It seems tragically appropriate that Madeleine Parent, one of Canada’s greatest union organizers, died on March 12, during International Women’s Month, at the age of 93. She was a great supporter of women’s rights and most especially those of workers. Her efforts improved the lives of thousands of textile workers in Québec.
My first encounter with Madeleine Parent was as a twentysomething reporter in Sudbury, Ontario, another union town with two major nickel companies, where she had been invited as a speaker. The fire and passion she exuded at the age of 75 were mesmerizing. I learned of the great battles in Valleyfield, Québec and her clashes with 1940s and 1950s Premier Maurice Duplessis, a corrupt conservative intent on keeping the province well-entrenched in the 19th century and who accused her of being a Communist. Duplessis had Parent arrested five times, accusing her of seditious conspiracy after a strike in 1946, under the aegis of the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). The strike had pitted the union against company, church and state. Madeleine Parent was convicted the following year, and received a two-year prison sentence she would not serve. The courts granted her an appeal in 1954. During the 1995 proceeding, the jury acquitted her in 30 minutes.
As a result of the false charges of communism against her, however, the international headquarters of the UTWA fired her in 1952. The activist then established the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (1952) and the Confederation of Canadian Unions (1969) along with her husband, Kent Rowley. Following her retirement in 1983, she continued to speak out for the rights of immigrant and native women.
It speaks to the chasm between the two solitudes of Canada (English and French) that the news of Madeleine Parent’s death was reported immediately in Québec papers’ headlines, and in radio and television news, while hardly a peep was discernible in national English-language media. This is despite the fact that Parent’s actions and legacy go well beyond Québec borders.
Unlike Mother Jones, another great union leader, Madeleine Parent espoused the role, importance and demands of working women throughout her life. She was a titan amongst activists. She will be sorely missed, and well-remembered.