Montreal Quebec feminist stamps Léa Roback Madeleine Parent Simonne Monet-Chartrand

Three Montreal trailblazers garner well-deserved honours

“Canada Post issued three new stamps honouring Quebec feminists Léa Roback, Madeleine Parent and Simonne Monet-Chartrand, who spent their lives fighting for gender equality, social justice and workers’ rights.”

Earlier this week, during a beautiful ceremony at Montreal’s National Archives, Canada Post issued three new stamps honouring three Quebec feminists who spent their lives fighting for gender equality, social justice and workers’ rights. As a fan of all three, I was delighted to be in the presence of their family members and friends, among the first to view the new stamps and listen to the moving speeches honouring their legacies. 

Montreal-born Léa Roback, Madeleine Parent and Simonne Monet-Chartrand were born in a time when women were not only denied the right to vote but were not expected to aspire to anything more than being wives and mothers. All three defied an establishment that fought hard to maintain the status quo. Their activism, which continued well into their old age and rightfully deserves national recognition, remained progressive and inclusive.

Madeleine Parent

Surrounded by feminist labour history  

Montreal’s Sud-Ouest neighbourhood, where I live, has strong working-class roots. Even though the Lachine Canal is now dotted with expensive (sometimes unaffordable) condos, this remains an area shaped by industrialization and the labour of those who had little. Sometimes I feel I can still sense the presence of the thousands of people who worked the factories and textile mills here. 

And while working class women toiled in factories as cheap, docile, expendable labour, these three formidable fighters raised their voices for those afraid to speak. They campaigned, picketed and went on strike for better working conditions and better pay. Signs they once walked these streets are still visible in my neighbourhood. 

Blocks away from where I live in Saint-Henri stands the RCA Victor building. In 1941, Léa Roback organized its 4,000 union workers, helping them get their first union contract. There’s a street named after Léa by the Lachine Canal and a nearby park in the same neighbourhood bears Madeleine Parent’s name. Being that it’s still so rare to see public spaces (streets, metro stations, statues or buildings) honouring women and their accomplishments, it’s gratifying to see their names in my borough. 

Their tireless activism deserves our stamp of approval

While their names are not unfamiliar to Quebecers, I’m not sure how many people know how determined and defiant they were — how they took on the political elite, the clergy and societal norms all at once, and how incredibly ahead of their time they were. 

To truly appreciate their activism, and the activism of other feminists like Éva Circé-Côté, Thérèse Casgrain, Marie Lacoste-Gérin-Lajoie, Idola Saint-Jean and Marie-Claire Kirkland, one needs to understand the conditions under which they fought. Quebec was highly religious at the time. Both the clergy and politicians believed women belonged at home, having babies, and remaining uninvolved in politics.

While Manitoba became the first province to grant women the right to vote in 1916, gradually followed by all of Canada’s other provinces, it would take more than two decades for Quebec to follow suit. Staunchly conservative, it was the final province to grant women the vote in 1940 — 24 entire years later. It would take another 21 years (1961) before Kirkland-Casgrain became the first woman to become a Member of the National Assembly. 

When she arrived in Quebec City to take up her position, there were no women’s washrooms at the National Assembly. She couldn’t even sign her own lease for an apartment; her husband had to sign for her. Another 15 years would go by before more than one woman was elected to the National Assembly, and another 36 years before Quebec had its first (and so far, only) female premier. And just a quick lesson in intersectionality, First Nations women didn’t get the right to vote until…1960. Progress is a slow-moving beast and not everyone benefits equally. 

Dedicated and determined  

Madeleine Parent was barely 24 years old when, after meeting Léa Roback, she became deeply involved in the textile industry as a trade unionist, in the city’s Saint-Henri and Hochelaga neighbourhoods. She was instrumental in the Montreal Cottons company strike in 1946, which lasted 100 days, and she led the union movement at Dominion Textile’s Valleyfield and Montreal factories.

Premier Maurice Duplessis not only responded with violence against picketers, declaring the strikes illegal and sending police to throw tear gas into crowds that contained women and children, but he also demonized Parent. He had her arrested five times and even charged with sedition. She remained undaunted and those strikes were instrumental in forcing reluctant owners to offer better wages and working conditions in some of Quebec’s first-ever collective agreements. 

A few years earlier, in 1937, as a union organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Léa Roback convinced women to walk off the job and led a three-week strike of 5,000 workers in Montreal, greatly improving their working conditions. Roback also campaigned alongside Thérèse Casgrain for the vote, and fought for access to contraception, social housing and free education. 

