The first Bread and Roses March, an initiative of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, began on 26 May 1995. Over the course of 10 days, more than 800 Québécoise demonstrators set off from Montréal, Longueuil and Rivière-du-Loup and converged on Québec City in an effort to combat the poverty that plagued them in the aftermath of a deep economic recession.

A Difficult Economic Climate

In May and June 1995, women from the province of Québec spent 10 days marching from Montréal to Québec City to combat poverty. From 1990 to 1992, Canada was rocked by a major economic recession. The Canadian dollar was severely devalued and the country’s unemployment rate rose from 8.1 per cent in 1990 to 11.4 per cent in 1993. Québec was among the provinces hardest hit, with a record unemployment rate of 13.2 per cent in February 1993; 20 per cent of Québec households were living below the poverty line. The economic status of single women and single-parent families headed by women deteriorated more than any other group.

The march was set to kick off on 26 May 1995. The event was called the Bread and Roses March, an allusion to a strike by 20,000 female textile industry workers in the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Bread symbolizes work and better economic conditions, while roses stand for quality of life. In total, more than 800 participants marched for more than a day, including 525 women who marched 250 kilometres from Montréal to Québec City. They marched through 57 villages and followed three routes from Montréal, Longueuil and Rivière-du-Loup, depending on where they lived. All of the marchers converged on Québec City for a major rally held on 4 June outside Québec’s National Assembly.

Combatting All Forms of Poverty and Exclusion

Early in 1994, Françoise David was elected head of the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) and stepped up the organization’s involvement in the fight against poverty and social exclusion. In a 2003 interview with Pierre Maisonneuve (“Françoise David, solidaire d’abord!,”), she explains that she got idea of organizing a march while watching a report on television about the 1963 March on Washington in the US. It was a light-bulb moment and she thought, “That’s it! We’re going to march!”

In March 1994, under Françoise David’s leadership, the FFQ formed the Coalition nationale des femmes contre la pauvreté with some twenty women’s groups to help organize the march. Four meetings later, the theme, the route for the march and nine political, social and economic demands had been worked out.

A Favourable Political Climate

Françoise David hoped from the beginning of the planning process for this event that a 10-day march would receive extensive media coverage and help raise community awareness. The march had the advantage of a favourable political climate that was not initially the FFQ’s focus. The Parti québécois won the election in September 1994 with its promise to hold a referendum on Québec sovereignty. The date of the referendum was set for 30 October 1995. The march would therefore precede it by five months. Ms. David and the women’s groups understood that they would have definite leverage over the newly elected government: it was a safe bet that Premier Jacques Parizeau would not want to alienate the women of Québec a few months before the referendum.

During the interview with Pierre Maisonneuve, Ms. David admitted they thought that “things were not working out too badly after all… the Parti québécois government needed women’s votes for sovereignty.” Moreover, surveys of Québec residents conducted at the time revealed that women across all age groups were less inclined to support sovereignty than their male peers.

On 4 June 1995, the Premier, at the request of the organizers, appeared before the 15,000 people assembled outside the National Assembly to deliver his government’s responses to the marchers’ nine demands. Jeanne L. Blackburn, Minister of Income Security, and Louise Harel, Minister of State for Concerted Action and Minister of Employment, were present when the announcement was made. According to Ms. David, it would have been embarrassing to refuse to come speak to the women, given the scope of the event — especially since most of the government’s responses were in line with their expectations.

Impact

The government agreed to raise the minimum wage by 45 cents (increasing it to $6.45 per hour), freeze tuition fees for the current year, create 1,200 social housing units and spend $225 million over five years on a social infrastructure program to create jobs for women. The government also agreed that no one who was working should be paid less than minimum wage; it committed to the retroactive application of sponsorship time (reducing it from 10 to 3 years) for all immigrant women sponsored by a spouse; it agreed to legislation on automatic support-payment collection via deduction at source (passed earlier in May 1995); and it agreed to pass proactive pay equity legislation. The latter would be enacted in 1996 following extensive talks and the tabling of a bill by Minister Louise Harel.

Many participants were disappointed that the minimum wage was increased by only 45 cents, since they had asked for $8.15 per hour. However, Ms. David acknowledged in a debriefing letter dated 27 June 1995, that “the increase, although woefully inadequate, is the single largest increase in twenty years.” They also did not obtain the requested increase in scholarships for students and, in particular, students with children.

Nevertheless, Françoise David says she is convinced that without the march, women would not have won all these concessions from the government quite so quickly. More importantly, though, the unity and mobilization of the women’s movement achieved during this event gave them new leverage going forward. Unfortunately, that leverage was sorely tested during the second women’s march in October 2000 (World March of Women against Poverty and Violence against Women), when it came up against the Lucien Bouchard government, which was much more sympathetic to the “zero deficit” than the “zero impoverishment” argument.

Difficulties and Media Coverage

Organizationally, the architects of the event were satisfied with the success of the Bread and Roses March, the visibility it gave them, and especially the ground they gained against the government in their fight against poverty. The women also finished the march with a $95,000 budget surplus thanks to the work of thousands of volunteers.

However, the organizers admit that it was not always easy to attract media attention before the march began. The media only began covering the event once the marchers had left Montréal. For one thing, they acknowledge that there were some ups and downs among the marchers over the 10 days, especially in the evening when they all found themselves in a dormitory or lying on a gym floor together. Some complained about the lack of privacy. Moreover, some groups of women, such as lesbians, disabled women and Aboriginal women, lamented their lack of visibility in the media compared with other women. The organizers also failed to highlight their participation in the march, not to mention that discriminatory comments were made about some marchers. Finally, women from more rural areas had greater difficulty taking part in the march because of communication issues between Montréal, where the FFQ has its headquarters, and those regions.

Positive Results

Despite these difficulties, there was widespread media coverage of the march, which remains an example of uncommon solidarity in collective action for the women’s movement. It rallied 2,000 women (organizers, marchers and volunteers), in a spirit of respect and dignity, around a unifying theme and demands based in their reality. In addition to enhancing the movement’s cohesiveness, the march demonstrated its ability to mobilize not only groups of women, but also community groups campaigning against the impoverishment of the population.

The Coalition nationale des femmes contre la pauvreté, represented by more than 85 women’s groups across Québec, regarded the impact and consequences of the march as very positive. These include increased political clout for the women’s movement, starting with the development and consolidation of a network of women; the initiation of public debate on poverty; and the hope of being able to effect change and make certain economic gains. It was also an opportunity for a majority of women to show everyone that, together, they could do great things. For a time, it left its mark on the collective imagination of both men and women in Québec.

Legacy

The success of the march inspired another: in its wake, coordinator Diane Matte and mobilization officer Manon Massé planned to organize a World March of Women. With the fight against poverty and violence against women as its theme, this march was held from 8 March to 17 October 2000, and connected roughly 6,000 non-governmental organizations across more than 160 countries. In Québec, more than 40,000 people took part in local and regional marches or in the Montréal rally on 14 October 2000 — the largest feminist demonstration ever held in Québec. The World March of Women is held on five continents every five years.

Finally, in organizing the World March of Women, the FFQ would strive not only to build further North-South solidarity, but also to step up its involvement in condemning and addressing the inequalities, discrimination and exclusion experienced by all women — especially immigrant women, lesbians, Aboriginal women, disabled women and women belonging to visible minority groups.