For eight years, a Francophone woman in Quebec waited to find out if she was going to jail.
She lived through a trial that sentenced her to multiple years of jail time, an appeal, and numerous delays by the provincial government; yet she continued to wait.
It wasn’t murder, treason, or theft.
It was simply organizing people to make a difference.
but for the provincial government of Quebec, the crime was inexcusable. They called her a communist, a Russian agent, and other words I won’t repeat here.
All she had done was spend her adult life helping workers gain more rights, safer work conditions and better pay.
The government saw this as sedition and this woman was enemy number one.
Despite the repeated arrests, trials, and harassment, she always put workers and unions first even ahead of her own hopes and dreams for a family and a normal life.
Almost a decade after she was arrested, she was nearing the end of her wait.
Her name is Madeleine Parent and she’s one of the most respected union organizers of the great white north and today I’m going to share part of her story..
I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx!
That story begins in Montreal on June 23, 1918, when Madeleine Parent was born to Marie-Anne Rita Forest and J.B. Parent.
As a child, Madeleine was educated in French at the Villa-Maria Convent, and English at the Trafalgar School for Girls.
At the convent she saw that the servant girls who cooked and cleaned were treated as second-class citizens, receiving low pay, and living in poor conditions.
She said they got up at 5 a.m., served the girls after mass, and throughout the day, scrubbed floors and stairs, yet they were kept away from everyone else by the nuns.
quote “We were not supposed to fraternize with them in any way. They were just non-persons in the convent. I simply could not accept that.” end quote
In 1936, Madeleine enrolled at McGill University to pursue a bachelor of sociology and became interested in protesting and activism.
Little did she know this would define her life.
At the school, she took part in her first collective action through the Canadian Students Assembly campaign to seek financial aid for students dealing with poverty.
She also joined Catholic associations and was part of the student movement in Quebec.
At McGill t she met Val Bjarnason, a student from British Columbia who became her husband in 1941.
And if you think it was meant to last… it wasn’t… They divorced a decade later.
In a yearbook photo of Madeleine, of an unknown year, the caption said,
“Give up what perished long ago and let us love the living.”
She would put that caption into practice throughout her life.
(small pause music transition)
After her graduation in 1940, Madeleine began working as secretary of the Montreal Trades and Labour Council organizing committee. At the time union activity was dominated by men.
In 1942, she started working as the key union organizer with Kent Rowley for the United Textile Workers of America in Quebec.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she and Kent would change labour rights throughout Quebec.
It would not be an easy journey.
With them at the helm, the union began to grow and by 1946, 6,000 textile workers, were led by Kent and Madeleine.
That year they, began a strike against Dominion Textile in Valleyfield and Montreal on behalf of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
The goal was to improve the working conditions for the women employed by the company.
Other unions, dominated by men in Quebec, were not interested in women forming a union and believed their strike was not worth the trouble.
Parent said years later,
quote “The overwhelming majority of striking workers were women, and francophone women. Their interests were being betrayed by the union leadership.” end quote
While the company settled the strike in Montreal, the Valleyfield plant strike continued.
The company had a powerful ally in the Quebec government who saw unions as the first step towards Communism.
And nothing was worse than Communism for the government.
At the time, Quebec was led by Maurice Duplessis.
As premier, he was extremely anti-union and saw all union activity as Communist plots.
To say that Duplessis hated Communism would be an understatement.
He would state quote:
“Communism must be considered the top public enemy, despised and to be despised.”
His government enacted the Act to Protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda which gave the Attorney General the right to prosecute people who spread Communism on private or public property.
It also banned all Communist publications.
Also known as the Padlock Law because it allowed the government to lock up businesses and homes with padlocks if Communism was suspected on the premises.
Anyone who violated the law could spend up to a year in prison.
The law was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada almost ten years later in 1957.
But back in 1946 Duplessis immediately declared that the Valleyfield strike was illegal.
But that didn’t stop the strikers.
On Aug. 13, Madeleine was arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy and public charges that she was a communist.
