In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
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 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 active member of La Voix des femmes (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.