Stamps honour three Quebec feminists and social justice activists

August 28, 2023
4 minute read
Léa Roback, Madeleine Parent and Simonne Monet-Chartrand recognized for their influence on women’s and workers’ rights

For decades, Quebec women have been at the forefront of women’s and workers’ rights and the fight to redress social and economic inequalities in their province. While the movement for women’s rights continues, the work of three Canadian women stands apart.

The new stamp issue highlights the lives and achievements of three Quebec women who were lifelong advocates for workers’ and women’s rights and other causes: Léa Roback, Madeleine Parent and Simonne Monet-Chartrand. Their activism foreshadowed many of the advancements made in equality and justice in Canada.

Léa Roback (1903-2000)

Born in Montréal, Quebec, to Polish Jewish immigrants, Léa Roback was a trade unionist who also campaigned tirelessly for women’s rights. As a teenager, Roback worked her first job at British American Dyeworks, a cleaning and dyeing company, in Montréal. Arduous 50-hour work weeks, where she earned just eight dollars per week, provided her with an understanding of social inequalities and the harsh conditions that workers faced.

While living in Berlin, Roback joined the Communist Party, which she saw as a bulwark against fascism. Returning to Canada, she went on to manage the Modern Book Shop in Montréal, the city’s first Marxist bookstore. Roback took on the fight for women’s suffrage in Quebec, advocating for a women’s right to vote in provincial elections in 1940.

Working with other International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union leaders, she used her fluency in English, French and Yiddish to communicate with some 5,000 garment workers in Montréal and helped mobilize them to strike in 1937. Three weeks later, the workers signed a collective agreement and received a wage increase and improved working conditions.

During the Second World War, Roback worked on the assembly line at the RCA Victor plant in Saint-Henri, Montréal. She helped the plant’s 4,000 workers — nearly half of them women — win their first union contract. Roback continued to dedicate her life to advocacy, protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for pay equity, the right to abortion and access to contraception. In 1985, she became an honorary member of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women.

“She was an optimist,” says Lorraine Pagé, President of the Léa Roback Foundation. “That is to say that she could see the difficulties, the obstacles, but at the same time, she was firmly convinced that through solidarity, we can move forward.”

Madeleine Parent (1918-2012)

Montréal-born Madeleine Parent became aware of class divisions while she was a young boarder at the Villa Maria convent. As a student at McGill University, she campaigned for financial assistance for students from low-income backgrounds. She also met Léa Roback at McGill, who encouraged her involvement in union organization and became a mentor and long-time friend.

In 1942, Parent’s future husband, Kent Rowley, recruited her to help organize unionization for 6,000 Dominion Textile workers under the banner of the United Textile Workers of America in Quebec. In the mid-1940s, Parent and Rowley led worker strikes in Montréal, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield and Lachute, Quebec. After then-Premier Maurice Duplessis declared the Lachute strike illegal, Parent was accused of being a communist and charged with seditious conspiracy. Her conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Parent didn’t waver. She and Rowley went on to establish the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union in 1952 and the Confederation of Canadian Unions in 1969. She remained a staunch advocate of pay equity and was a founding member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, where she represented Quebec for eight years. She also defended Indigenous women’s rights, including supporting Mary Two-Axe Earley and Mary Pitawanakwat and their fights against discrimination.

“Madeleine confronted the three powers – economic power, political power and the power of the clergy. And she was ostracized, literally,” says Monique Simard, a long-time friend. “She was a trade unionist, but also a declared feminist long before it became the movement we know.”

Simonne Monet-Chartrand (1919-1993)

Born in Montréal, Simonne Monet-Chartrand began her activism in the 1930s when she joined the Jeunesse étudiante catholique (part of the Catholic youth movement) and its women’s branch, Jeunesse étudiante catholique féminine. A devout Christian, her efforts to modernize the institution underpinned her lifelong mission for social justice.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Monet-Chartrand worked as a writer, researcher and panelist on Radio-Canada programs such as Fémina and Femme d’aujourd’hui. She participated in the founding of the pacifist organization Voice of Women in the 1960s. She was part of the Voice of Women delegation to Moscow in 1963, for the Women’s International Democratic Federation’s World Congress of Women, which focused on peace, disarmament, unity and women’s rights. In 1966, she co-founded the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ).

A prolific author, Monet-Chartrand wrote several books on Quebec women, as well as a four-volume autobiography, Ma vie comme rivière. In 1992, she received the Prix Idola-Saint-Jean from the FFQ for her contributions to half a century of change and progress for women.

“Her father was a judge, and very early in her life, before she was a teenager, he would always tell her, ‘You’re as smart as a man. Think about this and make sure you are valued as a woman. You’re a brilliant, intelligent girl,’” says Alain Chartrand, one of her seven children. “It gave her enormous self-confidence. She was never afraid of the authorities, neither church nor police.”

Stamps honour three Quebec feminists and social justice activists

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