Madeleine Parent worked down the hall from me at the Confederation of Canadian Union (CCU) office in Toronto. It was 1981. I was 22 and Madeleine was 63. I was as intimidated by her as I was of everyone else in that office, not because she was unkind but because she was an impressive and effective grown up person and I was still very much a child, wishing to crawl inside someone else’s skin, away, away, or else magically find my voice so I could speak what was in my heart instead of hiding behind a stack of newspapers, or political leaflets, or a novel by E.M. Forster.
I was a sweet young thing hired by the Food and Service Workers of Canada (FASWOC), an affiliate to the CCU, to organize restaurant, hotel workers, and office building cleaners. My base of operations was the CCU office with Madeleine but my field location was inside kitchens, laundry rooms, or coffee shops at some fine Toronto establishment–the Bond Place Hotel near Ryerson University; Rudy’s Restaurant on Bloor Street across from the Varsity Arena; or the Bay Street Bank towers, where I was learning snips and snaps of Portuguese from the other cleaners on shift.
For some reason, I was never all that shy at my workplace. I was a good organizer in fact, because I was instantly drawn to the lives and drama around me and I had a hefty heart and awareness of injustice and what we could do about it.
After working a shift in one of these sites, I’d head back to the CCU just as Madeleine climbed the stairs to our St. Clair office, a little tardy in the morning because she would’ve been at late meetings the night before.
She’d gently remove her dainty lady-like chapeau and set down her handbag for a moment while taking off her gloves. I’d watch her glide down the hall and slip quietly into her office. This powerful feminist and trade union icon who had been arrested five times by Duplessis for seditious conspiracy looked like a defrocked nun or a Sunday School teacher.
Over lunch at the big central table crowded with other CCU activists doing great things, Madeleine would ask me how it was going. She would gently offer suggestions, guide me through the challenges toward a successful organizing campaign, and remind me why I was committed to this work.
She eased the burden of my shyness with her voice, the soft cadence and shushed sounds not-quite-English, not-quite-French, whispers like a nana might use while sharing the washing up with her favourite granddaughter, drawing me inside her arms and settling my weight against her chest.
She didn’t do this open-arms thing. She was Madeleine Parent and had far more important things to do. But she eased me slippery out of my burdened skin and into a fresh dash of maturity and a return to my sincere desire to do well for my co-workers.
“Every labour battle teaches a worker how to fight,” Madeleine would say. “Nothing is ever completely lost.”
Madeline Parent, my guide and mentor, died in Montreal on March 12th. She was 93 and now my job is to write her obituary. But first, I’ll shake loose these finer moments from so long ago.