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Union organizer, social activist
Outspoken and spirited, Léa Roback spent her life dedicated to social action. Roback attributed this lifelong commitment to her family's strongly-held belief that in the face of injustice, one must act. Roback was born in Montreal in 1903, the second of nine children of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Roback spent her childhood in Beauport (just outside Quebec City), where her parents ran a general store. An independent thinker from an early age, Roback remembers rejecting the conventional aspirations of girls of the time. Instead, she dreamed of travel and studies.
In her 20s, Roback lived in New York, France, and in Germany (where her brother was studying medicine). She worked to support herself while studying literature, history and art. It was in Berlin that Roback had her first contact with the Communist Party and participated in the Party's efforts against the rising tide of Nazism. Roback returned to Montreal in 1932 and began her lifelong career of social action and grass-roots militancy again joining the Communist Party. She organized a Marxist study group and in 1935, managed the first Marxist bookstore in Montreal, where she dealt with constant harassment from the police. Also in 1935, Roback coordinated the first election campaign of Fred Rose who would become, in 1943, the first Communist member in the House of Commons. In 1936, Roback joined with Thérèse Casgrain in the fight for woman's suffrage in Quebec.
Roback began her long association with the labour movement in 1936, when she was hired by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Roback was appalled by the working conditions in the garment industry where piece work, a 60-hour workweek, and pitiful wages were the norm for the unskilled workers, the large majority of whom were women. In 1937, Roback helped organize a strike of 5 000 workers in the garment industry, one of the first union struggles for women in Quebec. In 1941, Roback took an assembly-line job at a RCA Victor munitions plant and, in 1943, helped in securing the first union contract for the over 4 000 workers, nearly half of whom were women. Madeleine Parent, a prominent Quebec labour organizer, said that Léa Roback, more than anyone else, influenced the choice of her life's work. During these years of union activism, Roback also worked tirelessly in the community to improve living conditions for families and women.
In the early 60s, when Thérèse Casgrain founded the Quebec branch of the Voice of Women, a movement dedicated to world peace, Roback became a member. Over the following four decades, Roback continued to campaign actively for women's causes and social justice. In the 1991 documentary about her by Sophie Bissonnette, Des Lumières dans la Grande Noirceur (A Vision in the Darkness), she said, "there is nothing that I like better than to be standing on a street corner, passing out leaflets, because it is how you come to understand what people are about."
In 1985, Roback was made an honorary member of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, in recognition of her contribution to the struggles for workers' rights, women's rights, human rights, and for peace. In 1993, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, Roback's friends established the Léa Roback Foundation "to promote education as a means of personal and collective fulfillment and emancipation, as well as to promote universal access to education for all, especially women."
Anonsen, Frances. "Léa Roback, plus de cinquante ans de militantisme". Canadian woman studies = Les cahiers de la femme. Vol. 7, no. 3 (Autumn 1986). P. 105
Bénesty-Sroka, Ghila. "Entrevue avec Léa Roback : une femme engagée". Canadian woman studies = Les cahiers de la femme. Vol. 16, no. 4 (Autumn 1996). P. 81-85
Leboeuf, Lucie. "Léa Roback ou comment l'organisation syndicale est indissociable de la vie de quartier". Dossiers "Vie ouvrière". Vol. 28, no. 128 (October 1978). P. 461-470
Des lumières dans la grande noirceur [video]. Réalisation, Sophie Bissonnette. Montréal : Productions Contre-Jour, 1992, p. 1991. 1 videocassette, 90 min., ½ in. Colour. Title in English: A vision of darkness
Parent, Madeleine ; Roback, Léa ; Lacelle, Nicole. Entretiens avec Nicole Lacelle. Montréal : Éditions du remue-ménage, 1988. P. 115-181
Pedneault, Hélène. "Entrevue avec Léa Roback : propos d'une bataillleuse". La vie en rose. No. 10 (March 1983). P. 50-52
Weisbord, Merrily. The strangest dream : Canadian communists, the spy trials, and the Cold War. 2nd ed. Montreal : Véhicule, 1994. 269 p. Also published in French under the title: Le rêve d'une génération : les communistes canadiens, les procès d'espionage et la guerre froide. Montréal : VLB, 1988. 398 p.