Monday, March 12, 2012

Madeleine Parent, Rest In Peace

I am very sad to report that I just learned (via an email, so I have no link) of the death of Madeleine Parent at the age of 93. My condolences to her family and friends.

Madeleine was a long-time radical participant in struggles for justice and liberation. She was involved in Canada's first student movement at McGill University in the years before the Second World War. She was a tireless labour and feminist organizer over the course of decades. I met her in the course of doing oral history interviews with long-time Canadian activists. Her account of her central role in the titanic and victorious strike by mainly women workers at the Dominion Textile Company in 1946 is at the heart of one of the chapters of my book Gender and Sexuality: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists (forthcoming from Fernwood Publishing later in 2012 along with a companion volume called Resisting the State -- see here if you want to know more).

Madeleine was a persistent thorn in the side of quasi-fascist Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, whose harassment of her included charges of seditious conspiracy that were kept alive for years by corrupt courts in the province. She became a central fixture of the independent leftist labour scene in the country and was a core organizer for a small but tenacious independent Canadian trade union central that waged a number of ideologically important strikes in the '60s and '70s and pushed both the larger trade union centrals and the U.S.-based international unions in more progressive directions. Her involvement in the women's movement was similarly important and longstanding. A government-funded women's conference in the early 1970s was convened to consider the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. It was poised to recommend a state-affiliated body to oversee the implementation of the report, but she and a small group of radical women at the conference felt this was not enough so they stayed up late into the night strategizing and mobilizing and were successful in moving the bulk of conference participants towards a call for an independent, national coalition of women's organizations. This eventually became the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the most important national-level body for feminist struggles in Canada for many years. Parent was a consistent and radical voice at NAC and at its Quebec equivalent, the Fédération des femmes du Québec, and she played a role in brokering the more active inclusion of groups of women of colour in both of those sites in the 1990s.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Madeleine in the early 2000s. She was frail already by that point, but she spoke very firmly and with a kind of deliberation and care no doubt bred of so many years of radical involvement. I went away and transcribed her interview and sent it to her for approval. And I waited. And I waited. Every few months for a couple of years, I called her on the phone and asked patiently and politely if she had had a chance to go through the transcript. She always answered with similar patience and also, I always felt, with a glint of amusement, saying that she had not had a chance to do so but she would do it soon. Finally, not long after I moved to Sudbury, I called her and she had a different response. She decided that what would work would be for me to make another trip to Montreal and we could go over it together. I knew I wanted to be able to include her story in whatever I did with my interviews, so I agreed and made a whirlwind trip back to Montreal.

In some ways I treasure this second visit with her even more than the first. We began by going over the transcript. She had already looked at it in detail and she knew where she wanted to add things and make changes. We took care of that piece of business within an hour or two. Yet she was still eager for me to stay and talk. She made us lunch, which she was still able to do at that point but only very slowly and with great care. And she talked. She knew I was now living in Sudbury, so she talked about her visits to the city in the 1960s during the great struggles between the United Steel Workers and the Mine Mill union. The latter was an independent and very left-wing union at that time, and in earlier years it had organized all of the mines in Sudbury. The Steel Workers raided them repeatedly in the '60s, and Mine Mill counter-raided (with the eventual equilibrium of Inco's workers going with Steel and Falconbridge's staying with Mine Mill). Too few of Mine Mill's organizers were francophone, and that in a city that is 30-40% francophone, so Madeleine agreed to come and lend a hand. I also remember her talking about going on the first Quebecois delegation to post-revolution China -- two of the other participants in the delegation included then-intellectual and future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and future Senator Jacque Hebert. She gave a long, humorous account of the trip, in which Trudeau and Hebert tried their best to ignore her existence -- they wrote her out of the book they later published about the voyage -- while she, as the one with the most solidly established leftist credentials, was the member of the delegation treated most seriously by their Chinese hosts, which meant that Trudeau and Hebert couldn't help but depend on her at some moments. Alas, I did not have a recorder running for these stories, but I will always treasure my opportunity to hear them.

We didn't keep in touch much after that, but I've occasionally heard snippets of how she's doing via my partner, who by chance happened to develop professional connections with a couple of the women who were, for awhile, part of the informal feminist circle of care-provision for Madeleine. (One of those women is also the daughter of the man who was Madeleine's lawyer in the long-ago seditious conspiracy case.) I knew Madeleine's health had been deteriorating over a number of years and that various aspects of her circumstances had become difficult, but I knew few details. And now, after a long and full life, I am sorry to hear that she is gone. Not many young activists know her name, I suspect, but she was truly an inspirational figure in the 20th century social movements of northern Turtle Island, and her life has much to teach us.

Along with my own work that talks about some of her involvement in movements, you might also be interested in checking out this collection of material about her from 2005, this biography of her late husband and co-organizer published in 1980, and also Judy Rebick's oral history of the Canadian women's movement, which included material from an interview with Madeleine about some of her feminist involvement.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,
I am the one that Madeleine dictated her revised bio to before she sent it off.
Nice to see you posted some good info about her.
Cynthia Kelly