the toll of Alberta’s economic downturn affects everyone, but it’s particularly acute for women. Women live in poverty more often than men do. Their average earnings in Alberta are one-third lower than men’s, for the same number of hours worked. A significant number of minimum wage earners are single mothers who struggle to provide basic needs for their children. They’re further marginalized by age, ethnicity or ability. Every woman needs friends who will provide unconditional support—and that’s what they find at the Women’s Centre of Calgary.
Since the local economy began to decline in 2014, the Women’s Centre has seen a one-third increase in visits. The Centre helps people overcome their sense of hopelessness. As one visitor told Centre staff: “A few weeks after my job loss, a friend suggested I look into volunteering.” After doing some research, she came across the Women’s Centre and felt a personal connection. “Very few places out there offer services for women without [some sort of means test].… Being free of labels enables me to volunteer, use their resources and expand my network.”
Twenty years ago, when the Centre opened, women felt the same way. As one visitor at the time said: “Several weeks ago, in the midst of a severe crisis involving my battle with chronic depression, I stumbled into the Women’s Centre and it was like walking into a hug.”
Every woman is welcome at the Centre: Any circumstance. Any age. No screening. No income test. There’s always a fresh pot of coffee and snacks on the table. The women who use the centre might only visit a few times—perhaps in need of a bottle of shampoo, an emergency food hamper or a birthday gift for their child. Many keep coming back after the crisis has passed, however, because they can meet and offer support to other women going through similar struggles.
Although women from all economic backgrounds use the centre, more than half identify as living in poverty. “If it weren’t for the Women’s Centre I’d be sitting at home doing nothing, since I can’t afford anything,” said one woman who visited years ago. “So I come here to learn new things and do the workshops.” It’s the same today.
The Women’s Centre’s free programs encourage equity and reduce barriers to women’s participation in society. Computer skills, home repair, money management and auto mechanic classes teach women how to do it themselves. Workshops also promote self-esteem and leadership. Women explore their creativity in craft, knitting and nail-painting classes. Yoga, zumba and dance classes get women moving.
Young women are encouraged to develop independence through the centre’s Girl Power programs. At the first Girl Power camp, in 2004, participants discussed topics such as gender stereotypes and body image and learned self-defence, belly dancing and drumming. There’s also an after-school program for girls 10 to 13 years old. One of its annual events is a Calgary Jane’s Walk (an educational city stroll inspired by urbanist Jane Jacobs) about girls’ issues. The Girl Up program, for people aged 15 to 17, began in the fall of 2016, and participants decided to focus on how to be a feminist activist.
Women looking to improve their English attend the centre’s intercultural cooking and women’s issues workshops. New Canadians teach others how to make an inexpensive meal drawn from their culture and discuss women’s issues in their country of origin. On Thursdays, food day, women who are already accessing a food bank can pick up an extra hamper. Every week 50 visitors fill their own food hamper at the Centre. For some, it’s one of the few times they leave their homes and can catch up with friends.
Any woman is welcome at the Centre: Any circumstance. Any age. No screening. No income test.
The Social Issues Committee organizes workshops that make connections between individual experiences and systemic barriers to women’s equality. Participants explain how colonialism still shapes Indigenous women’s lives, the unique challenges that immigrant and refugee women face, and the self-advocacy of women living with disabilities. City Hall 101 and active citizenship workshops offer practical advice on making an effective case to elected representatives. Women with a background in policy development volunteer on the Social Policy Committee, which monitors and responds to governmental policy developments and collaborates with other groups committed to social justice and equality.
Policy analysis begins with women speaking about their own experiences. “People can relate to that,” says Mary Valentich, professor emerita of social work at the University of Calgary and a former Women’s Centre board member. “It really could be your mother or sisters.”
The committee strives to ensure its public statements on social policy consider the impact of colonialism, race, ethnicity, class and sexual identity and expression on women’s experiences. Working in partnership with city-wide initiatives, centre activists insist that poverty-reduction strategies examine how any policy affects women. Advocacy, however, must be kept to less than 10 per cent of total activity, in accordance with federal regulations that place restrictions on agencies with charitable status.
The centre’s approach of direct service provision combined with community building and policy work is rooted in its Community Capacity Peer Model, inspired by a 2002 Commonwealth Foundation report, “Reviving Democracy: Citizens at the Heart of Governance.” The report argues that good societies have three interrelated components: access to basic needs, association with others, and participation in governance. Providing a space where women can get assistance helps them to connect with others. Building a community and developing partnerships with other social-justice organizations ensures that women’s voices are part of a broader dialogue.
The roots of the Women’s Centre reach back more than four decades to an earlier organization, the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), run under the auspices of the YWCA. The Calgary WRC began in 1973 as an information and referral centre in the YWCA lobby and eventually moved to a storefront in Kensington. The YWCA hired a coordinator, and volunteers delivered programs such as legal guidance, peer counselling and job search support.
