‘They’re he­roes’

How Canada’s first women’s shel­ter saved women and their chil­dren from abuse

Cape Breton Post - - Lifestyles - BY LAURA KANE

Jan knew she had to leave. It was 1973 and her hus­band spent most days drink­ing and seething with rage.

One af­ter­noon, he smacked her on the back of the head, knock­ing her to the floor and nearly crack­ing her skull on a wall.

When the police ar­rived, he was sit­ting in his chair watch­ing TV as though noth­ing had hap­pened. Of­fi­cers ques­tioned him, then Jan, then him again. She re­mem­bers clearly what they said to her next.

“They said, ‘You be­have your­self,”’ re­calls Jan, who asked that her last name be with­held to pro­tect her chil­dren’s iden­ti­ties.

“They couldn’t do any­thing more ... It was a ‘he said, she said.”’

In a time when women were ex­pected to keep the peace at home, the 29-year-old had tried ev­ery­thing to avoid her hus­band’s tem­per. Her par­ents were dead and his fam­ily ex­pected the cou­ple to work out their mar­i­tal prob­lems.

She had no money of her own and no idea how to start over.

Jan knew she had to leave — but she had nowhere to go.

A prob­lem with no name

In the early 1970s, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence was still a prob­lem with no name — a pri­vate re­al­ity for many women, but not an is­sue con­sid­ered the busi­ness of govern­ment or police. It was in this set­ting that a group of young fem­i­nists set about open­ing the first shel­ter for abused women and chil­dren in Canada.

The founders of Toronto’s In­ter­val House had to fight for ev­ery­thing they gained and laid the ground­work for the prob­lem of vi­o­lence against women to be brought to light. To­day, Canada has hun­dreds of shel­ters that give women a chance to es­cape abu­sive re­la­tion­ships.

And it all be­gan with a hand­scrawled note on a wall.

Lynn Zim­mer was an ide­al­is­tic 24-year-old who had worked as a reporter for the women’s page of the Peter­bor­ough Ex­am­iner. She had also spent a de­press­ing year in law school, where a pro­fes­sor would en­ter­tain his mostly male stu­dents with “funny” sex as­sault cases.

In the sum­mer of 1972, she found her­self at loose ends in Toronto and be­gan vol­un­teer­ing at Women’s Place, a run­down house on Dupont Street.

Fem­i­nists had formed cen­tres like Women’s Place across Canada. They were meant to be lo­ca­tions for political or­ga­niz­ing, but to the sur­prise of ac­tivists, women who had been beaten or raped started show­ing up ask­ing for help.

They had no jobs, no in­come and needed an ad­dress be­fore they could ap­ply for wel­fare.

Zim­mer dis­cov­ered there was one shel­ter that could take fam­i­lies in Toronto, but it had orig­i­nally been de­signed for vet­er­ans.

“You had to line up to get a bar of soap,” she re­calls. “For us, that was the cut­off point.”

So, Zim­mer tacked a note on the wall of Women’s Place, ask­ing any­one who was in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing a women’s cri­sis shel­ter to come to a meet­ing.

“There never had been a place like this”

Dar­lene Law­son saw Zim­mer’s sign and wanted to help.

The 23-year-old had been in­spired by fem­i­nist writ­ing and ac­tivism and she un­der­stood that changes were needed to put women on equal foot­ing with men.

“I wanted to be a part of mak­ing those changes,” she says.

At their first meet­ing, Law­son, Zim­mer and sev­eral other women sat around a ta­ble. They in­cluded Bil­lie Stone, a 34-yearold mother who worked in an ad­dic­tions cen­tre and Martha Ire­land, a 21-year-old who was about to en­tre the fourth year of a de­gree she hated.

The group of 11 founders also in­cludes Chris Poul­ter, Suzanne Alexan­der­son, Kather­ine Han­son, Mag­gie Long­don, Mar­i­lyn Tins­ley, Joice Gus­pie and El­iz­a­beth John­son.

Their idea started to take shape. The shel­ter needed to feel like a home, with healthy meals and shared chores. It would be a “step­ping off” place for women to be­gin the next chap­ter of their lives.

“There never had been a place like this,” says Law­son. “We learned ev­ery­thing as we went.”

They had no ex­pe­ri­ence with find­ing space or rais­ing funds, but they even­tu­ally se­cured a grant from a fed­eral govern­ment pro­gram fo­cused on youth em­ploy­ment. By Jan­uary 1973, they were each earn­ing a salary of $100 a week mi­nus de­duc­tions.

“It’s the whole thing about be­ing young and fool­ish,” says Ire­land. “You don’t know that you shouldn’t try.”

United Way chipped in $1,200 for first and last month’s rent on a large house at 173 Spad­ina Rd. in the An­nex area of Toronto. The women had to be­come am­a­teur painters and con­trac­tors, and they needed ev­ery­thing.

“We would drive through For­est Hill and Rosedale on garbage night and get fur­ni­ture that peo­ple had put out,” re­calls Law­son with a chuckle, re­fer­ring to af­flu­ent neigh­bour­hoods.

Fi­nally, the founders all chipped in $5 to stock the kitchen with healthy food.

On April 1, 1973, In­ter­val House opened its doors.

“They’re gone”

Jan’s hus­band had slapped her across the face more times than she could count. He’d threat­ened to break their fouryear-old son’s legs. He’d threat­ened to kill her.

Af­ter he smacked her on the back of the head that day, she dizzily stum­bled to her feet.

“It’s over. Done,” she re­mem­bers sput­ter­ing.

She called a mar­riage coun­sel­lor, who told her about a new place called In­ter­val House. She ar­ranged to be­come a res­i­dent, but had to wait to make her es­cape.

Her hus­band was watch­ing her. Af­ter she told him it was over, he stayed home ev­ery day for a month.

Fi­nally, on April 11, 1973, he gave in to the urge to go out for a drink.

Jan’s heart pounded as she called the taxi. When it ar­rived and she be­gan fran­ti­cally throw­ing be­long­ings into the trunk, her son stood in the front room and cried.

“He was pick­ing up on my panic,” she says. “I was ter­ri­fied (my hus­band) was go­ing to come walk­ing in the door.”

She calmed him down and strapped him in a seat next to his two-year-old sis­ter. As the taxi pulled away, she re­mem­bered she had left some fam­ily pho­to­graphs on the counter.

“That’s all right,” she re­calls think­ing. “They’re gone.”

“I would talk and I would talk and I would talk”

As Jan walked through the front door of In­ter­val House, she felt an im­me­di­ate wave of re­lief wash over her and her chil­dren.

They moved into a spa­cious room on the sec­ond floor with a sun­room at­tached. Her daugh­ter still re­mem­bers a Fisher Price school house she played with.

Her son was fi­nally able to stop wor­ry­ing about his mom.

“There was no fight­ing any­more,” she says.

Dur­ing the two months she stayed there, she only got a cou­ple hours of sleep ev­ery night. For the first time, she had some­one to talk to about how she had been treated.

“I would talk and I would talk and I would talk,” she re­mem­bers. “I was talk­ing their ear off. They said that’s what they’re there for.”

The founders of In­ter­val House were shocked by what residents told them.

“From the very beginning, ev­ery woman who came to us was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some kind of hor­ren­dous level of phys­i­cal and emo­tional vi­o­lence,” says Zim­mer.

“We started to re­al­ize that there were all these sto­ries but they were all very quiet.

“It was a com­pletely un­known so­cial is­sue ... There wasn’t even a word for it.”

“Spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion”

Over the next nine months, shel­ters for abused women opened in Ab­bots­ford, Cal­gary, Saska­toon and Van­cou­ver, says Margo Good­hand, who has chron­i­cled the move­ment in an up­com­ing book, “Run­away Wives and Rogue Fem­i­nists.”

“It was spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion,” she says. “It was pre-In­ter­net. They didn’t know any­one else was do­ing this.”

By 1980, there were 63 bat­tered women’s shel­ters in Canada, and by 1987 there were 264, writes his­to­rian Nancy Janovicek in “No Place to Go: Lo­cal His­to­ries of the Bat­tered Women’s Shel­ter Move­ment.”

The women’s move­ment changed the dis­cus­sion around vi­o­lence in the home, she says. Be­fore the 1970s, ex­perts thought of abuse as a symp­tom of fam­ily dys­func­tion and poverty. Fem­i­nists re­jected this be­cause it placed equal blame on the per­pe­tra­tor and the vic­tim.

But con­vinc­ing politi­cians it was the com­mu­nity’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to help abused women was an up­hill bat­tle, says Janovicek.

Law­son says of­ten when they ap­proached or­ga­ni­za­tions or govern­ment of­fi­cials to ask for fund­ing, peo­ple were taken aback by In­ter­val House’s mis­sion.

Peo­ple thought “we were cre­at­ing an is­sue where there wasn’t re­ally an is­sue,” she says.

The early me­dia cov­er­age also il­lus­trated how the pub­lic thought about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

On July 21, 1973, the Toronto Star ran a story about In­ter­val House with the head­line “The ris­ing wave of run­away wives.”

While the story de­tailed the vi­o­lence suf­fered by some of the home’s residents, it por­trayed the shel­ter as build­ing a “brother­hood of de­serted hus­bands.”

“That’s the best indication of what the preva­lent sen­si­bil­ity was about this is­sue at the time,” says Law­son.

“If they’re run­aways, they should never leave in the first place, no mat­ter the con­di­tions of their lives and their chil­dren’s.”

It was in this en­vi­ron­ment that the City of Toronto pro­vided fund­ing to In­ter­val House af­ter its fed­eral grant ran out. Law­son praises the city for agree­ing to help.

“Turn around and walk away”

Af­ter her time at In­ter­val House, Jan and her kids moved into a cock­roach-in­fested room­ing house be­fore land­ing a three-be­d­room apart­ment with Toronto Com­mu­nity Hous­ing.

She cred­its the shel­ter with giv­ing her hope and a sense of con­trol, but says the most im­por­tant les­son was learned by her chil­dren.

“They knew from my ac­tions that when peo­ple tried to ag­gra­vate them, to tor­ment them, they could just turn around and walk away,” she says.

The founders learned lessons too.

Zim­mer re­calls with a laugh how they first stocked the kitchen with whole grains and soy­beans, think­ing the fam­i­lies should have healthy food.

“Women were qui­etly ... go­ing up to the corner greasy spoon and buy­ing ham­burg­ers with the very few dol­lars they had, be­cause they just needed to eat com­fort­able, fa­mil­iar food,” she says.

The founders also learned how dan­ger­ous their jobs could be. Fu­ri­ous hus­bands would show up at the door and fe­male staff mem­bers, of­ten work­ing alone, needed to defuse the sit­u­a­tion.

Staff would look men in the eye and say: “You’re not wel­come and you need to leave now or we’ll call the police.”


Joice Gus­pie, (from left) Dar­lene Law­son, Bil­lie Stone, Lynn Zim­mer and Martha Ire­land, orig­i­nal founders of Toronto’s In­ter­val House, an emer­gency shel­ter for women in abu­sive sit­u­a­tions, are pic­tured re­cently.


A staff mem­ber car­ries bed­ding in one of the suites at Toronto’s In­ter­val House, an emer­gency shel­ter for women in abu­sive sit­u­a­tions

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