The Backbone

By Catherine

Lea Roback, an inexhaustible crusader for social justice, was born on November 3, 1903 in Montreal on Guilbault Street. The second of nine children of Jewish Polish immigrant parents, she spent her childhood in Beauport, a village near Quebec City, where her parents had a general store. Their house was small, two children to a bed and some beds were in the living room.

Her parents were permissive and open-minded. They valued tolerance, respect, education and speaking out against injustice. Lea’s mother taught her the importance of looking out for the sick, the weak and the poor and always caring for others less fortunate. Yiddish was the language spoken at home; French or English was used outside the home and Lea switched freely among all three languages.

At the age of fifteen, Lea and her family returned to Montreal and she got her first job. She first worked for a dyer and then as a cashier at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Guy Street. There she became aware of the inequality between Montreal’s ruling English speaking families and the mostly French and Jewish working class.

Since her parents encouraged studies, she took all her savings and went to the University of Grenoble in France during the 1920s. She studied literature, history and the arts while at the same time, working to support herself. Upon leaving France, Lea went to New York where one of her sisters was living. She worked there only a short time however as she did not enjoy the city. In 1927, her older brother, Henri, invited her to join him in Berlin. She learnt German and studied linguistic for a semester at the University of Berlin. In 1931, while still in Berlin, she joined the Communist Party in reaction to the swelling tide of Nazism. Lea remained in the party until 1958 at which time she felt that the party values and philosophies did not match her own. A year later, in 1932, she returned back to Montreal to escape Hitler’s raids.

In 1935, she managed Montreal’s first Marxist bookstore on Bleury Street, the Modern Bookshop, where she got first-hand training in dealing with police harassment. The same year, she supported the suffragette movement with Therese Casgrain to help her gain the right to vote for Quebec women. She also campaigned for Fred Rose a communist candidate in the Cartier District. Eight years later, he would become the first communist elected to the House of Commons.

In 1936, she began her long association with the labour movement as a union organizer during the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In 1937, she attacked the industry’s desperate working conditions with a strike of 5 000 workers. This event represented the first victory of the Union, but also marked one of the province’s greatest achievements for women. In 1941, she organized the RCA Victor union in St. Henri, where she took an assembly-line for the United Electrical Workers. Two years later, she helped to secure the first union contract for 4 000 workers, nearly half of whom where women and Jewish. She remained there until 1952. Roback strongly believed in the importance of unions, because without a union, she thought that people, especially women, would not be paid correctly nor be protected from harassment, unsafe work environments, etc. Although she did organize strikes, there were also instances where she threatened bosses for pay and raises, without ever having to call for a strike.

As a strong, secure woman who devoted her life to leftist activism, she defied the odds of her time. While women were marrying and baring children, she rebelled against injustice and oppression, yet in a positive and progressive way; she was married to the cause of human rights. Her courage and commitment to her beliefs is the reason she will be forever remembered and praised. She was involved in numerous organizations and causes in the Montreal-area which consumed her energy and enthusiasm; Quebec Aid to the Partially Sighted, the Voice of Women, nuclear, abortion rights, equal wages and anti-war groups to name a few. Lea Roback was always within the ranks passing out pamphlets, speaking up, urging, explaining and marching in protests and demonstrations.

In 1991, a documentary by the filmmaker Sophie Bissonnette was made featuring Roback. The film entitled Des lumières dans la Grande Noirceur is about her life and her accomplishments. In 1993, her friends set up on her ninetieth birthday the Lea Roback Foundation in her honour. The purpose of the Lea Roback Foundation is to promote education as a means of personal and collective fulfillment and emancipation, as well as to promote universal access to education for women. The Foundation offers financial assistance to economically disadvantage and socially committed women who wish to begin or pursue studies, but need some support.

On August 28, 2000, at the dawn of the 21st century, Lea suffered a fatal accident in the Côte-des-Neiges district. Still in fighting spirits, she passed away at the age of 96. She is still known today in the community and the province because of her achievements and many honors she received such as the National Order (2000), the Pioneer Award (2000) and the Lieutenant-Governor Award (1999). She never doubted the power of women, believed in her convictions and remains today an inspiration to many.

One Comment to “The Backbone”

  1. Hipolito M. Wiseman says:

Leave a Comment