One of my social activist heroes is Madeleine Parent who championed the rights of workers at the Montreal Cotton Company (later Dominion Textiles) plants in Montreal and my hometown of Valleyfield (now Salaberry-de-Valleyfield), Québec.
Parent organized a strike in the Duplessis-era Québec of 1946, decrying the Dickensian working conditions (which she described in this CBC interview), and because management at Montreal Cotton Ltd. refused to recognize the union she had started.
These were the days, or certainly not long after, described so well in Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes” – Montreal Cotton management (English) against employees (mostly French). Salaberry-de-Valleyfield’s streets, certainly those closest to the plant, were very often named for Presidents and managers of Montreal Cotton or other prominent members of the English community – Dufferin, Gault, Anderson, Maden, Whitaker, Stevenson, Cross, Gordon, Molson, Black, Gurnham, Simpson, Lowe, Holt, Sullivan, May – this in a town which despite its name, which came from the Valleyfield Mills, a paper mill south of Edinburgh in Scotland, had grown to become overwhelmingly French. But, while it would be tempting to oversimplify the labour strife at Montreal Cotton as simply being between English and French, there were many working-class, English-speaking employees as well. No this was much more about union organizers, such as Madeleine Parent, and Montreal Cotton management (typical of the era and backed by Premier Maurice Duplessis, the McCarthy-esque provincial police of the day, and the then-influential Roman Catholic Church) bent on keeping unions neutered.
Parent’s husband, Kent Rowley, was charged with inciting what would become known as the Valleyfield Riot. When “the women’s auxiliary”, the wives and mothers of striking Montreal Cotton workers, mobilized the support of five thousand members of the public for a demonstration at the picket lines the Duplessis-backed police responded with tear gas. The protesters were simply trying to stop police and private security guards from escorting scab labourers into the plant. Plus ca change! In the melee the crowd ripped up chunks of the sidewalk to lob at police who responded with more tear gas.
Rowley who, like Parent, was a union organizer was not charged with anything on the day of the demonstration but a week later he was charged with inciting a riot. He went to jail but the organizing efforts were rewarded in 1946 when more than six thousand cotton workers succeeded in forming a union. A few short years later, however, in 1952, the international union turned its back on Québec workers and signed an agreement with Dominion Textile reflecting only the requirements stipulated by Duplessis – a betrayal which made the need for at-home unions clear.
A monument honouring the workers and the union organizers, including Rowley and Parent, has been placed on the site of the old factory in Valleyfield.
Madeleine Parent was a founding member of the Canadian Council of Unions, whose aim was to repatriate unions having American allegiances. In 1968, seventy percent of union workers in Canada contributed to American unions. Thirty years later that rate had fallen to 30 percent.
She is a founding member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, representing Québec for eight years. She was active in various committees and several activities such as committees for the defence of the rights of Aboriginal women, and the 1995 Women’s March Against Poverty organized by the Fédération des femmes du Québec.
Madeleine Parent is now 88 years young and, in 2004, she spoke at a meeting of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). The gathering was held at Hotel Plaza Valleyfield whose building includes part of the former Montreal Cotton works, something lost on no one at the meeting, least of all Mme. Parent.
Women’s Education Des Femmes Madeleine Parent, interviewed by Christina Starr