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Lea Roback

by Judy Rebick | December 4, 2000

Lea worked as a cashier, receptionist, all sorts of things. In the Globe and Mail’s obituary for her, Lea was quoted as saying, “I was thrown out of two or three factories. But I always managed to get into a non-union shop. And we got the union in, in spite of everything. I was a real union old maid.”

Despite the fact that she was never an officer in a union or elected to head up any organization, her obituary also appeared on the front pages of La Presse and the Gazette. Her acceptance in the French and English communities in Montréal was rare. Both claimed her as their own. In Québec, where elders are addressed by their last names, everyone called her Lea.

She was a feminist as well as a union organizer. She was involved in the struggle for women to get the vote, which in Québec took place in the 1940s. She was a founding member of the Voice of Women, a feminist peace group. She was a constant presence in the pro-choice movement. In 1989, she was at a rally for Chantel Daigle, who took her fight for the right to choose to the Supreme Court.

Fluent in French and English, Lea loved people and it showed in her amazing warmth and ability to engage even a total stranger in intimate conversation. Her good friend, Madeleine Parent, said, “In her late eighties, I would accompany her on the bus because I was worried about her going home alone. She would insist that I sit separately so that she could talk to the person next to her. She would get them talking and then elevate whatever the problem or issue they were chatting about to a social or political issue. In that way, she raised the political consciousness of the people of Montréal, one by one.”

“I do what I do because it is in my heart,” Lea told writer Nicole Lacelle, whose book, Entrétiens avec Parent et Roback, was published in 1988. “If it succeeds, bravo, if it fails, I try again.” Lea was the kind of grassroots organizer that we have almost forgotten about today. In a 1991 documentary by Sophie Bisonnette on Lea’s life called Des Lumières Dans la Grand Noirçeur, she is shown in her eighties, wrapped up against the cold, handing out leaflets to protest war toys. “There is nothing I like better than to be standing on a street corner, handing out leaflets,” she said, “because it is how you come to understand what people are about.”

As a young woman, Lea Roback travelled through Europe, settling in Germany in the exciting years before the rise of Hitler. She joined the German Communist Party because it was the first to fight against fascism. She quit the party in 1958, when the horrors of Stalin were revealed to the world. In the late 1930s, after she returned to Montréal, Lea got involved in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union trying to bring unions into factories. She was, in the words of Parent, “a magnificent organizer.”

“Lea was able to get the confidence of the French Canadian workers and convince them to work with the immigrant, mostly Jewish, workers. The Catholic priests had encouraged them to mistrust the Jews” says Parent. “People would go to her with their problems. One day, a man came to the union office panicking because his wife was giving birth and there was no one to help. Lea went to deliver the baby.”

“I asked her why she never married,” says Lacelle. Lea’s response? “I couldn’t see myself ironing a man’s shirt.”

Even the way she died showed her character. She fell down the stairs in the seniors’ residence that she moved into at age 94. There was a lift on the stairway, but Lea wouldn’t use it. She didn’t want to lose her independence.

On her nintieth birthday, feminists in Montréal got together to give Lea a present. They set up the Lea Roback Foundation, which gives women activists bursaries to continue their education. Despite her growing frailty, Lea attended the foundation’s fund-raising events every year until 2000. Lea is not here physically, but her spirit will shine brightly through the young women who will use the bursary to establish the kind of independent and fulfilling lives that Lea spent her life promoting and living.

resource for this story
  • Entrétiens avec Parent et Roback, by NICOLE LACELLE, Editions du remue-menage |1988

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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