Friday September 22, 2017

The pioneering women who fought to build Canada's first women's shelters

Margo Goodhand is the author of Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origins of the Women's Shelter Movement in Canada.

Margo Goodhand is the author of Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origins of the Women's Shelter Movement in Canada. (Margo Goodhand/Fernwood Publishing)

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Margo Goodhand knew she wanted to write a book about the women who helped create some of Canada's first women's shelters.

Goodhand is the former editor-in-chief for the Edmonton Journal and Winnipeg Free Press. In 1989, her sister Joyce helped found a shelter in Swift Current, Sask.

In 2011, Joyce suggested that the two of them work together on documenting the shelter movement in Canada.

"It really was a part of the women's movement, but it was a very quiet part. It was a very practical part." - Margo Goodhand

As they started their research, they discovered that the first five women's shelters in the country were all established in the same year — 1973.

Goodhand tells the stories of these shelters, and the women who brought them to life, in her new book, Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origins of the Women's Shelter Movement in Canada.

As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the women at the heart of the movement were simply people who recognized a need.

"These people were so lovely and ordinary, and none political, but they became politicized as they started to grow and work for trying to make a change," says Goodhand.

The first shelter, Interval House, opened in Toronto on April 1, 1973. Other shelters opened that same year in Aldergrove, B.C., Calgary, Saskatoon and Vancouver.

   

Why 1973?

There were several factors that made it easier for women's shelters to finally open in 1973.

As Goodhand notes, feminism was growing across the country, inspiring and energizing women to act.

"It really was a part of the women's movement, but it was a very quiet part. It was a very practical part," says Goodhand.

She paraphrases from a conversation with Lynn Zimmer, one of the founders of Interval House, the very first overnight shelter for women in Canada.

"They wanted to create safe places. But they also wanted to, hopefully, inspire or help other women out of situations that they'd found themselves in." - Margo Goodhand

Zimmer told Goodhand that she was tired of attending feminist meetings and being mad at everything. She wanted to do something.

"And so a lot of the women were drawn to that: they kind of wanted to embody the principles of feminism. They wanted to create safe places. But they also wanted to, hopefully, inspire or help other women out of situations that they'd found themselves in," explains Goodhand.

Another factor was government funding.

"At the very time women across the country were coming together to form these advocacy groups, the federal government under Pierre Trudeau launched an extraordinary new program in the fall of 1971 to combat unemployment in Canada. It was called the Local Initiatives Program (LIP)," Goodhand writes in her book.

This access to government funding is what finally enabled some groups to lay claim to housing and start their shelters.

 

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From left to right: Joice Guspie, Darlene Lawson, Billie Stone, Lynn Zimmer and Martha Ireland, the original founders of Toronto's Interval House. (Chris Young/CP)

  

Getting off the ground

Even with government funding, the women struggled to finance the shelters.

In some cases, derelict homes were purchased and refurbished and made safer with the help of local tradespeople and volunteers.

In Toronto, volunteers found used furniture and appliances through local tips and by driving around nicer neighbourhoods on garbage night.

The women who helped found the shelters often donated their own money and food to help keep things going.

Safety was also an issue. These were women and children escaping abusive situations, and the women of the shelter movement had no experience in running a shelter, nor with how to manage violent men who might try to get into the shelter.

"Forty years later it's as though nobody thinks that it actually is around anymore." - Margo Goodhand

Most abused women who are eventually murdered by their partners are killed in the days immediately after leaving that partner.

Shelter workers and volunteers would accompany the women back to their homes, when possible, to retrieve their belongings as quickly as possible while their partner was not home.

Goodhand tells the story of two women who were about to drive away from the abused woman's home, but they were suddenly blocked on the street by her partner's truck. So the shelter worker put the car in reverse, and as he chased them through town, she continued in reverse all the way back to the shelter.

At the time, domestic disputes were considered as family issues by the police, who tended to only get involved if the woman or children needed medical care.

As the shelter movement went forward, so too did the efforts to change police policy and school policies, and to change legislation to better protect women and their children.

Canada150 Womens Rights 20170502

A staff member carries bedding in one of the suites at Toronto's Interval House. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

    

What happened to the movement?

"I wanted so badly to have a happy ending," says Goodhand. "You can't get one when you're dealing with this subject."

In 1973, there were five shelters for battered women in Canada. Today, there are more than 600.

As Goodhand explains it, the shelters have become like food banks, wherein a service was created and now people rely on it. The real issue — of violence against women — continues to go under-addressed.

"The shelters keep getting built. And they're full when they're built and they're not going away … so we can't pretend that we've fixed it," says Goodhand.

"Forty years later it's as though nobody thinks that it actually is around anymore," she says.

She says people think it's an issue in other countries, not Canada. Or that it's an immigrant issue.

"It's not a class issue, it's not an immigrant issue. It's our issue."

To hear the full interview with Margo Goodhand, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.