Madeleine grew up in a family where her father, wounded in World War One, was sometimes hospitalized and often could not work. Her mother went out to work at a time when few women had jobs outside the home; Madeleine makes it clear that she was very proud of her mother and did not experience their hardship as "any disadvantage".
We had to chip in. I had two older brothers, they did things, and once I got old enough, I did, too, and then my younger sister—and that did not hurt me, that helped to ground me. I knew you had to work for what you were going to get. We never owned a home; we never owned a car. Now I think, look how fortunate I am—but it didn't come easy. I was always rooted in the fact that if you were given an advantage, you give back; you have to do something to show your appreciation.
After graduating as a nurse and working as an operating room nurse in Moncton, Madeleine moved to Saint John in 1975. Already, she and her colleagues had worked on development of standards to protect nurses and their patients.
In Saint John she became president of her local for the St. Joseph's Hospital's Nurses Union, and this led her to attend a week-long labour school at St. Mary's University in Halifax. She enrolled in the Basic Labour Relations course taught by a nurse from Newfoundland, which transformed her thinking: "It was just as if I had been shot from a cannon!" The instructor helped Madeleine and her colleagues to understand the issue of being unionized in the context of a real struggle between "wearing a union hat versus a professional cap when it was so difficult to think of work-to-rule and possible strikes and still hold to this professionalism". Madeleine was to attend every course the labour school had to offer throughout her long career.
A pivotal event in her capacity as President of the St. Joe's Nurses Union was a protest originating with the issue of inequitable pay scales for nurses who were receiving less pay than the nursing assistants who worked under their supervision. Joining forces with the other union Local for the Saint John General Hospital, they asked for a review of their collective agreement and organized a protest march from St. Joe's, with police escort, around King's Square in the city's centre. One of the leaders in the march was nurse manager in the emergency room at St. Joe's and widely perceived as the epitome of professionalism—older and very well thought of. To Madeleine, for this woman to lead the "rebel group" was an invaluable example to younger nurses that you could certainly be a union member while still maintaining your professionalism.