Sentenced to 30 days in jail, she was freed when the Court of Appeals reversed the verdict.
The North Bay Nugget said quote.
“She speaks both French and English with equal ease and often carries on a conversation in both languages at the same time. Quiet and businesslike when not addressing a union meeting, she is a ball of fire on the speaking platform. Standing about five-foot-three, Miss Parent is worshipped by the union rank and file, both men and women alike.” end quote
The arrests didn’t dampen her efforts as she continued to fight for what she believed in.
Eventually, the strikers won, and they formed a union to campaign for better working conditions.
For Madeleine this was the first strike of many, and the first victory as well.
On April 10, 1947, 700 wool workers aligned with the United Textile Workers of America waged a strike that would rage for weeks.
The workers were looking for a 15-cent an hour wage increase, union shop provisions and six legal holidays a year.
Madeleine said years later in 1988, that “For the first three weeks of the strike, picketing was peaceful. Everyone was out.”
Around this time, Duplessis began to make public statements about the strike and communism, which led to public outcry and repeated confrontations between the strikers and police.
This resulted in multiple arrests. Between May 2 and May 7, 1947, Madeleine was arrested three times in connection with the strike.
On May 7, she was charged with influencing employees to go on strike, and was eventually released on $2,000 bail,
Kent was arrested and released as well.
Antonio Barette, the provincial minister of labour, stated,
“We had Madeline Parent arrested because she was the cause of trouble. With bandits like herself, she organized trouble. Madeleine Parent wants to organize strikes to advance her Communist ideas.”
Gilbert Ayers, president of Ayers Limited, the company the workers were striking against, said,
“The truth is that Rowley and Miss Parent through this latest move are seeking personal vengeance against me. Rowley and Miss Parent will soon learn that we cannot be blackmailed or scared.”
While out on bail, the arrests did not stop for Madeleine.
On May 21, she surrendered to police because she had been discussing strike strategy with the union leaders when she heard there was another warrant for her arrest.
Once again, she was jailed pending arraignment on charges of seditious conspiracy and intimidation.
This time, she was refused bail.
On June 27, Judge Aime Chasse sent Madeleine and Kent to trial,
He stated that her actions were violent and seditious quote
“These speeches are clearly a seed of discord and hate prejudicial to good public order and to the security of the state.”
Madeleine was released on $11,000 bail, much of it raised by union members.
While she was out, she was not going to stay silent.
She continued to criticize companies in Quebec, while also speaking at union events to raise support for the Canadian Congress of Labour.
She was also appointed as the acting Canadian director of the United Textile Workers of America.
“Two months ago, I felt certain I would go to jail this fall, now I feel I stand a chance of retaining my freedom.”
On Nov. 26, 1947, her trial began with Justice Philemon Cousineau presiding.
He made no secret of where his loyalties lied.
He had been the president of the Conservative Party at the turn of the century.
That party morphed into the Union Nationale, which Duplessis, who was a friend of Cousineau’s, was now leading.
Cousineau was also not a fan of unions, equating picketing with an act of war.
By this point, the workers she had organized and represented lost their strike to the Ayers Limited company.
That was because Premier Duplessis had sent in 250 armed provincial police to break the strike, and many union leaders were arrested.
However during her trial, it was revealed that the police who broke the strike were paid an extra $40 per week, about $551, and given all the liquor they wanted as a reward.
The Ayers company also gave each officer two of the best blankets sold by the company when they broke the strike.
Through the trial, Duplessis called the courthouse, giving the Crown prosecutor instructions on how to proceed against Madeleine.
The trial raged through the winter until Feb. 7, when a jury deliberated for only 45 minutes and found Madeleine and Kent guilty of seditious conspiracy.
Kent was given a six-month prison term, while Madeleine was sentenced to two years in prison.
Madeleine chose to appeal her sentence and was released on $3,000 bail.
One reason for the appeal was Justice Cousineau made unfavorable comments about unions in his charge to the jury, while also allowing prosecution witnesses to read their evidence from a prepared document but refusing the same right to defence witnesses.
Things moved slowly as the appeal process began.
Finally, on May 31, 1949, two years after she was first arrested, Madeleine had her sentence and conviction set aside and a new trial was ordered.
If things were slow before now they were glacial.
Madeleine said, Every autumn, she went to the court, and each time the attorney general stated that it was not in the public interest to proceed with the new trial at this time.
“It was an injustice, but part of my life, part of history, a McCarthy-like attack on people standing up for their rights.”
Things continued to drag on until 1955, when she was finally acquitted.
For Madeleine, the trial hanging over her for years came at a great cost.
She had wanted children, but she did not want to have to ask Duplessis for compassion should she have to go to jail while pregnant or a mother.
So, she chose not to have kids.
By the time she was acquitted, she was 37 and felt it was too late.
“I think it was worth it. I’ve been called a witch, a moll, a lesbian, everything you could think of.”
The entire affair became the longest trial in Quebec history to that point.
Despite the close call of spending a few years in jail, and the constant harassment by the government, Madeleine did not give up her union activities.
Throughout those eight years, she continued to help unions gain recognition in Quebec.
In November of 1949, she organized 75 workers of the Hield Brothers Ltd into a union so they could push for higher wages and better working conditions.
She told them,
quote “We cannot promise you anything definite. It all takes time. But we do promise you your wages will be increased. The union is interested in obtaining sickness, accident and hospitalization insurance paid completely by the company and we are going to demand that there be no distinction made between men and women workers. “end quote
Once again, in September 1950, Madeleine was arrested, this time on charges of causing a disturbance at the Dominion Textile Company’s plant in Hochelaga.
She pled innocent and was released on $500 in bail.
Her trial was set for October, and once again she was acquitted of all charges.
In 1952, she founded the Canadian Textile Council with Kent Rowley, him as president and she served as secretary-treasurer.
One year later, Madeleine and Kent became not only work partners, but life partners as well.
They married on date.
By this point, she had gained the respect of many male workers in trades such as forestry and mining and her voice carried a great deal of weight.
At this time, she also wanted to make Canadian unions independent from American interests.
Until then most Canadian unions had U.S.-based headquarters, but Madeleine and Kent refused to sign a contract with their headquarters, causing a split with the American unions.
This began the push by the couple to create an independent labour movement .
This goal would take them over a decade to achieve.
Meanwhile, Madeleine continued to be harassed for her union activities.
On March 10, 1954, she was fined $25 after she pled guilty to distributing circulars without a permit.
Typically, the fine for the offense was $10, but Judge Damase Cote raised the fine since she was a union organizer who was also advising others to distribute the circulars.
That same year Madeleine attempted to increase her political power to help unions by running for a seat on the city council of Montreal.
Several union workers had requested that she run but despite her name recognition, she finished with 658 votes, well back of winner Marcel Lafaille who had over 6,000.
In 1956, Madeleine led a strike for Harding Carpets that consisted of 700 employees.
Backed by the provincial government, Harding Carpets ran a full-page ad in the newspaper that read quote,
“In this strike, Harding Carpets Communism is not a red herring, but an ever-present danger. “end quote
It then attacked Madeleine and Kent directly stating,
“Kent Rowley is a communist, as is his associate Madeleine Parent.”
Due to her actions, which were seen as contrary to the role of women in the province, she was constantly harassed by the press, the government and the church.
She was labelled a whore, and rumours spread that she was a Russian and was not even born in Quebec, but smuggled ashore on a submarine.
It reached the point that she had to produce a birth certificate to counter the rumours.
Despite this, she continued to campaign for unions, especially when it came to female workers who were paid far less than men in the same industry.
“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.”
In 1956, Madeleine left Canada briefly to visit China for six weeks.
The trip, which would be recounted in the book Two Innocents in Red China, included psychiatrist Denis Lazure, puppeteer Micheline Legendre and a man by the name of Pierre Trudeau, who was 12 years away from becoming prime minister of Canada.
