Social activist and labour organizer Léa Roback was born in Montreal in 1903 to an observant Jewish family. One of nine children, she was raised in Beauport, a Québec suburb, and returned to Montreal at age 15, working as a dyer and then as a cashier. After studying literature at the Université de Grenoble, she spent time in New York, Berlin (where she first became involved in leftist politics) and the USSR, before settling in Montreal in 1935. The year of her return was auspicious: she managed the Modern Bookshop (Montreal’s first Marxist bookstore), worked for communist candidate Fred Rose during his first federal election campaign, and aided Thérèse Casgrain’s suffragette movement for Quebec women’s right to vote.
The following year, Roback’s union organizing began in earnest. The Montreal garment industry was second in size only to that of New York City, and had some of the worst working conditions on the continent. Roback became one of the most effective union organizers of the time. Perfectly fluent in English, French and Yiddish, she was uniquely adept at bridging divides between unions of nearly every language, ideological and ethnic description. Connecting Jewish and French Canadian workers was no small feat, as most Jews spoke very little French, and a general climate of antisemitism prevailed during this period. Her most famous union organizing happened during a three-week-long strike of 5,000 garment workers in 1937, which led to the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Local 262. Beginning in 1941, Roback organized the RCA Victor union in Saint-Henri, successfully acquiring the first union contract for 4,000 workers.
Roback left the Communist Party in the late 1950s (apparently because the Toronto-headquartered party was neglecting Quebec and the French language), but continued her social activism for decades more. Her death in 2000 at age 96 brought to an end one of Quebec’s most vigorous and diverse activist careers. Roback’s later organizing included everything from abortion rights, anti-racism, South African apartheid and Vietnam War protests, housing access, education, and pay equity.
Today, Montreal’s Léa Roback Foundation awards scholarships to Quebec-residing women who are economically disadvantaged and socially committed. Roback’s various accolades include a 1991 film about her life, A Vision in the Darkness/Des lumières dans la grande noirceur, and rue Léa Roback, which can be found in St-Henri. In 2000 she was made a Chevalier of the Order of Quebec.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf.
Abella, Irving M., and David Millar. "Interview by B. Ferneyhough with Leah Roback." The Canadian Worker in the Twentieth Century. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Bissonnette, Sophie. A Vision in the Darkness/Des lumières dans la grande noirceur. Perf. Roback, Lea. Montreal: Productions Contre-Jour, 1991.
"Lea's Biography." Léa Roback Foundation. Montreal, 2005.
Parent, Madeleine. "Roback 1903-2000." Relations. 664 (2000): 5-6.
Parent, Madeleine, Nicole Lacelle, and Léa Roback. Entretiens avec Madeleine Parent et Léa Roback. Montréal: Éditions du Remue-ménage, 2005.
Secrétariat de l'Ordre national du Québec. "Léa Roback: Chevalier (2000)." Gouvernement du Québec, 2010.
Steedman, Mercedes. Angels of the Workplace: Women and the Construction of Gender Relations in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 1890-1940. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Tulchinsky, Gerald J. J. Branching out: the transformation of the Canadian Jewish community. Toronto: Stoddart, 1998.
Weintraub, William. City unique: Montreal days and nights in the 1940s and '50s. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.
*Images courtesy of the Jewish Public Library Archives and the Alex Dworikin Canadian Jewish Archives.