Rima Elkouri


I see her, once again, at 82 years of age, taking the microphone so as to encourage thousands of women gathered in front of Place des Arts to continue taking up the struggle. I had imagined a giant. I saw a frail, soft-spoken old lady appear. But one shouldn’t judge by appearances. Activist Madeleine Parent, who left us this week, was a real giant whose courageous voice has marked history. Her legacy is immense.


I only had the privilege of meeting this giant a single time, on a grey October Saturday in 2000.


It was at the end of the World Women’s March against violence and poverty. |The government had responded to the demands of activists by throwing them some crumbs – a ten-cent increase to the minimum wage and 50 million in different measures. In front of an embittered crowd I saw this great tireless lady deliver a message of hope. “If it is not today, it will be tomorrow, provided that we remain mobilized, all of us together”, she had said, not before having denounced “the short-sightedness of our governments.”


Eleven years down the road, we are still looking for the long-view. I look at the students who have been holding demonstrations for the last month. I look at them and I tell myself that they are the worthy heirs of Madeleine Parent, who has been struggling since 1930 for universal access to education. If her long illness had not condemned her to silence of late, she would have certainly taken to the streets by their side, reminding them that one doesn’t find the long view if one stops looking for it.


I very much like the expression used by writer Rick Salutin to describe Madeleine Parent: “ An iron will and a pearl necklace”. It’s all there. With a well-groomed appearance, Madeleine Parent was one of those women who disturb, who shake up the established order with as much elegance as tenacity. Rick Salutin (also author of a book on Kent Rowley, Madeleine Parent’s husband with whom she led the fight to organize textile workers in Quebec) with this anecdote sums up the fighting spirit of this great trade unionist. “After a whole night’s negotiation, it was generally lawyers who looked defeated and exhausted whereas she appeared completely fresh, calm and without a hair out of place, wearing her pearl necklace, continuing to fight for each principle.”


During the post-war period, thanks to Madeleine Parent’s and Kent Roley’s tireless efforts, the textile workers obtained the most important gains  in their history. Even when strikes did not lead to the expected results, Madeleine Parent saw gains in them. “Each union struggle teaches the worker how to fight, she used to say. Nothing is ever completely lost.”


In the anthology Madeleine Parent, militante, which reads like a long homage, Shree Mulay, former Director of the McGill  Centre for Research and Teaching on Women and founder of the South Asia Women’s Community Centre, says she was surprised when she saw the great lady arrive at a conference of the Collectif des femmes immigrantes at UQAM. She looked like “a nun in civilian clothing.” “On her grey suit, I was looking for a discretely hidden crucifix or a rosary . Her appearance belied her words. Could she be a nun who was championing the right to abortion?”


Shree certainly laughed at her scorn when she discovered how irreverent Madeleine Parent really was  under her discrete appearance.  A woman who was never afraid of taking the church on in the 1940’s and 1950’s even if she was accused of being a “loose” woman. A woman who was not afraid to face Maurice Duplessis even if it meant getting arrested for “seditious conspiracy”. A woman who would naturally become a mentor and an inspiration.


A feminist from the very beginning, Madeleine has  fought for women’s right to vote together with Lea Roback. She has also held dear the destiny of the poor and the forgotten, be they francophone or Anglophone, from here or from elsewhere. “The avant-gardism that she showed in her syndicalist activism has spilled over into all areas where she has been active”, underlines Monique Simard, who has praised her tremendous intelligence, her constancy and her courage.


She did not look for spectacular causes, but just causes. She has always supported the rights of native women. She has contributed to changing laws that discriminate against indigenous peoples. She has defended the rights of immigrant women and has favored their inclusion in the women’s movement. As soon as something appeared to be unjust there she was at the very front.


Whilst wishing for Quebec’s independence, Madeleine Parent has always refused “to fall into a narrow nationalism that excludes” remembers Francoise David. She has always built bridges there where there was a multitude of solitudes. She has never lost sight of her principles. The legacy of this stubborn woman with the pearl necklace is more than ever  fitting for the times.


The quotations have been taken from Madeleine Parent, militante. Under the guidance of d’Andree Levesque. Les Edition du Remue-Menage, 2003.


(La Presse ; March 17, 2012: Le Presse is the major French Language newspaper of Canada produced from Montreal) [Translated from French by Maya Khankhoje]

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