By Arianna Noera
On May 26th, 1995, 800 women from Montreal, Longueuil and Rivière-du-Loup started walking towards Quebec City. They were demonstrating against women’s poverty in Quebec, which had been on the increase since 1993. This event would be called La marche du pain et des roses (The Bread and Roses March).
Quebec was one of the provinces most affected by a rise in the unemployment rate: it went from 8.1% in 1990 to 13.2% here in 1993. Those living below the poverty line, single parent mothers and unemployed women were the most affected by this crisis. The protest took the form of a march to Quebec City, where there was to be a demonstration in front of the National Assembly to denounce this economic distress. The event was organized by the Quebec Federation of Women, the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ).
This organization was born in 1966, 26 years after women won the right to vote in Quebec. The Federation’s goal was the defense of women’s rights and interests through collective social action. It was founded by Thérèse Casgrain, a leading suffrage advocate in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Casgrain, along with Idola Saint-Jean (of the Canadian Alliance for the Women’s Vote in Québec) were the most public faces of the movement. On April 25th 1940, they won the right to vote and the right to run for office for Quebec women.
La Belle Province was the last province in Canada to grant women the right to vote. And Quebec indigenous women even had to wait until 1969 to acquire the right to vote and the right to run for office.
Casgrain would become the first woman to lead a political party in Quebec when, in 1951, she was elected leader of the provincial wing of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner to today’s NDP. Idola Saint-Jean would become the first Quebec woman to run as a candidate in a federal election, as an independent Liberal in the riding of St. Denis, on the island of Montreal.
In 1994 Françoise David was elected president of the FFQ. During her mandate she emphasized social justice issues, including the fight against women’s poverty. It took a whole year of volunteer work and organization to coordinate the 1995 march; 27 municipalities accommodated dozens of protestors. In the end, 800 women gathered in Quebec City with the same goal on their minds.
In 2020 Françoise David wrote: “They came from everywhere, from every region, from all milieus. Militant feminists were there. But a lot of women came because, they said, the march was for them, for their neighbor who was having a hard time, for their adult children looking for work.” (Le Devoir, 2020) David co-ordinated the organization with Manon Massé, who would become co-spokesperson of the provincial party Québec Solidaire, and Diane Matte, co-ordinator of the 2000 World March of Women (Marche mondiale des femmes) and an anti-sexual exploitation activist.
Birth of the 1995 March
Militants participated in the march as models of the diversity and the unity of Quebec women: sponsors such as Michèle Rouleau, militant indigenous feminist; France Castel, singer and announcer; Chantal Petitclerc, Paralympic champion; and Marie-Claire Séguin, co-author of the song Du pain et des roses.
Why the name “Bread and Roses?” It was an allusion to a strike by 20,000 female textile industry workers in the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Textile workers marched chanting the slogan: “We want bread, and roses too!” These words were first spoken in a speech by the activist Helen Todd, and then taken up in a poem by James Oppenheim dedicated to “the women in the west.”
Bread symbolizes work and better economic conditions, while roses stand for quality of life, including good working conditions. The FFQ picked up on this slogan for their march.
The history of feminist marches is a long one, stretching all the way back to the 18th century.
The 1995 marchers had nine major demands:
– The creation of social infrastructure with accessible jobs;
– The adoption of a law on pay equity, including adjustments to alimony;
– A broadening of the application of workplace standards;
– A raise in the minimum wage;
– The creation of public housing;
– An improvement in access to general and professional training;
– A reduction in the sponsorship period for female immigrants by their husbands;
– Aid for victims of family and conjugal violence;
– A freeze in tuitions and an increase in student grants.
On June 4th, 1995, groups from the east and the west of Quebec City gathered on the Plains of Abraham before moving on to the National Assembly. The Quebec premier at the time, Jacques Parizeau, and his ministers responded to the will of the protestors. They announced that the minimum wage would increase by 45 cents an hour; that tuition would be frozen for the current year; that 1,200 units of public housing would be created; and that infrastructure would be put in place to create employment opportunities.
A proactive pay equity law was enacted. The number of years that an immigrant woman had to be sponsored by her husband in order to gain permanent residency was reduced from 10 to 3 years. And the government promised to ensure that no worker would be paid below the new minimum wage.
Organizers considered these concessions to be bitter victories. The 45 cent hike in the minimum wage was seen as a defeat. The women had demanded that the minimum wage go from $6.00 to $8.15 an hour. The government’s refusal to increase student grants, especially for students with children, was unwelcome news. Even if their little victories were disappointments, the march opened up a new chapter in the power relationship between the women’s movement and the government. This would be put to the test in 2000 with the World March of Women, which would not be greeted with the same sensibility as the 1995 march was.
In 1996, Louise Harel, at the time Quebec employment minister, tabled a pay equity law that also created Emploi-Quebec: “The current law has as its goal to correct the pay gaps due to systematic gender discrimination in job categories where females are predominant.”
Bread and Roses
As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”
As we come marching, marching, we battle, too, for men—
For they are women’s children and we mother them again.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes—
Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew—
Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.
As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater Days—
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes—
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.
— James Oppenheim, 1911.