Marlene Jennings has an extensive career in public service as a member of the Quebec Police Commission, an elected Member of Parliament, and several community groups. She served as a Trustee for the English Montreal School Board and has recently been elected as President of the Quebec Community Groups Network.

“I grew up in the Jacques Cartier area of Longueuil, and enjoyed a lovely childhood. My parents had six children, and they fostered a two more; who they eventually adopted. We all learned at an early age to be organized – otherwise the house would have been chaotic. My mother used to say; ‘If each of you leaves a glass somewhere, pretty soon we’ll all be living in a mess.’ So it was out of necessity that I leaned to be organized.” That skill would enable Marlene to manage multiple tasks, and eventually enable her to earn her law degree while working full time.

“As a youngster, I enjoyed arguing a point of view so much that I would sometimes switch to the other side and pursue that point-of-view. I went to UQAM with the intention of becoming a child psychologist. However, I started to become increasing involved politically.” Marlene decided to enter the job market before completing her degree.

Marlene’s first job was at the Montreal General Hospital where she worked as a supervisor in general administration. She then took a management job at Art House, where she worked in a  supervisory role with thirty graphic designers. Marlene then took a job as a general supervisor at Canada Post.

Marlene realized that she could do more if she had a degree, and after researching the legal profession; decided to pursue a law degree. “The Collective Agreement at Canada Post had provisions for a work/study program. This allowed for employees to take unpaid leave during examination periods. I took a demotion to become a postie so that I could take a later work shift from 3:30 to 11:30 pm, enabling me to attend classes from 8am to 3pm.”

The days and nights were very busy with a full-time job and a full course load, but Marlene’s organizational skills and perseverance enabled her to complete the thirty-six month law degree in 4 ½ years.

“I had only been working for four months at one of the city’s large law firms when Herbert Marx asked me to join the Quebec Police Commission. This was a good opportunity to make a positive contribution. While working at the commission, I came to realize that I was better-organized than my most of my colleagues.”

Here I am – an English-speaking black woman – president of an organization for all of Quebec! How great is that? We have come that far as a society.”
… Marlene Jennings

Marlene was now making a name for herself in the Public Service. She rose to the position of Deputy Commissioner of the Police Commission. Both the Federal and Provincial Liberal parties approached Marlene to become a candidate – but she declined. “I was really enjoying my job and was the Deputy Commissioner.” However, circumstances changed. “My boss at the commission was going to retire, and the job required ten years at the bar – which I didn’t have. Realistically, I knew that the job would have to go someone else. I determined that I should start looking at alternatives.”

Apart from her professional life, Marlene was involved in community activities in NDG, LaSalle and Lachine, including work with the Montreal Association of the Blind (MAB).

Marlene Jennings and Sylvia Martin-Laforge

Marlene with QCGN Executive Director Sylvia Martin-Laforge
Photo: Justin guzzo Desforges, Upside Photography

“The National Women’s Liberal Commission was looking for female candidates for both the Federal and Provincial Liberal parties. Once again – I said ‘No – this is not for me’. I went home and talked to my then-husband, and he said that it would be a good opportunity for me to put my political convictions to action. He was right and I agreed to run as a candidate for the Federal Liberals.”

Before it even started, Marlene hit the first bump in her political career. She was told that Mr. Chretien was going to appoint her in the South Shore riding that included Longueuil. She would be the uncontested Liberal candidate. “I told them that although I was born there and went to school in the riding, all of my community involvement was in the West End, in NDG, LaSalle, and Lachine. Warren Allmand had announced his retirement, and I said that I wanted to run for the nomination in NDG-Lachine. The party organizers told me that ‘It’s the safest riding in the country, everyone’s going to want that riding – you’ll be in a tight race.’ I told them that was ok with me, and that I’d campaign with everyone else to win the nomination.”

“That’s when I discovered my love of campaigning! There is a tremendous satisfaction in meeting small business owners, seniors and special needs groups. If I won the nomination and the riding in the election, I’d be able to help to help them as their Member of Parliament.”

Marlene Jennings won her first election in 1997, and represented the Notre-Dame-de-Grace riding from 1997 until 2011. She was the first black woman from Quebec to be elected to Canada’s Parliament. Marlene served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation, The Solicitor General of Canada and the Prime Minister. She won her riding in five elections – losing her seat in the NDP Orange Wave that swept the province of Quebec in 2011.

In 2010, Marlene faced a serious health issue that affected her vision. “I had acute macular degeneration in both of my eyes. I was scared witless and said that I’d do whatever was asked of me to try and save my vision.” Marlene underwent seven surgeries to repair the damage. “I now have pretty good vision out of my left eye, but my right one isn’t as good.

