Kay Riddell Rouillard, 1906-2006
by John Riddell
The socialist movement in Canada lost a longtime supporter and participant
with the death of Kay Riddell Rouillard on July 11. An activist in
solidarity campaigns for Cuba, Vietnam, Grenada, Nicaragua, and South
Africa throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Kay was also a member of
the League for Socialist Action and Revolutionary Workers League from 1976
to 1983. (I, her son, was a founding member of both organizations.)
An accomplished educator and artist, Kay was known during the first half
of her life above all for her personal qualities: warmth and generosity,
and also skill in building communities of discussion and action among
those she encountered.
During those years, Kay was no rebel. She valued the achievements of
Canadian society and respected its elected leaders. Yet she had rock-hard
convictions and moral standards, and she did not bend to convention. Her
beliefs were influenced by her father, Perry Dobson, a Methodist minister
with, as she put it, some unorthodox ideas. Long after, she recalled
how, at the time of the Russian revolution, she had asked her father what
Lenin was like:
Lenin is like Jesus, he told me, he cares about people, and thinks
they should all have a chance at the good things of life.
Kay acted in this spirit, convinced, as she later recalled, that we could
change society little by little if we tried hard enough. Her efforts led
her to champion some causes that were far from respectable in her social
milieu. She later recalled her activity in the 1920s fighting for student
bursaries and Saturday classes for immigrant children; in the 1930s
pressing for Native peoples rights on a reserve near the town [Caledonia]
where I taught; and trying to find homes for Jewish refugees from Nazi
Germany in the late 1940s.
As a student at Torontos Victoria College in the 1920s, Kay assisted
Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer in giving art instruction to
working-class children. Much later, she explained that Lismers activities
evoked scorn from many respectable people. Those people are just neer do
. Theyll never amount to anything, she was told. Yet Kay proudly
recruited about ten volunteers at Vic for this work.
In 1936, Kay married R. Gerald Riddell, a history professor who became a
prominent figure in the Canadian diplomatic corps. In 1950, Gerry was
named Canadas ambassador to the United Nations, just as the United States
intervened in the Korean War. Kay later recalled worrying about the
Americans in Korea and Canadas complicity. With Kays support, Gerry
launched into a round-the-clock effort to promote a negotiated end to the
conflict, which was stymied by the unwavering opposition of U.S. Assistant
Secretary of State Dean Rusk and the State Department. The strain told on
both Kay and Gerry. In March 1951, Gerry died suddenly of a heart attack.
Kay was alone and broke, with two small children to raise. Yet she
declined to return to the security of her parental home. Instead, she
struck out on her own, as director of a tiny charitable agency working
with overseas students in the University of Toronto. Over the next 20
years, she built this committee into a flourishing university institution,
the International Students Centre.
Soon she began to see Canada through these students eyes. In 1956, she
described how they perceived respectable Canadian society: [Canadians]
wear a uniform smile, a Chinese boy once said to me, but very few are
really sincere. All are competitive and materialistic even about being
And from a West Indian again, They have a habit of giving
from the wallet but not from the heart.
Under her leadership, the International Students Centre became a beehive
of social and political discussion. In 1973 she described how this
experience had changed her. I have become increasingly aware of the
injustices and inequalities between the haves and the have nots, of
the struggle for power and identity, of the growth of nationalism, of the
rising impatience with colonialism and exploitation
. It is impossible to
talk and work with young men and women every day without beginning to
share their deep concerns, and their sense of urgency, as they face the
overwhelming task of trying to change the world in which they live. We
have become, indeed, part of one another in a world grown suddenly small.
Kay reached out in those years to aid progressive causes. A stalwart of
the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the 1960s, she was on the Selection
Committee for participants in a student tour of Cuba, organized by Fair
Play in partnership with the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the
Peoples. She helped organize an art auction on behalf of the Committee to
End the War in Vietnam and invited its student wing to use the facilities
of ISC. She embraced the rise of womens and gay liberation, which enabled
her to give voice to long-held beliefs.
Her career at ISC was highly valued by the university: she received an
honorary doctorate in 1973 and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1974.
After her retirement in 1972, Kay focused her efforts on political
activity, carried out in collaboration with the League for Socialist
Action. She settled into an effective combination of work in the LSAs
Vanguard Bookstore on Queen Street West, activity in the NDPs Spadina
riding, and participation in solidarity campaigns. She imbued all these
efforts with a cheerful generosity and personal warmth, forming close
friendships across the wide spectrum of left organizations.
Kay had no feel for socialist theory; she concentrated on the task at
hand. But she carried out socialist work with a scope and flair that often
eluded LSA veterans like myself, demonstrating how to operate effectively
in the broad movement.
Her political influence grew. At first, she was often referred to as
Johns mother. But that changed: I grew accustomed to having activists
refer to me as Kays son. She joined the League for Socialist Action in
1976 and accompanied it into the 1977 fusion that formed the Revolutionary
Workers League (RWL).
During these years, Kay also continued her activity in the United Church
and in academic and artistic circles, and found time to write books on the
International Students Centre and on the residential college once headed
by her father.
For Kay, the RWL was an unhappy experience. Spontaneous action and spirit
became less and less evident, reads a memo found among her papers. Power
blocks developed. People began competing for recognition
became isolated, discouraged, demoralized. The gleam died in their eyes.
Yet Kay stuck with the RWL. Simultaneously, she became a central organizer
of Toronto efforts to support the revolutionary government of Grenada,
headed by Maurice Bishop, whom she came to know and respect during his
After a few tumultuous years, the RWL pulled itself together, but it soon
adopted a political course in which Kays areas of work were less valued.
In 1983 the RWL attempted to establish participation in weekly
early-morning plant-gate sales as a rigid requirement of membership. In
response, Kay, then 77, resigned from the organization. She explained, I
have not been able to meet all the demanding norms set up by our party for
members up at 5 for plant gate sales, selling the paper in the rain,
late socials after forums etc. The RWL accepted her resignation without
Kay felt this development was unfortunate, showing the RWL to be narrow in
spirit. She tried to continue as an organized supporter of the RWL, but
this did not take place. Nonetheless, she remained politically active,
playing a significant role in the Toronto campaign against South African
In 1987 Kay married Dana Rouillard, the retired head of the University of
Toronto French department. Their life together was joyful and absorbing.
Kay withdrew from political activism, but continued to attend socialist
events, accompanied by Dana, until his death in 1991.
In her final years, many of Kays close friends from the LSA and RWL years
joined in support of a new venture, Socialist Voice. She greeted this
development as a sign that Canadian socialists were finding a new and
creative road forward.
At the beginning of 2006, Kay's health broke down. On March 18, the day of
a major antiwar demonstration, Kay was under care at Toronto's Mt. Sinai
hospital. She had herself wheeled to the front door of the hospital, where
she cheered on an antiwar demonstration marching up University Avenue.
Afterwards, she returned triumphantly to her room with a solidarity picket
sign wedged into her wheelchair.
She was then just a few months short of 100 years old, but Kay Riddell
Rouillard remained a partisan of the struggle for peace and social change.
Kays story demonstrates the socialist movements potential to win
talented individuals from distant social layers and milieus. It also shows
how weif we are wisecan learn from such experiences.