The Unsung Heroes Who Created Canada’s First Women’s Shelters

The Tyee by Paula Ethans 31 October 2019


“These were not powerful or prominent women, but they changed everything.” — Margo Goodhand

In the 1960s and ’70s, domestic violence was an issue with no name.

Countless women endured violence in their own homes, but it was not acknowledged as an issue in the public realm. It was a shameful secret, quietly accepted as a part of life for women.

When a woman was abused, there was nowhere to go. A woman’s place was in the home, even if home could kill her.

Against this grim backdrop, different groups of women across the country worked to open Canada’s first women’s shelters.

In the summer of 1972, 24-year-old Lynn Zimmer was volunteering at a Toronto feminist organizing space called Women’s Place when women who’d been abused began calling to ask for help.

Zimmer realized there was nowhere for them to go. So she posted a note on the wall of Women’s Place, inviting anyone who was interested in creating a women’s shelter to come to a meeting.

At their first meeting, 10 women answered Zimmer’s call: Darlene Lawson, Kate Hanson, Marilyn Tinsley, Maggie O’Brien, Longdon Reid, Joice Guspie, Billie Stone, Suzanne Alexanderson, Martha Ireland, Christine Poulter.

They shared little in common — Stone was a 34-year-old mother working in addictions counselling, Lawson was a 23-year-old student — but they were united by a sense of empathy and outrage at what women were experiencing.

“The energy was very high,” Zimmer remembers. “We were all excited about doing something that would make a difference for women.”

They sat around a table and shared their visions. The shelter needed to feel like a home. It would have healthy food options, and everyone would chip in for chores. It would be a haven for women escaping violence and a stepping-stone for their next chapter.

The women met with a few organizations they thought might share their feminist vision and also have the capacity to create a shelter. The organizations liked the idea, but lacked the capacity to take on the project.

So Zimmer and her band of feminists decided to start something entirely new. They named it Interval House, for the space between a woman’s past and a future without violence.

Across the country, other women were taking on the same challenge. Women’s shelters began popping up like sunflowers.

The next shelter to open was Ishtar Transition House, located in Aldergrove, a community east of Vancouver in B.C.’s Bible Belt, created by Janet Currie and other founders.

In June 1973, the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter opened. Founding member Joyce Smith made a critical decision that helped to protect women and children in crisis: the location of the shelter was confidential.

The Women Alone Society in Saskatoon followed, with a different dynamic. Its founders weren’t just young women inspired by the feminist movement; they were survivors of domestic violence themselves, says Margo Goodhand, whose 2017 book Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists chronicled the history of women’s shelters in Canada.

Paula Ethans is a legal fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.