“I had been a supporter of the Montreal Association for the Blind since before I went into politics, and they came through for me in a big way – just like they do for everyone they help. They taught me how to use a white cane, how to walk on the sidewalk and cross streets and how to use the bus and metro. They helped to set up our home so that I wouldn’t bump into furniture and fall.”

“I also have to give credit to the Quebec government for their excellent programs to help people with a handicap, in my case partial blindness. The set me up with equipment to allow me to read – and they doubled it by having one apparatus here in Montreal and another one in my Ottawa office. I asked if this was normal, because I wasn’t sure if I was getting special treatment. They replied that ‘yes – it’s a standard practice to provide reading assists in both home and office’. I have to say that I now have pretty good eyesight.” Marlene concludes; “I found out who my friends are, and learned anew that my family loved me and gave me their support.”

Coming up to the 2011 election, Marlene wasn’t sure that she would run again. “I had done a lot of soul-searching, and then decided to run with two objectives. First, I wanted to make sure that the riding was in a good shape. Second, I wanted to get a potential successor.”

“Halfway through the campaign I knew that I was going to lose… but I put my best face forward. A day before the election, I gathered my inner circle and told them that I was going to lose, and laid out a plan for how we would handle defeat. I said that we’re going to be gracious to the winner and wish her well. It’s just the way I was raised. You’ve got to do right.”

Marlene Jennings’ political service to her riding came to an end. “I didn’t feel rejected, partly because I had already done the soul-searching about my future in politics.” With a chuckle, Marlene admits; “I caught up on a lot of crime novel reading!” The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada offered a position. “The position didn’t have an income, but they did provide me with and office and an assistant. I wrote a paper and presented it at a Liberalism Conference.”

After six months at McGill, the YM-YWHA on Westbury approached Marlene to become the Executive Director. “I said; ‘But I’m not Jewish – how can I be effective?’ They responded that my connections would be useful, and they knew that I have been a friend of the Jewish community for many, many years.”

“I was part way through my mandate when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. I made the decision to give up my job so that I could focus on the treatments and recovery. This also gave the YM-YWHA a chance to find a new person who could devote all their energies to the re-organization project. So far so good, I’ve been cancer-free for eight years now!”

Marlene Jennings

Marlene discussing the Jennings Report on School Boards at a 2019 meeting of the QCGN
Photo: Justin guzzo Desforges, Upside Photography

Marlene continued to be involved in community groups, such as the Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal, the oldest club of its kind in Canada.  She was also active in the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), where she served on the Board and also as Treasurer.

Marlene served on a committee panel with Russell Copeman, Director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, and Geoffrey Kelley, Chair of APPELE-Québec (Alliance for the Promotion of Public English-language Education in Québec) a broad-based alliance to promote the continued existence of English school boards governed by school board commissioners democratically elected by the English-speaking community at large. She produced the Jennings Report which looked at school board elections – a topic that is very much in the news these days.

When the English Montreal School Board became mired in what appeared to be a hopeless situation of infighting that was paralyzing Quebec’s largest English-language school board, the Legault government finally stepped in at placed the board in Trusteeship; appointing Marlene Jennings as the Trustee. She was able to make great progress in setting the EMSB on a new course.

The QCGN is a network of local organizations representing the interests of the English-speaking communities throughout Quebec. Thirteen groups have left the association during the past two years – citing differences with the previous president.

As an active member of the Board, Marlene had a high profile in the QCGN, and many people encouraged her to run for president. “My first response was’ ‘No – not interested’. However, this past summer I thought that I could be a good president for the organization. I decided. I ran. And I won!”

“We’re fortunate to have experienced and committed professionals at the QCGN, led by our Executive Director Sylvia Martin-Laforge. We have an excellent Board.” When asked if she can persuade those organizations that left to return to the fold, Marlene’s answer illustrates her wisdom and why the members voted for her. “I’m not sure that ‘the fold’ is what it used to be. It may be that we can work together effectively without them becoming members.”

Marlene provides an example; “We have a formal working agreement with the Federation des communautés francophone et acadiennes du Canada (FCFA). If we can do that with an organization outside the province – why couldn’t we have similar agreements within Quebec? The important thing is that we communicate with each other and work towards our common goal of safeguarding English rights.”

With Marlene Jennings, Quebec’s English-speaking communities have a strong and politically savvy advocate at the helm of the QCGN – an organization with the benefit of province-wide representation.

For more information about the Quebec Community Groups Network, please visit: