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madeleine parent: union leader, women's rights activist, 93

Parti Quebecois leadership candidate Pauline Marois, left, greets former union activist Madeleine Parent, in Montreal Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2005. Ms. Parent joined dozens of prominent Quebec women who gave their support to Ms. Marois' leadership bid.Ryam Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Madeleine Parent was a diminutive but fearless union organizer, labour leader and social revolutionary who devoted her life to improving the cause of working women and to the creation of uniquely Canadian labour unions.

Parent, who died Monday in Montreal at the age of 93, helped create the Canadian Textile and Chemical Workers Union, organized women in Ontario, was active in the Féderation des femmes du Québec, fought for abortion on demand and championed the rights of aboriginal women.

"Madeleine was a bit forgotten," said Monique Simard, a former vice-president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux. "But she is best defined through the brand of unionism with which she was identified for more than 50 years: struggling, committed, never opportunistic, determined, stubborn and courageous. ... she always pushed the limits at her own risk and was prepared to take the consequences of her actions."

Madeline Parent, the only daughter in a well-to-do family, was born in Montreal in 1918, and was sent to the Villa Maria convent school, where even as a youngster she was disturbed by the inequity between the privileged nuns and the students and the working women who cooked and scrubbed floors at the convent.

She continued her education at Trafalgar School for Girls and in 1937 enrolled at McGill.

A caption under her McGill yearbook picture the year she graduated was prophetic: "Give up what perished long ago, and let us love the living."

Parent obtained her arts degree in 1940 and went to work teaching English to French-speaking garment workers.

She went to work as a secretary for The Montreal Trades and Labour Council, and soon became preoccupied with union activity.

She was influenced by Léa Roback, a free-thinking Communist and activist. She helped Roback organize workers in the six Montreal Cotton Dominion Textile Mills, and in 1946 took part in strikes at mills in Valleyfield and Lachute, which led to the first collective agreement with the United Textile Workers of America.

Denounced by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretic for her union activities and harassed by Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis as a Communist, Parent was required to carry her birth certificate with her to counter rumours that she had been smuggled into Canada during the Second World War on a Russian submarine.

She was arrested five times for her activism and in 1948 was convicted of seditious conspiracy for her unionizing efforts.

But she never spent any time in jail. The Quebec Appeal Court ordered a new trial, and her case dragged on for seven years until a judge refused to tolerate any more delays. Always self-assured, Parent never doubted that women would one day win their struggle for equality. "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," she said in a speech 60 years ago.

In 1968, Parent moved to Ontario. There she campaigned for pay equity for women, and fought against U.S.-dominated labour unions in Canada.

She sat on the steering committee of the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women and contributed to the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. In her 80s she was one of 60,000 protesters who marched against the North American Free Trade Agreement at the 2001 Quebec Summit, and was a vehement critic of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Although she supported the principle of Quebec sovereignty and endorsed Pauline Marois' bid for the leadership of the Parti Québécois in 2007, Parent was never a card-carrying member of any political party.

"I don't think any party would want me," she once said. "I am a very argumentative member."

Six years ago, McGill University honoured her with a seminar in her name. In 2009, Concordia University awarded her an honorary doctorate.

"In honouring her, one honours people who have shared her commitment in working for autonomous Canadian unions and the rights of women," her citation said. "As a union leader she has addressed some of the major issues in the workplace and within the unions themselves, particularly the impact of technology on workers and the pitfalls and power of union bureaucracy."

Parent was twice married, first in 1941 to Val Bjarnason, a student from British Columbia, and then in 1952 to union organizer Kent Rowley, who died in 1978.

They had no children.

"Every time we thought of starting a family, something more pressing came up," she once told a reporter. "Another strike, another cause, another negotiating session."

Special to The Globe and Mail