Lois Dowson Bédard – a life for the struggle

Lois Bédard Dowson died December 14 2007, just shy of her 84th birthday. She was, for all her adult life, a committed revolutionary socialist in the tradition of Leon Trotsky. In the context of the Great Depression of her growing years, the rise of fascism and Stalinism in her teens, the horror of World War in her young adulthood – living a life as a revolutionary was not the easiest of choices. But Lois unlike many others, never wavered from her commitment to the left, to the working class, and to the women workers to whose future she was so completely dedicated.

For those in Lois’ era who dedicated themselves to revolutionary socialism, theirs were often lives lived in obscurity. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, the then unified Trotskyist movement in Canada went from a small group of a few dozen, to an organization of hundreds, and played an indispensable role in the movement against the war in Vietnam. However, as the war went into its end game from 1973 to 1975, the political terrain became very complex. After a bitter faction fight, the Trotskyist organization split, and Lois ended up in one of the smaller fragments – the Socialist League, which would later become the Forward Group.

“Life is what happens to you
while you’re busy making other plans.”[1] John Lennon wrote those words in a different context – but it is a way to think about Lois Bédard’s life and struggles in the years that followed. Lois – often literally arm in arm with her sister, Joyce Rosenthal – was one of those group of activists who were able to rise above the difficult internal life of the left, and keep the struggles of the working class at the centre of their activities.

One of the big issues confronting workers throughout Lois’ life, was the oppression of women workers. In a 2001 study of women workers, Meg Luxton wrote that: “The labour movement in the early 1960s, based mainly in male-dominated occupations, was organizationally overwhelmingly male.”[2] The situation had improved somewhat by the 1970s, but there remained major problems. In March 1976, Bédard was in at the ground level of the founding of Organized Working Women (OWW).[3] OWW played a key role in some of the key class battles of the day. According to Luxton:

After two organizers from the Retail and Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU) attended an OWW conference in early 1985, union women and women’s liberation activists formed a Women’s Strike Support Coalition which met regularly throughout the rest of the strike, organizing strike support … The striking Eatons’ workers were cheered when they spoke at the Toronto International Women’s Day rally on 9 March 1985 and the march itself detoured through the flagship store at the Eatons’ Centre, plastering “Boycott Eatons” throughout the store. The striking women and the women organizers from RWDSU were clear that the support from the women’s movement was very important in helping them stick out the long strike through the winter.[4]

Bédard was also centrally involved in another key struggle of the 1970s and 1980s – the fight for abortion rights. The year, 2008, marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision which overturned the old abortion law, effectively decriminalizing abortion in Canada. Whipped into a rage by this, the anti-choice right wing began organizing assaults on abortion clinics in the late 1980s, and the front lines of the struggle for women’s rights were in front of those clinics – linking arms to keep the bigots out, and to allow women to enter. Long-time socialist and feminist, Judy Rebick, gave a moving tribute to Lois at her funeral, saying that Lois Bédard and Joyce Rosenthal, were always at the centre of this struggle – an inspiration to the younger women who were moving into activism.

This rich period of political engagement was cut short in 1988 when Lois’ brother – Ross Dowson – suffered a debilitating stroke. Ross had been a leader of the Trotskyist movement since the 1930s, and Lois devoted the next 14 years to his care, until his death in 2002. But in spite of this difficult personal burden, Lois kept a keen interest in politics. In 1998, at a packed Toronto meeting marking the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, Lois was there, pushing Ross in a wheelchair. And after his death, she was a regular participant in the annual Marxism conference in Toronto. She would of course pay attention to the sessions on women’s liberation – her commitment to feminism never wavered. But she was also opposed to women being ghettoized into just talking about women. I can still hear her pulling one woman speaker aside and saying “don’t just speak about women – do the other important stuff, do the economy”.

Lois was pre-deceased by not just Ross, but by her sister Ruth and her other brothers Murray, Hugh and Jerry. Murray and Hugh were also lifelong socialist activists. Her sister Joyce is alive, but now unfortunately politically inactive due to illness. We have to know that the work of our generation would have been far harder without the work done for decades by fighters like Lois Dowson Bédard. There will be a meeting to honour her life in Toronto January 20, 5 p.m. at the Steelworkers Hall, 25 Cecil Street.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” Double Fantasy (Santa Monica: Geffen Records, 1980)
[2] Meg Luxton, “Feminism as a Class Act: Working-Class Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Canada,” Labour/Le Travail, 48, Fall 2001, p. 69, www.historycooperative.org/journals/llt/48/03luxton.html.
[3] Luxton, p. 71
[4] Luxton, pp. 86-7.