montréal on 23 May 1918. It is important to remember this as she was later deemed to be a Russian spy, when the powers that be were convinced that a foreign origin would discredit her, or make her actions more understandable. She was first educated in convent schools, and then sent to a prestigious English high school by parents who valued education. She attended McGill University from 1936 to 1940, at a time when women were a distinct minority, but also when this conservative institution counted some progressive social scientists such as Leonard Marsh, and a lively student movement. Everett Hughes left his mark on her and her fellow students, as did Frank Scott and scientist Grant Lathe. Madeleine involved herself in various student clubs, as well as participating in the Canadian Students Assembly. She is best remembered for her part in the Canadian Students Movement campaign for scholarships for needy students, in which she argued the case for increased financial assistance before McGill Chancellor, Sir Edward W. Beatty, and other members of the Montréal business elite.

In 1939, at a Civil Liberties Union meeting at McGill, Madeleine met union organiser Lea Roback. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship. They had a memorable cup of coffee together and Lea, fifteen years her elder, became Madeleine’s role model and her mentor. Both women shared a dedication to [End Page 189] social justice, a will to do something to improve the lot of the working class whose living and working conditions in Québec were amongst the worst in North America, and, more importantly, the conviction that something could be done. With Lea’s encouragement, Madeleine decided to become a union organiser. Having graduated from McGill, she worked for the Montréal Labour Union Council, organised in the war industries, and subsequently in the textile mills in the Montréal districts of Saint-Henri and Hochelaga.

For a few years she was married to fellow organiser Val Bjarnason, during which time she met Kent Rowley who was organising workers in the war industries in Valleyfield. He suggested she join him to help organise the textile workers of the giant Montréal Cotton plant. The rest is history. Working conditions were dismal, mothers sometimes brought their children to work, and although the textile industry had a long history of sporadic organising, the company was known to break its contracts and the Sisyphean task had to start all over again. In 1946, Madeleine led a 100-day strike for better working conditions and decent wages. This started the long tug-of-war between Premier Maurice Duplessis, the Québec Catholic church, and the feisty young and beautiful Madeleine Parent.

The following year, 1947, the textile town of Lachute was shaken by another strike led by Madeleine and Kent. Declared illegal by Maurice Duplessis, violently opposed by the company, this strike was crushed but not before Madeleine, Kent, and organiser Azélus Beaucage were arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy, and jailed for a short time. When they were out on bail, there ensued the longest trial in the annals of Québec. In 1955, after almost eight years the case was dismissed on a technicality, the court clerk having died and nobody was able to read his notes.

For years to come, Madeleine was to be accused of being a Bolshevik. She always denied this and there is no hard evidence of Party membership, yet she was surely a fellow traveller. “Some of her best friends,” such as Lea Roback and Danielle Cuisinier-Dionne, were in the Party, and she did briefly collaborate with the communist newspaper. Madeleine consistently opposed capitalism and imperialism, and during the Cold War this was enough to denounce her as a member of a seditious organisation.

In 1952, another...