Madeleine Parent: Emblematic activist and labour leader

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I received a call Monday morning saying Madeleine Parent had died, at 93, in a Montreal nursing home. She was a labour leader and fighter for social causes through a career that spanned the country and, though it wasn't as big news here, it was a front-page story in Quebec. It recalled an early morning call from her over 30 years ago, when she lived in Toronto. "Kent has had another stroke," she said. "I think this is it. We're on our way to the hospital." Her husband, Kent Rowley, with whom she'd battled on behalf of working people since the 1930s, died later that day. They really were the last of a breed and it really is the end of an era. There are times when only cliché will suffice.

She was a true daughter of Quebec's French-speaking bourgeoisie (and also fluent in English). But in the social lab of the 1930s she chose to side with workers and the poor, which placed her on "the left." During the war, she began working with Kent. He was organizing women workers in textile mills, though most union leaders then felt they weren't worth the trouble. He was also rare in being willing to work with a young woman as an equal. In 1946 they won a hard strike against mighty Dominion Textile in Valleyfield. Quebec's autocratic leader, Maurice Duplessis, saw them as personal antagonists. Kent went to jail for six months. Madeleine was indicted for "seditious conspiracy." Duplessis rewrote the charges himself to strengthen them. She was convicted but it was overturned.

She became emblematic. Painter Marcelle Ferron called her, "The greatest figure of our time, the one who did the most to change Quebec." In a still pious society, she was labelled a slut and whore; Rush Limbaugh didn't originate that stuff. During the Cold War, rumours were spread that she was Russian and had been smuggled ashore from a submarine. Nor was she just a leader of women; the respect and deference of woodworkers or hard-rock miners when they sought her advice were palpable in their body language.

She and Kent fought ceaseless battles with their union headquarters which, like most then, was U.S.-based. When ordered to sign a sell-out contract in 1953 they refused, and were expelled. They retreated to a small base of loyal workers and for decades, joined by other small unions with the same bitter experience, fought to build an independent, Canadian labour movement. They argued this case before workers everywhere in Canada. It was an era of labour rhetoric and both could turn around a dire situation on the picket line or in a union hall with the power of their words. They made plenty of enemies. When Kent -- a master strategist on and off the picket line -- died, people from rival unions came to the "viewing," probably to verify it was really him in the coffin. Eventually, Canadianization succeeded. Most unions here are now national. Their own union joined the Canadian Auto Workers after it went independent in the 1980s.

That's a lot in a few words but I've left something out: the romance. They fell in love while Madeleine was married to another organizer who was off at war. Afterward they all worked together but it "came out" during a strike. Eventually there was a divorce and new marriage in 1953. But almost simultaneously they were fired by their union bosses and Kent moved to Ontario to try to build a presence while Madeleine held on in Quebec. They lived apart for 15 years, then reunited in Ontario for a decade. After Kent died I wrote a biography on him. Going through the manuscript with her was the hardest bargaining I've ever done. But it probably should've been an opera. In the hospital that day after Kent's second stroke, Madeleine told me they were making love at the time. As I said, "That's wonderful," she went on: "I always tried to be gentle."

When I say "end of an era," it's not with despair. History moves on but there's continuity. Class warfare may sound off-key today but We are the 99 per cent strikes a chord. Nor should people's meaning be confined to the strict details of their lives. Kent, for instance, loved his four-volume Journals of Boswell from the 1700s. God knows why. Young Boswell was a rich Scottish twit who went to London for all the sex he could cadge and to hobnob with famous names. Maybe it shows that no one's potential can be exhausted by the setting into which they're born. There's always something left over in a life.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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