Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Review: Madeleine Parent

(Andree Levesque, editor and translator. Madeleine Parent: Activist. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2005.)

In March 2001, McGill University in Montreal hosted a conference on the life and struggles of Madeleine Parent. This recently published book is an English translation of the compilation of papers that resulted from the conference.

Parent is of particular interest to me because she is one of the people that I interviewed for my project on social movement history. In an earlier post or two I referred in passing to a recent trip to Montreal; the eight-hour drive twice in three days was primarily to help Madeleine, now 87 years old, finish making revisions to the transcript of the interview I did with her. I was successful in that mission, and I had the privilege of having lunch with her and spending nearly an entire day with her, listening to many more fascinating stories of her almost seven decades of struggle for radical social change in Canada. She also gave me this book, as a reference and source of context for use when I turn her interview into a book chapter.

Parent got her start as an activist in the vibrant Canadian youth movement of the '30s and became very active as a student at McGill University. Upon graduation in 1942, Madeleine became a union organizer. Initially involved with the committee devoted to organizing war industries in Quebec, she soon became an organizer for the United Textile Workers of America. She and future husband Kent Rowley played a central role in organizing Dominion Textile plants in Montreal and Valleyfield, and were key leaders of the strike there in 1946, one of the biggest Quebec contributions to the massive post-war strike wave, as well as several other major strikes in the next number years.

It is the strike of '46 that is central to the material that she produced with me. Initially, I was worried that this book would have printed all there was to say about this strike. However, it is presented only as a brief summary, in a way that reaffirms my commitment to publishing social movement history via the words of the participants themselves -- the summary in this book lays out the basic facts, but it does not capture the spirit of the event, the bitterness of the struggle, the political drama in the same way as Madeleine's own words.

In this era, Quebec was dominated by English-Canadian capital, a conservative Roman Catholic church, and the right-wing thuggery and corrupt provincial legal system of Premier Maurice Duplessis, who also personally served as Attorney General. Even as simple an act as handing out leaflets at plant gates was illegal, and the infamous Padlock Law used hysteria about Communism to effectively ban anything and anyone that Duplessis decided was subversive. Parent and Rowley were arrested many times, and eventually Duplessis targeted them with sedition charges, and through the corrupt court system of the time was able to keep the charges hanging over them for years until they were dismissed by one of the few honest judges.

As happened to other militants, Madeleine and Rowley were purged from their union during the early '50s. They spent the remainder of their careers as central figures in efforts to support unions for Canadian workers that were democratic, militant, and based in Canada. Though the Canadian trade union central that they founded in the late '60s represented only 40,000 workers at its peak, they waged some politically key strikes in that era, and provided a constant harassment on the flank of the Canadian Labour Congress that encouraged its U.S.-based unions towards greater autonomy for their Canadian sections and, at times, greater militancy. Madeleine was also active in the women's movement, as a proponent of "equal pay for work of equal value," a strong ally of Aboriginal and immigrant women, and a voice for working women in feminist bodies at the national level and in Ontario and Quebec.

This book is a useful resource, but it suffers from the flaw of certain kinds of biography in its tendency towards sentimentality and hagiography, and its tendency to leave things out. I didn't happen to mind the firs two -- as Quebecoise feminist, trade unionist, and now filmmaker Monique Simard wrote in her contribution, "I am not a groupie by nature, but I think we should recognize the contribution and influence of people like Madeleine." And the ommissions were not so much with respect to Parent herself but rather a less complete painting of context than I would like to see. For example, Parent's steady support at the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) for Mary Pitawanakwat and her case against the federal government is worth noting and remembering, but its political significance might be more fully appreciated with a thorough discussion of the ways in which that case brought out issues of racism within the women's movement, an issue not mentioned in the book.

This book is a short, easy read and it paints a brief but fascinating picture of the life of an important participant in struggles for social change in Canada and Quebec, and an inspiring and wonderful woman.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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