Eventually, Madeleine and Kent’s efforts to form an independent union, and pressure from Maurice Duplessis, caused the United Textile Workers Association to push the couple out of leadership.
After this, Kent moved to Ontario to build a presence, while Madeleine remained in Quebec.
They would live apart for the next decade as they put their union work ahead of their relationship.
Madeleine said, this was not for a lack of love, but because they continually answered a higher calling for themselves.
“Every time we thought of starting a family, something more pressing came up. Another strike, another cause, another negotiating session.”
Things slowly began to change with the death of Duplessis in 1959,
Then came the beginning of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s that saw the conservative hold on the province by the Catholic Church weaken,
Lastly the provincial government under premier Jean Lesage liberalized many institutions in the province.
Throughout the next several years, Kent and Madeleine toured throughout Canada, speaking to workers, and helping them form unions, or lend their name and recognition to strikers elsewhere in Canada.
The couple reunited in Ontario and began to live together again in 1968.
It was at this time that Madeleine and Kent founded the Council of Canadian Unions.
This closed the chapter on the 15 year struggle to build the independent Canadian unions.
Kent died in 1978 and Madeleine moved back to Quebec.
In 1979, she led a bitter strike against Purtex to protest the surveillance of workers by closed-circuit television.
The company had cameras set up to watch employees, specifically the female workers.
The door to the women’s bathroom even had a camera focused on it, while the men’s bathroom did not.
In 1983, Madeleine retired from union work, but she did not leave her activism behind.
Instead, she began to focus on women’s rights and became a founding member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
In her new role, she began to focus on the issues that faced immigrant and Indigenous women in Canada.
in an interview with the Montreal Gazette For International Women’s Day in 1983, she said,
“I think it is important that at least once a year, women look back over the battles that have been fought and remember the struggles, in that way International Women’s Day is very important.”
In 1995, she participated in the World March of Women, and five years later in the End Poverty and Violence Against Women March.
In 2001, she marched against the North American Free Trade Agreement at the Quebec Summit and spoke out publicly many times against the invasion of Iraq by the United States.
Typically, she had little good to say about most politicians.
She said former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard was not grounded in ideas, while she called former prime minister Pierre Trudeau arrogant.
Not all politicians gained her ire though.
Of Adelard Godbout, the premier who gave women the right to vote in provincial elections in 1940, she said was a good premier within the limitations of his time.
Throughout her life, Madeleine made a point of not aligning herself with any political party but instead chose parties based on who she felt was best for Quebec.
An example of this was seen in 2008 when she endorsed Pauline Marois, who was pursuing leadership of the Parti Quebecois.
Marois would win and become Quebec’s first female premier.
“I don’t think any party would want me. I am very argumentative.”
Then, after decades of fighting, Madeleine passed away on March 12, 2012 at the age of 94.
Rick Solutin, columnist for the Globe and Mail stated that she was one of the finest labour organizers in Canadian history, while former prime minister Jean Chretien said she was his hero.
Writer Judy Rebick wrote upon the death of Madeleine,
“She was fierce, courageous, and determined. Somehow, I don’t think we will see the likes of her again.”
That was the life of Madeleine Parent… but you might be wondering… what happened to the Council of Canadian Unions Madeleine and Kent formed back in 1969?
In July 1973, the organization changed its name to the Confederation of Canadian Unions and the group quickly emerged as the leader for workers’ rights and social justice for all Canadians.
It became the first labour federation in Canada to call for equal pay for work of equal value.
In 1978, it had 26,007 members across 13 unions in Canada.
While the Confederation of Canadian Unions only accounts for a small percentage of organized labour in Canada, it appeals for independence and new members have helped influence the creation of autonomy guidelines within many international unions.
The organization is now applying for membership with the International Trade Union Confederation, the world’s largest trade union federation with 207 million members worldwide.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Citizen of the World, Confederation of Canadian Unions, Wikipedia, CBC, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Concordia University, The Metropolitan, National Post, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Journal, Montreal Star, North Bay Nugget, Ottawa Journal,