Madeleine Parent was a prominent union activist and champion of social justice, who played a leading role in the Canadian labour movement. Through her courageous and militant leadership, she succeeded in combating notable injustices faced by mill and textile factory workers, who were mostly women. Despite facing adversity from both the government and other unions, Parent still went on to become a founder of the Confederation of Canadian Unions, which effectively improved the working conditions for thousands of working class Canadians.
Parent was born in Montreal in 1918, to middle class parents, despite her vested interest in the urban poor. She was able to attend the best schools Montreal had to offer, and as such went to boarding school at Villa-Maria convent. It has been noted that the early development of her struggle against social injustice was formed from her experiences at school. There, she noticed how differently the servant girls were treated from the schoolgirls, and has been quoted saying, “I simply could not accept that.” This propagation of inequality would come to define the life of Madeleine Parent, as she devoted herself to bringing social justice and equality to those perceived by society as unequal. In 1936, Parent began her degree in sociology at McGill University, which only bolstered her passion for social justice. She was very active in student groups and movements throughout her university career. Such groups included the Canadian Student’s Assembly, which sought to create more study bursaries for student from low-income families thereby making university more accessible, and the Civil Liberties Union. Parent also experienced the more militant side of the struggle for social justice while in her post-secondary pursuits, participating in a plethora of student protests and meeting bellicose individuals influential in the realm of progressive thought. Madeleine Parent graduated from McGill in 1940, and quickly endeavoured on a journey of union activism to enact the changes she sought.
After graduation, Parent focused her efforts on improving the working conditions of cotton and woollen mills in Quebec. The predominantly female workforce of these industries, some as young as fourteen years old, endured fifty-five hour-long workweeks for very low wages. By 1942, Parent was leading the unionization effort for Dominion Textile plants in Montreal and Valleyfield. They were fighting the company for a better contract, and the effort would pay off after a few years. In 1946, Parent and her eventual husband Kent Rowley lead a successful strike for attaining a new contract. This accomplishment proved her abilities as a union leader, but also resulted in gaining the attention and severe opposition of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis. Duplessis was a hardliner against unions, which made the two staunch political rivals until the end of his life. This did not stop Parent from her extensive union activism, even when she was arrested in 1947 on charges of seditious conspiracy. Under the orders of Duplessis, Parent was arrested five times for her role in the movement.
The situation with Duplessis shifted Parent’s focus on union activism to a more national scope. In 1952, the Premier orchestrated a deal with Dominion Textile that saw the workers losing out. Madeleine and Kent realized the need for stronger localized national unions to further worker aims, and established the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union. Throughout this time, her opposition was denouncing her, and spreading rumours that she was a communist in an effort to stop her work and delegitimize her influence. These accusations, however, resulted in Parent being fired from the United Trade Workers Union of America. This did not slow her down though, as she was already working with her husband on the CTCU. Parent remained relatively quiet, working with the CTCU in Ontario, until 1969 when the duo founded the Confederation of Canadian Unions. These initiatives focused on garnering an independent Canadian labour movement, free from the influence of international unions based in America. The remainder of Madeleine Parent’s career in union activism revolved around a number of organized strikes, and smaller scale work with the still active CCU. She retired from her active role with the union movement in 1983, though still remained present in the struggle for social justice, fighting for indigenous and women’s rights.
Madeleine Parent has been called a heroine of both the working class and of the labour movement. She devoted her life to trying to bring equality to those who were cast aside by society, as she simply could not accept the unjust standards propagated by those in power. In a time of heavy governmental anti-unionism, Parent rose up to established adversaries and fought hard for what she believed in, despite the consequences to her own life. Labelled a communist and arrested several times for her efforts, Parent emerged as one of the most influential and selfless leaders of the union movement in Quebec, and the rest of Canada. As a woman, she had to overcome the tremendous obstacles of misogyny common throughout the work and political arenas of the mid-20th century. She is also a significant leader in that regard, and would come to focus on equality for women later on in her career. In 2009, she received an honorary Doctorate of Law at Concordia University for her successes in the promotion of social justice. Madeleine Parent passed away on March 12, 2012, at the age of 93. She is remembered as an icon, and has been called, “The greatest figure of our time, the one who did the most to change Quebec.” It is this legacy that lives on, causing even the highest of Canadian politicians, such as former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, to refer to Parent as their hero.
– “Celebrating Women’s Achievements – Madeleine Parent.” Collections Canada. Library and Archives Canada, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1112-e.html>.
– News, CBC. “Quebec Labour Leader Madeleine Parent Dies.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-labour-leader-madeleine-parent-dies-1.1162485>.
– Forster, Merna. 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Toronto: Dundurn, 2011. Print.
– “La Syndicaliste Madeleine Parent Est décédée.” Radio-Canada.ca. CBC/Radio Canada, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/societe/2012/03/12/005-deces-madeleine-parent.shtml>.
– “Canada A Country by Consent: The Quiet Revolutiontion: Duplessis and the Union Nationale.” Canada A Country by Consent: The Quiet Revolutiontion: Duplessis and the Union Nationale. Canada History Project, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.canadahistoryproject.ca/1960s/1960s-02-duplessis.html>.
– Pritchett, Joanie Cameron. “Madeleine Parent.” The Confederation of Canadian Unions. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.ccu-csc.ca/about/madeleine-parent/>.
– “About.” The Confederation of Canadian Unions. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.ccu-csc.ca/about/>.
– Laxer, Robert M., Paul Craven, and Anne Martin. Canada’s Unions. Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1976. Print.
– Paris, Erna. The Weekend Magazine – March 8, 1975, Toronto, Canada – From McGill Archives
– Salutin, Rick. “Madeleine Parent, 1918-2012: Death of an Icon.” Thestar.com. The Toronto Star Newspaper, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/03/15/madeleine_parent_19182012_death_of_an_icon.html>.
 Forster, 264
 Forster, 263-264
 Forster, 264
 Laxer, 157
 Forster, 264
 Paris, Weekend Magazine – March 8, 1975
 Salutin, The Toronto Star, March 15, 2012