Léa Roback was a notable Canadian trade union organizer, feminist, and pacifist renowned for her passionate advocacy for women’s rights, social justice, and labor rights. Her life was a testament to her unwavering commitment to fighting for equality and labor reform in Canada.
Léa Roback was born on November 3, 1903, in Montreal, Quebec, to a Jewish immigrant family from Eastern Europe. She was the second child in a family of nine. Her father worked as a tailor and ran a general store with his wife, Fanny, in Beauport, where Roback spent her early years. They were the sole Jewish family in the area. At home, Yiddish was her first language, but she communicated in French with the locals of Beauport and learned English in school. Roback’s household cherished literature and the arts, and her maternal grandmother, known for her independence, greatly influenced her during her formative years.
In 1915, the family moved back to Montreal. It was while working at the British American Dyeworks that Roback began to notice the stark contrasts within Montreal’s social fabric. She later took a job as a cashier at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where her love for literature flourished. Determined to further her education, she diligently saved money and, in 1926, attended the University of Grenoble, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts. After her studies in Grenoble, she moved to New York City to join her sister.
In 1929, Roback journeyed to Berlin to spend time with her brother Henri, who was studying medicine there. She immersed herself in the German language, enrolled in university courses, and taught English to finance her studies. Her travels also took her to England and Italy, where she developed a deep commitment to Communism. On the first of May that same year, while in Berlin, Roback decided to join the Communist Party of Germany. She initially found the socialist movement appealing, but soon felt that they lacked action, leading her to embrace Marxism-Leninism instead. In a 1988 interview with Nicole Lacelle, Roback reflected that this period was when she truly awakened to her political beliefs.
As the Nazi party gained traction in 1932, Roback, being Jewish, a foreigner, and a Communist, heeded her professors’ advice to leave and returned to Montreal, where she joined the Communist Party of Canada. In 1934, she briefly lived in the Soviet Union with a romantic partner. Upon her permanent return to Montreal, she became active in organizing efforts for the unemployed, under the leadership of Norman Bethune, and also worked at the Young Women’s Hebrew Association. In 1935, she opened Montreal’s first Marxist bookstore, Modern Book Shop, on Bleury Street.
She played a pivotal role in organizing the 1934 Dressmakers Strike, where her ability to speak multiple languages helped her unite immigrant women workers from diverse backgrounds.
Roback’s activism extended beyond labor rights. She was deeply involved in the feminist movement, advocating for women’s suffrage, equality, and reproductive rights. Her efforts were not confined to Canada; she also participated in international peace initiatives and was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.
Throughout her career, Roback worked with numerous organizations, including the Communist Party of Canada, which she joined believing it was the best platform to fight for workers’ rights and social change. However, her relationship with the party was complex, and she eventually left, focusing instead on grassroots activism and building alliances across various social justice movements.
Her legacy and the stories of her activism are preserved in various historical records, biographies, and documentaries. These resources serve as virtual profiles, detailing her life, her work, and the values she stood for.
The legacy of Léa Roback continues through the initiatives established in her memory. The Léa Roback Foundation, founded in 1993, is dedicated to providing scholarships to women in Québec who demonstrate a strong commitment to societal issues and are in financial need. “Centre Léa-Roback,” a Montreal-based research center focusing on social inequalities, bears her name as a tribute to her life’s work. Additionally, the Maison Parent-Roback, which was initially located in Old Montreal and now resides in the Park-Extension district, is named in her honor.
Sophie Bissonnette directed a documentary about Roback’s influential life in 1991. In recognition of her impact, two streets were named after her in the 2000s: Rue Léa-Roback in Montreal’s Saint-Henri district and another street with the same name in Beauport, reflecting the areas significant to her early years. Further cementing her legacy, in September 2023, Canada Post commemorated Roback, alongside two other prominent Quebec feminists and trade unionists, Madeleine Parent and Simonne Monet-Chartrand, with a special postage stamp. The Léa Roback Foundation continues to honor her memory by supporting women who embody her spirit of social activism and require financial assistance.
Roback was a woman of remarkable spirit and unwavering dedication. Her life was devoted to fighting for the rights of the marginalized and working towards a more equitable society. Her actions inspired generations, and her legacy continues to influence activists and social movements in Canada and beyond. As an emblem of resistance and an advocate for change, Léa Roback’s story is not just a tale of the past but a continuing inspiration for the future.
Léa Roback’s achievements are measured not in material accolades but in the profound impact she had on Canadian society and the labor movement. She is remembered for her role in significant strikes and protests, her influence in feminist circles, and her unwavering voice against injustice and inequality.
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Given that Léa Roback's most active years were in a time before the advent of social media, she does not have social media handles or an online presence in that sense.