Historical Legacies

By Sangster, Joan | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Historical Legacies


Sangster, Joan, Labour/Le Travail


THE FIRST TIME I HEARD MADELEINE PARENT speak, I was attending a rally for the Local 1005 Stelco strikers in Hamilton in 1980. For the first time in many years, women workers were more visible on the picket line, thanks to the recently fought "Women Back Into Stelco" campaign. Rumours circulated that union president, Cec Taylor, had invited Parent to speak, at a time when it was still unusual to allow this union 'renagade' onto the podiums of international unions. However some rebellious 1005 members, including Taylor, had picketed with the Canadian Textile and Chemical Workers Union (CTCU), the independent Canadian union led by Parent and her partner Kent Rowley, during the 1971 Texpack strike in nearby Brantford, despite orders by the internationals not to do so. It was undoubtedly this old connection between activist union leaders that led to Parent's presence. Having never seen her in person, I initially wondered how this tiny woman, in very respectable dress, would rouse a crowd of steelworkers. If I had contemplated her history more carefully, I would not have asked that question. Parent may have seemed incongruous to the scene, but once she started to speak there was no doubt that she could make a crowd listen: her clear, direct speech identified the class battle unfolding as well as her political commitment to the strikers as they took on one of the more powerful corporations in Canada. Many photos of Madeleine similarly show her in respectable attire, often wearing a seemingly incongruous pill box hat. Yet despite the disarmingly conventional headdress that Madeleine routinely donned, she was a rebel to the core. This is what we rightly remember and celebrate.

Madeleine's death this year led to many laudatory reassessments of her immense contributions to feminism, trade unionism, socialism, and other political causes. I want to focus on some contributions of special relevance to labour history. There are many more. In this kind of forum, out re-evaluations of Parent's life will not be questioning and critical; I leave that to future historians writing biographies fully immersed in the sources. It is important, in the long run, that we do not simply create one-dimensional labour leader heroines in our scholarly work, and most of us who knew or had interviewed Madeleine would acknowledge that she remains a complex figure. Madeleine guarded her own history carefully; she was aware that she was leaving a legacy, and she wanted to have some control over it. Moreover, like others who were scarred by very real experiences of persecution--in her case, not only by Premier Duplessis but also by the vicious Cold War battles within labour--she was wary of historians who she thought might hot get her story 'right.' When I asked for access to her papers at Library and Archives Canada in order to write an article on the Texpack strike, she would not talk on the phone, or even convey her thoughts on paper. Instead, one was summoned to Montreal for meetings to talk about the strike. These interviews--her interviewing me as much as me her--were a pleasure, not only because she had a sharp memory and could offer many details of the strike, but also because our political discussions ranged more broadly, revealing her inspiring, unwavering commitment to working-class struggles. But there was no doubt that she was the story teller in command of her history.

Whatever emerges from historical analyses to come, I think there are some things we should commemorate as her legacy to labour history. The five contributions I address below also have something politically important to say to us today.

First, Madeleine's long commitment to organizing unorganized, and often quite marginal, workers, needs to be noted. There are some workplaces which are inherently difficult to organize due to their size, organization, location, or the ethnic/gendered makeup of the workforce; there are also workplaces which, for political reasons, those with economic and political power will do everything to keep out of the union fold. …

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