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Born in Montréal, Québec in 1918, the daughter of Marie-Anne Rita Forest and J.B. Parent, Madeleine Parent received her early education in French at the L’Académie St. Urbain, the Villa-Maria Convent and in English at the Trafalgar School for Girls. She then attended McGill University, graduating with a B.A. in 1940. During her McGill years, she took part in her first collective action through the Canadian Students Assembly (CSA) campaign to seek financial aid for needy students. She also met Val Bjarnason, a student from British Columbia, at a CSA conference, and married him in 1941.
By 1942, she was the secretary of the Montreal Trades and Labour Council organizing committee. In 1943, she began working as a key union organizer, with Kent Rowley, for the United Textile Workers’ Union of America (UTWA), in Québec. By 1946, 6000 textile workers, organized into a union by Rowley and Parent, engaged in a strike against Dominion Textile in Valleyfield and Montréal. These activities engendered a strong reaction from the provincial government of Maurice Duplessis against Parent, including arrests, legal proceedings for seditious conspiracy and charges that she was a communist.
In 1952, in the midst of another strike in Valleyfield, the international UTWA pushed Parent and Rowley out of the union. Afterwards, both Parent and Rowley eschewed the American international union movement in favour of Canadian-based unions. Madeleine Parent joined with Kent Rowley to found the Canadian Textile Council (CTC) in 1952 that later became the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (CTCU). Rowley was the President of the union with Madeleine Parent as Secretary-Treasurer. In 1953 Parent married Rowley. In 1969, they became founding members of the Council of Canadian Unions that latter became the Confederation of Canadian Unions (CCU), in which Rowley served as Secretary-Treasurer until his death in 1978. Madeleine Parent’s post-1967 union work was focused mainly in Ontario. She served as the Secretary-Treasurer of the CTCU, as well as the Eastern Vice-President of the CCU. The union activities also served as a vehicle for Parent’s engagement in issues such as equal pay for equal work.
Retiring from union work in 1983 to Montréal, Madeleine Parent continued her socialactivist role, focusing on women’s rights. She became a founding member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) and has played an active role in addressing issues faced by immigrant and Aboriginal women.
Madeleine Parent’s efforts in organizing workers and fighting for labour rights have made an indelible contribution to the Canadian labour movement. This, in addition to her work
for social justice including women’s rights, has been recognized through honourary degrees from several Canadian universities including her alma mater, McGill University.