Simonne Monet-Chartrand

Simmone Monet-Chartrand started fighting for women’s right to vote in Quebec in the 1930s and would also make her mark as a labour activist, a feminist writer and pacifist who co-founded the Federation des femmes du Quebec. Monet-Chartrand was deeply religious, but her faith never interfered with her feminism. 

Progressive politics until the very end

Their activism didn’t waver as they got older. There are many images of them at the picket line, coiffed silver hair, protest signs in hand in their senior years, fighting for deeply progressive causes. Roback’s Canada Post stamp captures her mid-yell, fierce as ever in her golden years. 

Roback continued to demonstrate for peace and environmental causes, fought alongside women’s groups for access to abortion and defended the rights of immigrant and Indigenous women. She also campaigned against the Vietnam War and Apartheid in South Africa well into her old age. 

Parent also defended the rights of immigrant and Indigenous women, fighting against the Indian Act, and for equal pay. An anti-racist and anti-capitalist, Monet-Chartrand continued to be a strong voice for all anti-war efforts and as co-founder of the Movement for Nuclear Disarmament, she fought for non-violence. 

All three women would probably be labeled “too woke” today by those who consider efforts for social justice and equality too radical. Their activism lives on via the various foundations and centres that carry their names and help women in need. 

The best Montreal has to offer 

These three women are the products of not only their progressive viewpoints and liberal educations but, I’m convinced, of Montreal’s ability to allow its residents of different backgrounds to be inspired by one another. These three did not limit their efforts to fighting for their own immediate communities or linguistic groups, but fought for everyone, “learning,” as Roback put it, “to be human.” 

Parent was a francophone Quebecer who made the at-the-time unconventional decision to attend McGill University. It was there she first became an activist. Monet-Chartrand was a francophone Quebecer who went to Université de Montréal but later attended Concordia University, co-founding its Simone de Beauvoir Institute. Roback was an English-, Yiddish- and German-speaking Jewish Montrealer of Polish origin who grew up in Beauport, speaking French. The ability that all three women had to transcend their own communities and fight for the rights of all workers made them such powerhouses.  

Roback’s fluency in French, English and Yiddish helped make her one of the most effective union organizers of the time. Her ability to speak to Jewish, French and English factory workers in their own languages enabled her to bridge and overcome the linguistic and ethnic divisions between them and gain their trust. She was therefore able to convince workers who didn’t mingle (and I’m certain their bosses liked it that way) to understand that their interests were one and the same, eventually unionizing them against the capitalist interests of employers who didn’t care what language their workers spoke as long as they could exploit them all equally. 

‘Sisters are doing it for themselves’ –and everyone else, too

All three women were born into a fair amount of privilege and benefited from higher educations that many at the time did not have access to. They used that privilege to fight for those who weren’t as lucky, elevating their status and quality of life, too. They ardently believed social progress happened through collective efforts and ultimately championed the most vulnerable. 

By fighting for those with the least, they left an indelible mark on the Quebec and Canadian labour movements. Their collaboration, their solidarity and their inclusive values created a better city, a better Quebec and a better Canada. They honestly represent the best of Montreal, coming together to fight for a fairer world. May we all continue to be inspired by these feminist trailblazers’ convictions and the compassionate and principled lives they led. 

If you want to know more… 

Léa Roback

Léa by Ariela Freedman is a wonderful book, published by Quebec publisher Linda Leith Publishing, which I highly recommend. It tells the story of Roback’s upbringing in Beauport and her fight against injustice as an easy-to-read fictionalized novel. 

Melanie Leavitt (who’s also related to Roback) gives incredible (bilingual) walking tours in Mile End: “Pioneers of the Picket Line: Léa Roback, Madeleine Parent and the history of women in the labour movement.” While Leavitt tends to fly under the radar, her walks (and conferences) are extremely informative and engaging. If you want to find out when the next walk is taking place, she can be reached at Memoire du Mile End/Mile End Memories ( 

Another excellent book for those interested in reading about women in the Quebec cotton textile industry, their abysmal working conditions and the labour movement, is Through the Mill by Gail Cuthbert Brandt, a historian from Ontario with a deep love for French Canada and an unabashed Quebecophile. The book is published by Quebec-based Baraka Books. Well researched and documented with oral interviews, the author explores the complex dynamics of gender, ethnicity and class and is a wonderful read for anyone interested in feminist labour history. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.