As the contentious debate surrounding the proposed Charte des valeurs québécoises heated up in late 2013, the Parti Quebecois made use of a common strategy of legitimation for its project. On its website (http://www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca/en) the government drew up a list of prominent people it claimed were in favour of the proposed charter, or, if these people were not living, would have supported the charter. One such person was the recently-deceased Madeleine Parent. She passed away in 2012 at the advanced age of 93, having led a long life as a respected and prolific activist. She was a feminist, a syndicalist, and a voice of social justice well past the official age of retirement. She is universally acclaimed by those who knew her as courageous, energetic, principled, inspiring, and a towering figure in the dizzying variety of social issues she grappled with since the 1930s. Clearly, whoever can successfully co-opt her legacy gains an enormous advantage. But when the Government of Quebec attempted to use Parent’s name in support of its proposed Charter, it was met with an immediate, unified backlash from a large group of Parent’s former colleagues, friends, and family members.
This backlash came in the form of an open letter addressed to Pauline Marois, then the leader of the Parti Quebecois. It was printed by LaPresse on November 7th, and signed by over forty persons calling themselves “les proches de Madeleine Parent”. They also called themselves her “filles.” In their letter, entitled “Not in the name of Madeleine Parent,” the signatories stated categorically that their deceased friend and colleague would not have wanted her name associated with the proposed Charte des valeurs québécoises. They were adamant, and revealed much in support of their conviction.
Specifically mentioned is the fear that “a competent and highly qualified woman could lose her job in the public service sector because she wears a hijab”; this notion “would have horrified our friend.” Not simple disagreement – outright “horror.” If this expectation is true, then the PQ government, it seems, had seriously misapprehended the deceased syndicalist-feminist. Parent was a feminist, but that does not mean she would have supported the Charter (which called for the equality of men and women). Rather, the signatories assert, Parent would clearly have opposed the Charter, given the “ardent” support she has always given “these same women” who would be negatively affected by its provisions. To support this view, they point to the value Parent always saw in “other people’s differences.” Parent may have been interested in solidarity, one might say, but the kind of “unity” called for by the Charter’s proponents is quite a different matter. The signatories point to Parent’s consistent emphasis on first understanding, and then removing “les obstacles à la participation démocratique et sociale.” In other words, Parent stood on the side of social inclusion; the implication being that the Charter was not written in an inclusive spirit. The signatories point out that Parent’s feminism (and by implication all feminism) should not be seen monolithically: it was never, for her, as simple as women-versus-sexism. Parent included religious and ethnic minorities within the larger structure of feminist struggle without sealing each group inside a single feminist package. She acknowledged the distinct challenges faced by each group, and stressed the importance of addressing this diversity in positive terms. She never characterized diversity as an obstacle to social unity: “elle a lutté en solidarité avec les Premières nations, les communautés culturelles et les personnes racisées pour combattre autant la discrimination systémique que celle imposée par l’État.” All these groups would be helped by feminist programs, as any modern feminist would argue; but it is rarer to find someone who argues the reverse as well – that feminism is itself helped by actively assisting historically “racialized” or marginalized groups of women in their various struggles against continued economic, political and social marginalization. This appears to be the key subtlety to Parent’s vision that the PQ government missed. It is not sufficient to argue generally in favour of feminism; one must also struggle alongside women from markedly different backgrounds, always mindful of the continuing relevance of racial and religious discrimination to the common feminist struggle.
The signatories here considered it important to portray the State as historically discriminatory (“autant la discrimination systémique que celle imposée par l’État”). This is an allusion to Parent’s battles against the Duplessis regime – the stuff of legend – but more importantly, the signatories are implicitly denouncing the Charter. Theirs is not an unbiased agenda, it must be remembered. In reproaching Marois and her colleagues’ actions, they are altruistically defending what they consider the legacy of their deceased idol (or “l’oeuvre de sa vie”) – but their stance towards the living, contentious issue of the Charter is also explicit. They denounce, for example, its hypocrisy: the Charter is ostensibly designed to promote the equality of all women to men, yet “il est évident que ce document ouvre grand la porte à la discrimination”.
Days after the letter was published, the Quebec government removed Parent’s name from its website. They presumably did not want the issue to spiral out of control. Andrée Levesque, noted historian and author of a book on Madeleine Parent, is quoted in the LaPresse article as saying: “Il est regrettable que, pour cautionner leur projet, le gouvernement se serve du nom de personnes qui ne sont plus ici pour défendre ses positions.” Levesque raises two interesting points. Does anybody have the right to make use of a deceased person’s “name” to further his or her goals? On the one hand, it is always good to keep history alive and relevant. By the same token, however, to do so is to invite politicized bickering over a person’s name and legacy. Is the deceased being perverted and misrepresented – or is their memory being enhanced and saved from obscurity? Is the public being educated – or are they being asked to swallow cheap propaganda?
The other point Levesque raises is the one we are interested in. In referring to Parent’s name and legacy in connection with the vision she may or may not have had for an evolving Quebec society, Levesque has provoked an important question: what is Parent’s legacy? What was her vision, exactly? This is the topic we have set out to answer. We have divided this broad topic into four parts:
(1) Madeleine Parent’s Post-Union Organizing – Keitha
Madeleine Parent retired in 1983, but she still remained a prominent activist for feminist organizations. Like the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women, and she was also an executive for the National Action Committee on the Status of Woman. Along with staying in touch with many Unions she help many of these groups lobby the federal government for legislation that recognized their rights.
(2) Parallels of Opposition: Madeleine Parent and the Charlottetown Accords – Ryan
Madeleine Parent was heavily involved in the opposition to the Charlottetown Accord through the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. This section will examine how representative the NAC’s views on Charlottetown were for Parent, and further draw parallels between the rationale for Charlottetown opposition and the Charte de valeurs québecoises.
(3) Madeleine Parent and Aboriginal Women – Katrina
Madeleine Parent was a feminist who was involved in many groups which supported minority women and sought to aid all women. She played a big role in helping one of Canada’s most historically mistreated people, Aboriginal Women. She was apart of many large scale projects which allowed these women to gain many rights they had not had before.
(4) Social justice for working people – Paul
It is our expectation that in dividing the available archived material into these four parts, and studying each, we can contribute some helpful information and insight to future discussions about Madeleine Parent.
« Madeleine aurait été horrifiée ». LaPresse, 07/11/2013, published online at 5:00am. Retrieved 02/04/2014. http://www.lapresse.ca/debats/votre-opinion/201311/06/01-4707988-madeleine-aurait-ete-horrifiee.php