Every sidewalk laid in Quebec in the last several decades has a gentle slope at the corner where it meets the street to accommodate baby strollers and people in wheelchairs. Every woman in the province uses her maiden name, not her husband’s name, on official documents such as driver’s licences and hospital admittance forms.
Both those changes, and many others, were brought about under the leadership of Laurette Champigny-Robillard who worked as head of a group that rewrote laws dealing with women in Quebec and then a similar board that dealt with problems faced by people with disabilities.
Ms. Champigny-Robillard, who died in Chambly, Que., on July 8, was described as “a brave and hard-working woman who influenced the lives of an entire generation of Quebec women,” when she was feted as a pioneer of Quebec feminism at the Women of Distinction 2007 gala, sponsored by the YWCA in Montreal.
Laurette Champigny was born on New Year’s Day in 1926, at her parents’ home on Harvard Avenue in the Montreal district of Notre Dame de Grâce (NDG). Her mother, Olivette, was from a French-Canadian family living in Boston, and her father, Wilfred, was from Quebec. She recalled that there were political discussions around the dinner table at home, particularly about the situation in Europe in the 1930s during the rise of Fascism.
At the time NDG was a district that was more English than French so she grew up speaking both languages, and of course her mother spoke fluent English. She went to local schools and then to an école normale, a teachers college. She graduated but never taught school. At the time most women, even college-educated women, needed a secretarial course to get ahead, so she did that. When she was 17 she started work as a typist, before getting married and raising a family.
Her first serious job was at a company called Office Overload, which placed office workers in temporary jobs across Quebec and Eastern Canada. When she went for the job interview in 1957, she was asked what her ambition was. “I want your job,” was her reply. Within several months she had that man’s job. Then she was promoted to district manager. She enjoyed her work, but at the same time she was raising a family of five children, all born before she rejoined the work force.
As a woman with a management-level job Ms. Champigny-Robillard was a rarity in the business world. She became involved with the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. At the time it had a separate section for women. Ms. Champigny-Robillard became president of the women’s group in 1964 and straight away set about to abolish it. She was successful and women joined the men as equal members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Before and during Expo 67, the world’s fair held in Montreal, she was busy hiring temporary workers. After Office Overload she went to work for the law firm that became Ogilvy Renault, where she was in charge of hiring non-legal staff. Among the young lawyers at the firm at the time was Brian Mulroney, the future Progressive Conservative prime minister.
Ms. Champigny-Robillard volunteered in politics, but with the Liberal Party, helping in the campaign of Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, who in 1962 became the first female cabinet minister in Quebec, in the Liberal government of Premier Jean Lesage, the man who led the Quiet Revolution.
In the 1960s, she became involved with the Fédération des Femmes du Québec, and in 1965 helped organize events to mark the 25th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote in Quebec.
In 1972 Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain was Minister of Cultural Affairs in Quebec and introduced the legislation that created the Conseil du statut de la femme, the provincial council for the status of women. It was set up by the government to look at laws that discriminated against women and in 1973 Ms. Champigny-Robillard was named its president. One of the issues it addressed was domestic violence. She said it was a taboo subject in some circles when she brought it up in 1975, which she noted was The International Year of the Woman.
“I thought I had prepared a good speech, but I received an icy welcome. I think it was the first time we talked publicly about this taboo subject. I was quoted in all the yellow newspapers [tabloids]. I was stunned," she remembered.
At the time women were subordinate to their husbands unless they signed a contract stating otherwise when they got married. A woman needed her husband’s signature to receive a bank loan.
“If you had a baby in the hospital back then you had to have your husband’s signature for any care at the hospital. … You had no identity,” says her daughter Chantal Robillard, a retired career woman.
The council issued its report, titled Pour les Québécoises: Égalité et Indépendence (For Quebec Women: Equality and Independence). It contained more than 300 recommendations, many of which were soon made law.
One of the big changes was that women in Quebec would formally use the surnames they were born with, not their husband’s.
While people are used to that change now, it led to some confusion. For instance, if your married name was Robillard and a visitor went to see you at the hospital, they would have to know your birth name was Champigny in order to find your room. That change also led to the large number of double-barrelled names in Quebec today, such as Felix Auger-Aliassime, the professional tennis player, whose name recognizes both his mother and his father.
Ms. Champigny-Robillard was surprised at the reception her report received. Her daughter Chantal, who was in CÉGEP (the school between high school and university), came home to tell her mother their teacher had assigned the text of Pour les Québécoises: Égalité et Indépendence as a class assignment.
After her success with that group she went on to be the president of the council dealing with disability issues – l’Office des personnes handicapées du Quebec. The job was to modernize laws and infrastructure to help people with physical disabilities.
In those days, disabled people were often barred from the work force, not by law but by tradition. There was also a need to make public spaces more accessible by adapting door handles, elevator buttons and public restrooms. These changes applied to restaurants, shops and public buildings. “Even the métro was affected. There were no elevators or escalators – just stairs. It’s a continuing battle,” Ms. Robillard says.
“She wrote the recommendations to the government to change our society and our ways to adapt to people who have handicaps. I look at the corners of our streets in Montreal differently and it’s a reminder that my mother contributed to that,” said her son Alain Robillard, a Montreal neurologist.
“Electrical switches on the wall are a little lower now in the new construction code; Transport Adapté [a special transit service for the disabled] was another recommendation. She looked around and saw what other countries were doing. It was a very intense period in her life. … There were conferences across the world she would attend as a representative of the government.”
In 1986 Ms. Champigny-Robillard was named Quebec’s assistant deputy minister of immigration and cultural affairs.
She retired in 1992 but continued to work on various boards and committees, in particular on health care. Her son reflects that his mother challenged the rule of men in a society that was dominated by men and the church when she grew up.
“People lived in a society managed and governed by men and, in the province of Quebec, religious people, most of them with the right to get into the family’s master bedroom. There was a crucifix in all of our parents’ bedrooms; it was expected that the clergy would rule our lives and these were men, not women,” Dr. Robillard says. “Changing that attitude came in the 1960s around the world and we followed suit in Quebec a little later on but it’s the change in attitude that she worked for. Her greatest accomplishment was getting society to look at women and handicapped people differently.”
When she received an award in 2008, she made a comment on the current state of feminism, since she was among the generation that pioneered so many changes.
"I think the movement is in a difficult situation; today’s feminists are our daughters, and I believe there are several problems that we did not foresee when we drafted our overall policy. For example, we did not talk a lot about older women – we were young at the time – nor about immigrant women, who are much more numerous today and who are experiencing difficulties.”
She also said that her own grandmother would have been surprised but pleased with the progress women in Quebec have made.
Ms. Champigny-Robillard, who was 93, leaves her children Chantal, Alain, Christine and Josée; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A son, Daniel, predeceased her.