Activities and Philosophies

An Archival View into the Activities and Philosophies of Madeleine Parent

Madeleine Parent’s impact on the labour movement and feminism in Canada is undoubtedly shown through archival research. Some of the most revealing research is found through newspaper article interviews with Madeleine Parent as she describes her role in the union movement in a time and place where unions were either coerced or crushed.

Her early life is key to understanding the development of her philosophy of her pro-worker stance and her work towards advancing gender equality in the labour force. Madeleine Parent’s experience in a nun cloister was one that she saw as excessively rigid.1 This experience was followed by that of witnessing and being disturbed by the financial abuse of maids in her high school covenant.2 Choosing McGill as a less clerical option (although it was a place dominated by the upper class as she noted) to advance her education, it was here where she decided to choose an activist pro-union career over a static professional career.3

The workplace during the 1940s in Quebec was one that was not only abusive towards workers but one that harboured deep gender inequalities. Quebec under the reign of Premier Duplessis was not simply known for just it’s conservatism but also for fostering corruption. After being a member of the student movement, Madeleine Parent found work at the War Organizing Committee as an Office Secretary which was one of the few available jobs that was open to women in 1942.4 She became the office secretary for the AFC war labour organizing committee and met Kent Rowley who wanted to organize textile workers.5 On February 1st, 1943 Parent took charge of organizing workers at Dominion Textile cotton mills in the St-Henri district of Montreal.6 Her activism would land her in jail when she distributed pamphlets and was arrested for breaking the anti-littering law, a law that was used to inappropriately target activists like Parent.7 Duplessis was not content with simply using the law in a perverse fashion against union activists. The premier attempted to turn her more conservative parents against her, but failed to do so.8 Madeleine Parent was also falsely accused of being a communist spy for the Soviet Union and of being a lesbian that perverted women.9

The 1946 strike of textile workers put Parent in a position of power when Kent Rowley was arrested.10 Madeleine Parent, an icon for female workers, described the “thrill of leadership” as female strikers chanted her name in the strike.11 Parent negotiated with police after protesters fired rocks back after being hit with tear gas.12 She positively described the experience of forcing the government into negotiation by phoning them at 10 A.M.13

Madeleine Parent’s career in the union movement continued long after the harassment of the Duplessis regime in Quebec. Rowley and Parent’s (reformed) Canadian Textile and Chemical union was notable for making too many enemies in the Canadian Labour Congress.14 This is also seen in a letter sent to Madeleine Parent in 1978 by a University of Waterloo graduate student, Ellen David, who preferred Madeleine Parent’s work in the union movement over the Canadian Labour Congress which the graduate student depicted as too compromising to both business and government.15 Parent’s experiences as an activist influenced her philosophy for the primacy of local unions over international unions.

An interview in The Uniter, in 1975, showcases Madeleine Parent’s philosophies regarding the union movement in Canada. Parent noted that equal pay legislation did not end wage discrimination as women earned 60% of what men earned; all the while the laws themselves are easily evaded.16 At that time, Parent saw that women were increasingly being “segregated into lower-paying ghetto jobs.”17 As well, she notes that women are looking to achieve equal pay through unions and collective bargaining; but that only works if the union is not “as chauvinistic as their employers”.18 Parent noted that the pay gap is widening and women faced discrimination in training, hiring, and being laid off.19 Ultimately Parent believed that equal pay promotion can only be solved by both union and government efforts.20i

Madeleine Parent saw unions as under attack when they are not co-opted or corrupted. International unions served as an example of this in Parent’s view; as unions based in the United States were seen as bureaucratic and financially restrictive in terms of funding and taxation.21 Canadian unions were therefore better off on their own according to this view. Madeleine Parent did not believe in forcing workers to unionize, quota systems for workers, and constructing workers to unionize.22 She did however note that women in unions should negotiation more on matters such as seniority.23

Madeleine Parent also viewed anti-strike legislation negatively. She felt that it was abused for the sole purpose of punishing workers.24 Government, according to Parent, has the responsibility to prevent strikes and take the demands of workers more seriously.25

Footnotes:

[1] Erna Paris, Weekend Magazine, 8 March 1975, Archival Reference: 2009-0074.01.633, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Ibid & Janet Kosh, McGill News, early 1978 or early 1979, Archival Reference: 2009-0074.01.633, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Erna Paris, Weekend Magazine, 8 March 1975.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Janet Kosh, McGill News, early 1978 or early 1979

[13] Erna Paris, Weekend Magazine, 8 March 1975.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ellen David’s Letter to Madeleine Parent, 1978, Archival Reference: 2009-0074.01.633, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[16] The Uniter, April 3, 1957, Pg. 6, Archival Reference: 2009-0074.01.633, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

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