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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 comment.

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 apartheid.

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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