The Hommage à Léa Roback mural in Montreal. Photo by Carlos Oliva, Ville de Montréal (flic.kr/p/qoknsu). Used under CC-BY-ND 2.0

The Hommage à Léa Roback mural in Montreal. Photo by Carlos Oliva, Ville de Montréal (flic.kr/p/qoknsu). Used under CC-BY-ND 2.0

Canadian women making history: A lifetime dedicated to equal chances for all Canadians

Lea Roback (1903–2000) social activist, pacifist and trade union organizer

Montreal garment shops in the 1930s were rife with deplorable working conditions. Needle workers — predominantly women — were subjected to environments that were unheated, unventilated, poorly lit, overcrowded and run by tyrannical and abusive overlords. Léa Roback, the Montreal social activist, was eager to step in when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union needed help reaching the community of garment workers. Her ability to communicate in three languages, French, English and Yiddish, was an indispensable asset in persuading and mobilizing the workers to take action. She helped unify the 5,000 tradespeople and lead them in a three-week long strike. A contract was ultimately won for the workers.

Part of a large Jewish family, Roback herself came from a working class background. Her father was a tailor and the owner of a general store, which her mother helped him run. She was born in 1903 in Montreal to where she returned with her family in her early teens. She worked first as a dyer and then a cashier at a theatre, and eventually earned enough to make her way to Grenoble, France, where she earned a degree in literature. She had stints in New York, the USSR and eventually Berlin. It was in Germany that she first became involved in communism. Eventually, Roback returned to Montreal and became employed by Fred Rose, a politician running for the Canadian Communist Party.

Throughout her life, Léa was a champion for human rights. She was a suffragist, trade union organizer and a pacifist. In the 1940s she was instrumental in unionizing RCA Victor and it was there that she helped win the first union contract for women.

Like many people, in the 1960s Roback was concerned about the use of nuclear weapons. She thereby became an integral part of La Voix des Femmes, an organization concerned about the threat of nuclear war and campaigning for disarmament. She also lent her voice to protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.

Until the end — she passed in 2000 — Roback was a voice for human rights. Her memory is perpetuated by the Léa Roback Foundation, which provides scholarships to socially committed women.

katie@goldstreamgazette.com

Goldstream News Gazette

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