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Tribute To Kay Riddell Rouillard, 1906-2006

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  • berkman@riseup.net
    http://www.socialisthistory.ca/Remember/Obits/Riddell-Kay.htm Kay Riddell Rouillard, 1906-2006 by John Riddell The socialist movement in Canada lost a longtime
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 17, 2006

      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 people’s 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 Toronto’s 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 Lismer’s activities
      evoked scorn from many respectable people. “Those people are just ne’er do
      wells…. They’ll 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 Canada’s 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 Canada’s complicity.” With Kay’s 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
      friendly.’… 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 women’s 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 LSA’s
      Vanguard Bookstore on Queen Street West, activity in the NDP’s 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
      “John’s mother.” But that changed: I grew accustomed to having activists
      refer to me as “Kay’s 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…. ‘Comrades’
      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
      Toronto visits.

      After a few tumultuous years, the RWL pulled itself together, but it soon
      adopted a political course in which Kay’s 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 Kay’s 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.
      Kay’s story demonstrates the socialist movement’s potential to win
      talented individuals from distant social layers and milieus. It also shows
      how we—if we are wise—can learn from such experiences.
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