But the WRC fell victim to the ramifications of cuts by Ralph Klein’s Conservative government in the mid-1990s. Faced with a funding crunch, the YWCA board announced it was closing the WRC, a decision that angered and ultimately galvanized volunteers. Susan Gillies, the WRC’s coordinator at the time and the Women’s Centre’s executive director since it opened, said the women’s community felt they still had much to contribute. “A lot of the volunteers [saw] possibility for change and exciting things,” she said.
The WRC was just one activist outlet to lose funding—others included the Alberta Status of Women Action Committee (a grassroots volunteer organization) and the Calgary Women’s Newspaper (last published in 1989). The cumulative effect triggered supporters into action. “The Women’s Centre closure put us over the edge,” said Yvonne Schmitz, who joined the campaign as a Calgary and District Labour Council activist and later served on one of the Centre’s early boards.
Yvonne Stanford, a former program director at the YWCA, helped Gillies organize a town hall, and within a week the WRC action coalition had grown from 50 members to 300. At a second meeting, members agreed to seek funding to open an independent, feminist women’s centre. “There was a sense of creation,” said Valentich. “Something new was going to evolve from what felt like a bad scene.”
The new Women’s Centre of Calgary opened its doors in October 1997: a bare-bones room with three telephones. It quickly became a busy place. In the first 15 months, 130 volunteers provided peer counselling, direct services and workshops to hundreds of women. The board applied for core funding from City of Calgary Family & Community Support Services (FCSS) but was denied on the basis that it duplicated existing services.
The Centre fell victim to cuts by the Klein government. Its closure angered and ultimately galvanized volunteers.
Organizers asked supporters to call city councillors to explain what made the centre special. Monica, a woman with disabilities, described her support for the Centre this way: “Other places have said they could help me, but this is the only place that said I could help [them]. I know there is always a friendly shoulder to cry on here or someone to laugh with. Sometimes I provide the shoulder and some days I need it, but the Centre always feels very comfortable and safe.”
Hundreds of supporters called. The lobby—praised by one councillor as the best he’d ever seen—worked. Today, FCSS and United Way of Calgary and Area are the centre’s largest funding agencies, although its $1.2-million in annual revenue also comes from individual donations, grants, fundraising and casino revenue.
Reciprocity is a guiding principle at the Women’s Centre. It’s not unusual to see people come to the centre for help and then become a volunteer.
One of these people is Jacqueline Carrier, who has volunteered at the Women’s Centre for 17 years and is one of the centre’s strongest advocates. Trained in the trades, she is the Centre’s handywoman and runs workshops on making dream catchers, jewellery, Indigenous drums and medicine pouches. “I’m trying to teach others about my culture,” she said. Encouraged by Women’s Centre staff, Carrier also speaks publicly about her experiences of poverty. When initially asked to speak, Carrier thought: “What? I can’t even speak in front of three of you! How can I speak in front of 50?”
Now, she said, “I see these people I talk to coming in and they remember my face because sometimes I don’t stop talking when I’m talking about the Women’s Centre.”
The Women’s Centre also helped Gurbinder Manhas overcome her shyness. “Before I walked through the door, I was in total despair,” she recalled. A friend suggested she go to the Women’s Centre. “I knew I would have to talk to women. And so I just started at a small pace. I talked to a few women and then I grew comfortable. And then I just stepped out of my comfort zone and just talked to so many women. And it came to the point that I love socializing with people.”
Now, a year and a half into her role as a peer support volunteer, Manhas believes that “coming to the Women’s Centre was a life-changing experience.”
Twenty years on, the Women’s Centre has come a long way from an empty room with three phones. It moved to a brighter and larger space in 2014. Last year 14 staff worked with 750 volunteers, who provided peer support and workshops to more than 8,000 women. The Centre has updated its services to meet changing needs and has refined its peer-support model over the years. Yet the core feminist tenet remains: that every woman will need help at some point in her life and that every woman has something to contribute.
“It’s a unique example of a community hub, specific to women, but it has a very broad approach to help women get resources,” said Schmitz, who sees a connection between the loyalty of today’s Centre supporters and the grassroots campaign to save the Centre. “People feel ownership of the centre. You just get sucked in and you’re defending it for the rest of your life.”
New volunteers are as devoted as the Centre’s founding members. Gillies believes they’re all so passionate because they’ve created an agency that makes a difference in women’s lives. Just as importantly, it’s a fun place to be. “People love the Centre… because it’s got such great, fun energy,” she said. “There are all sorts of sad stories and stuff, some anger and some problems. But there’s so much laughter every day at the Women’s Centre.”
“It’s my second home,” added Carrier. “It’s given me some good days when I’ve have bad ones.”
Nancy Janovicek joined the Women’s Centre board in 2014. She teaches history at the University of Calgary.