Roback, Lea, 1903-2000

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Roback, Lea, 1903-2000

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  • Léa Roback

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Activist and organizer, Lea Roback was born on November 3rd, 1903 in Montreal. She was the second of nine children of Fanny (1885-1973) and Moses (1870-1935) Roback, both of whom immigrated from Poland. She spent her childhood in Beauport, Quebec where her parents ran a general store.

The Robacks spoke Yiddish at home; outside of the home they spoke French or English. Lea was able to switch freely between languages, a skill that became useful in work with labour organizations. When Lea was fourteen the family returned to Montreal where, two years later, she began working in the city's factories. It was at this point that she became acutely aware of the inequality between Montreal's affluent English-speaking families and the mostly French and Jewish working class.

In the mid-1920s, Lea spent a two years at the University of Grenoble in France, supporting herself by privately teaching English to students. In 1928, Lea joined her older brother Harry in Berlin where he was studying medicine. She enrolled at the University of Berlin studying Sociology and German. Lea became involved with left wing student groups and eventually joined the Communist Party.

In 1932 Lea returned to Montreal, finding work as a youth group director at the Young Women’s Hebrew Association, where her mentor was Saidye Bronfman, wife of Sam Bronfman. In 1935 she managed the Modern Bookshop on Bleury Street, the first Marxist bookstore in Quebec, which became a gathering place for local radicals. That same year Lea coordinated Fred Rose's bid for election. Eight years following this campaign, Rose became the first communist elected to the House of Commons.

In 1936 she was recruited by Thérèse Casgrain, legendary women’s suffrage leader, to assist in her work to obtain the vote for women in Quebec. Lea also became involved with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) during their attempts to improve conditions in the garment industry. In 1937, Lea was a leader – along with organizers such as Rose Pesotta and Bernard Shane – in organizing over 5,000 women who walked off the job from the garment industry factories of Montreal.

During the war years, Lea began working for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and became an organizer for the United Electrical Workers, where she was a business agent for the 3,000 RCA workers in Montreal.

Lea was an active advocate for social justice and human rights for the majority of her life. She was affiliated with numerous organizations in Montreal including the Québec Aid to the Partially Sighted, the Voice of Women, as well as anti-nuclear and anti-war groups. Lea was a continual presence within the ranks of various organizations, passing out leaflets, demonstrating, providing support and lending her respected voice to many causes.


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