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Lea’s biography

1903-2000


Photographie Louise de Grosbois © Fondation Léa Roback
 

All my life I have stood with the working men and women.
I was proud to belong to the rank-and-file.
Whenever I said “we,” I meant “we,” what we could achieve together.
That’s what I loved.

“I’m acting out of my deepest conviction.” You have to tell yourself:
Come what may, I’m going ahead; if it succeeds, so much the better;
If not, I’ll find another way or just move on.
There is nothing sadder than people with no enthusiasm.

What’s important is learning to be human,
learning that we are all alike

Look out the window. The sky’s almost covered.
Some grayish white clouds, some almost black,
but between them you can see a bit of blue.
I focus on the blue


Photographie reproduite avec avec l’aimable autorisation des Archives de la Bibliothèque juive de Montréal
Courtesy of Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

LEA ROBACK (1903-2000) Lea was born in Montreal, on Guilbault street, in 1903, in a Jewish family of Polish origin, but spent her childhood in Beauport, where her father practised his trade as a tailor, and ran a general store with his wife Fanny. The only Jewish family in the village, with there nine children, they got along well with their Beauport neighbours because, as Lea says, “they were all poor like us.”

The family returns to Montreal in 1915. Lea starts working as a receptionist for a dyer, and later on as a cashier at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Guy Street. There’s a brothel in front of the theatre, and the young Lea gets to know some of the prostitutes, “nice girls, she says, because in the 20s there’s not a whole lot of ways for a woman without an education to earn a living.” Is this where the development of her feminist thinking and her belief in the right to an education and a good job begins? perhaps... all the same, these convictions will indeed guide her action many years later...

Lea comes from a family where reading and the arts are valued and cherished; she herself is passionate about theatre and literature. She manages to put some money aside and decides to enrol at the Université de Grenoble in 1926, to study literature.

Driven by a most unconventional adventuresome spirit, certainly uncommon for any woman of her time, she will travel a lot over the years to come. In 1929, she joins her brother Henri, a student in medicine, in Berlin. She learns to speak German there, does a few courses at the university and teaches French. Nazism is on the rise and Lea becomes keenly politicized: she marches in the streets of Berlin on May Day 1929, joins protest demonstrations with students and trade unionists, and promptly becomes part of the communist movement that spearheads the anti-fascist struggle at the time. The situation becomes increasingly dangerous both for communists and Jews, and Lea has no choice but to leave Germany and return to Montreal in the fall 1932.

She will go to work at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association for two years, then at a school for offenders in New York State. She will visit the USSR in 1934, stop in Paris to contact some anti-fascist groups, passes through New York again, and then lays down her roots definitively in Montreal.

She is put in charge of a Marxist bookstore, the Modern Book Shop, on Bleury Street, south of Sainte-Catherine. Lea is at the forefront of every struggle, and in the 1935 federal elections, works for the Communist candidate Fred Rose in the Cartier riding.

Her activism and support of communist causes has a price of course, and Lea loses count of the number of police raids that took place during the anti-communist witch-hunts conducted by the Union Nationale Government. Until the end of her life, she always deplored the disappearance of the many books that were taken away from her. To understand the appeal of the Communist Party, here as elsewhere, one must recall the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism, the exercises of black-shirted men, with their Nazi swastikas in Lafontaine Park, the smashed store windows of Jewish-owned stores, the work of Université de Montréal students, including the bookshop where Lea worked, and the police who blithely turned a blind eye to all this violence. Lea became an active member of Solidarité féminine, a woman’s organization that was particularly involved in helping families affected by unemployment take care of their daily needs.

 
     
  In Montreal, the Great Depression drags on and on, and the situation of the working class just doesn’t stop deteriorating. In the fall 1936, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU-UIOVD), headquartered in New York City, begins a campaign to organize the workers across the whole industry in Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal. The work force is almost entirely female and works in numerous insalubrious sweatshops, where they are shamelessly exploited. The Union dispatches Rose Pesotta, a veteran union organizer from New York, but the latter doesn’t speak any French; Lea is the ideal person to help her out and plays a key role, because she’s able to speak French to the francophone workers who constitute some 60% of the 5,000 workers and just as easily converse in Yiddish and English to the other workers, an overwhelming majority of whom are Jewish. After three weeks, a collective agreement is signed and the strikers celebrate their victory. A year later however, the contract is broken in the face of a Union, weakened by anti-communist purges. Lea leaves the garment workers in 1939, without however ever abandoning the struggle to improve the condition of working women.

In 1942, Lea works on the production assembly line at the RCA Victor plant in Saint-Henri, that counts some 4,000 workers, about 40% of whom are women. Today, a few streets from the plant, there is a street that bears her name, Lea Roback Street. The organizer succeeds, without having to resort to a strike, in organizing an Industrial Union in the plant, but as Lea so aptly says: “It’s impossible to affirm that so and so, she organized the union, never. It’s always, always the rank and file [...] If people don’t want a union, you can’t shove it down their throats.

Notwithstanding all her talents for persuading and mobilizing workers, Lea always refused to become a union staff representative and climb up the hierarchy. She never wanted to hold any other union positions than those that would enable her to be in the field. She says: “I’ve always been with the workers [...] I liked rubbing shoulders with the people with whom I worked [...] I never wanted to move out of the rank and file [...] I wanted to be able to say “we” and that it really meant we.

Once again, in 1943, she’s active in the election campaign on behalf of Fred Rose, running for the Labour Progressive Party, the rebaptized Communist Party, and this time, Rose is elected MP to represent the Montreal-Cartier riding. Lea will slowly but surely distance herself from the Communist Party and definitively leave the Party in 1958.

The 1945 Armistice, followed by the Cold War, gives rise to a massive pacifist movement. In 1960, a group of Canadian women found the Voice of Women, which becomes La Voix des Femmes in Montreal, and that unites together anglophones and francophones, such as Thérèse Casgrain, and polyglots such as Lea. She will play an active role in the organization: becoming a fixture in the streets protesting against militarization, nuclear arms, the war in Vietnam and distributing leaflets against military toys. As always, Lea takes the time to speak to people, to explain things, always keeping her cool and sporting an engaging smile in front of passers-by, who are not always as polite as she.

The struggle against apartheid also attracts Lea’s active support over the years and she shares in the joy of victory, when Nelson Mandela is released from prison in 1990. Likewise, she never stopped fighting for and defending pay equity and a woman’s right to an abortion.

Lea Roback was a progressive way ahead of her time. Her commitment was always rooted in solidarity and action. Her approach was shrewdly politicized, turned towards the future and decidedly feminist. It was also fed with optimism and entrenched in the certainty that she was on the side of justice and the conviction that she would help build a better world. “It’s funny, she confessed during an interview, but I never felt [...] that it wasn’t worth it. It was never like that for me. Over there, do you see out that window? Look out the window. The sky’s almost covered. Some grayish white clouds, some almost black, but between them you can see a bit of blue. I focus on the blue“ ».

The filmmaker Sophie Bissonnette made a documentary on Lea Roback: Des Lumières dans la grande Noirceur (A Vision in the Darkness) with Productions Contre-Jour, in 1991.

And in 1988, Nicole Lacelle published, with Éditions du remue-ménage, her interviews with Madeleine Parent and Lea Roback.

 
 

 


Photographie reproduite avec l’aimable autorisation des Archives de la Bibliothèque juive de Montréal
Courtesy of Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

 
 

 

 

 
 

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