Canada’s orig­i­nal social jus­tice war­rior

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - – BAR­BARA SILVERSTEIN

Lea Roback was a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist and a life-long crusader for social jus­tice. She was a trade union or­ga­nizer, paci­fist, fem­i­nist, suf­fragette and Marx­ist.

Roback was born in Mon­treal, the sec­ond old­est of nine chil­dren. Her par­ents em­i­grated to Canada from Poland and re­lo­cated to Beau­port, Que., a vil­lage near Quebec City. Roback grew up in this French-cana­dian com­mu­nity, where her par­ents ran a small re­tail business. She spoke French on the street and Yid­dish at home, but her school­ing was in English.

In 1919, her fam­ily re­turned to Mon­treal. Roback found em­ploy­ment at Bri­tish Amer­i­can Dye­works, a clean­ing and dye­ing com­pany. This work ex­posed her to the harsh con­di­tions facing work­ers. She earned $8 for a 50-hour week.

When Roback was a cashier at His Majesty’s The­atre in 1922, she be­came in­ter­ested in French the­atre. She went to France in 1925 to study lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sité de Greno­ble. She stayed there two years, earn­ing money as an English tu­tor to pay for her tu­ition.

Af­ter France, she joined her sis­ter in New York City, where she worked as a sales as­sis­tant for a num­ber of years.

In 1929, Roback trav­elled to Ber­lin to visit her brother, who was a med­i­cal stu­dent there. She at­tended uni­ver­sity classes and taught English.

Roback im­mersed her­self in the cul­tural mi­lieu of pre-war Ber­lin. She dis­cov­ered the plays of Ber­tolt Brecht and she was also in­tro­duced to com­mu­nist ide­ol­ogy.

She be­came an ac­tivist and a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist party, par­tic­i­pat­ing reg­u­larly in demon­stra­tions or­ga­nized by the trade unions and the left.

How­ever, the sit­u­a­tion in Ber­lin was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly grim, as fas­cism gained po­lit­i­cal trac­tion. In late 1932, a few months be­fore Adolf Hitler took power, Roback’s pro­fes­sors urged her to go home.

She re­turned to Europe for a short trip to the Soviet Union in 1935 and later opened the Mod­ern Book­shop, Mon­treal’s first Marx­ist book­store. Famed Cana­dian

She was very ac­tive in the gar­ment in­dus­try, which had some of the worst work­ing con­di­tions in North America.

sur­geon Nor­man Bethune was an oc­ca­sional cus­tomer.

In the mid-1930s, Roback be­came in­volved in the Mon­treal labour movement. She was very ac­tive in the gar­ment in­dus­try, which had some of the worst work­ing con­di­tions in North America.

Roback’s flu­ency in French, English and Yid­dish helped her be­come one of the most ef­fec­tive union or­ga­niz­ers of the time, as her lan­guage skills en­abled her to bridge the lin­guis­tic and eth­nic di­vi­sions be­tween the work­ers.

Jewish and French-cana­dian gar­ment work­ers had lit­tle con­tact with each other. Most Jewish work­ers did not speak French and were ap­pre­hen­sive about in­ter­act­ing with their French-cana­di­ans coun­ter­parts, who were re­puted to be anti-semitic.

In 1937, Roback led a three-week-long strike of the 5,000 mem­bers of the In­ter­na­tional Ladies Gar­ment Work­ers Union, Lo­cal 262.

She suc­ceeded in win­ning greater recog­ni­tion for the union, a raise in the work­ers’ wages and im­proved work­ing con­di­tions.

She or­ga­nized the 4,000 work­ers of the RCA Vic­tor union in Mon­treal’s Saint-henri neigh­bour­hood in 1941 and helped them get their first union con­tract.

Roback was a very ac­tive mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Party of Canada, which had been des­ig­nated an il­le­gal or­ga­ni­za­tion back in 1931.

She worked on the fed­eral elec­tion cam­paigns of Fred Rose, a Jewish man of Pol­ish ori­gin, who ran in Mon­treal in 1935. He won a 1943 by­elec­tion and be­came the first and only MP ever elected to the House of Com­mons as a Com­mu­nist (the party then was called the Labour-pro­gres­sive Party, as the Com­mu­nist party was banned in 1940).

Roback re­mained strongly pro-com­mu­nist un­til 1958, when the atroc­i­ties of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin were dis­closed. But her com­mit­ment to social causes con­tin­ued.

In the ’30s, Roback also cam­paigned along­side Thérèse Cas­grain, a leader of the women’s suf­frage movement in Quebec. Most Cana­dian women won the right to vote by 1918, but it took un­til 1940 for women in Quebec to get the vote.

In the early ‘60s Roback be­came an ac­tive­mem­beroflavoixdes­femmes(voice of Women), a paci­fist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Mem­bers cam­paigned against the Viet­nam War and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of nu­clear weapons, in ad­di­tion to pro­mot­ing dis­ar­ma­ment. Roback was a con­stant pres­ence at peace ral­lies.

She fought for the le­gal­iza­tion of abor­tions, be­came ac­tive in the en­vi­ron­men­tal movement and cham­pi­oned the rights of im­mi­grant and abo­rig­i­nal women.

Roback’s tire­less and loyal ad­vo­cacy on be­half of the un­der­dog has been rec­og­nized by both the Quebec gov­ern­ment and nu­mer­ous cit­i­zens’ or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In 1985, she was made an hon­orary mem­ber of the Cana­dian Re­search In­sti­tute for the Ad­vance­ment of Women, in recog­ni­tion of her social and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.

Doc­u­men­tary film­maker So­phie Bis­son­nette’s 1991 film, A Vi­sion in the Dark­ness (Des lu­mières dans la grande noirceur), was about Roback’s life.

Fem­i­nists in Mon­treal set up the Lea Roback Foun­da­tion in 1993, to mark her 90th birth­day. The foun­da­tion gives fe­male ac­tivists bur­saries to con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion.

In 1997, 10 fem­i­nist or­ga­ni­za­tions opened Mai­son Par­ent-roback to house their head of­fices.

Roback was among the Quebec cit­i­zens whose work was rec­og­nized by the El­ders Coun­cil on the In­ter­na­tional Day of Older Per­sons, in Oc­to­ber 1999.

The YWCA hon­oured her at its Women of Dis­tinc­tion gala in April 2000. That same year, the Quebec gov­ern­ment in­ducted her as a knight of the Na­tional Or­der of Quebec (Or­dre na­tional du Québec).

Roback died in 2000 at the age of 96, but the hon­ours con­tin­ued posthu­mously.

The Cen­tre Léa-roback in Mon­treal, which con­ducts re­search into social in­equal­i­ties in health, was named af­ter her.

A street in Mon­treal’s Saint-henri neigh­bour­hood and a sec­ond street in the Beau­port bor­ough of Quebec City also bear her name.

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