A Snapshot of Some Feminist Initiatives in Early 1970s Guelph, Ontario


Guelph Women's Centre, Virago, Guelph, Ontario, vol. 2, Issue 4, [p.1], April 1974, Archives and Special Collections, University of Ottawa, WOM-PER, provenance: CWMA collection, HQ1909.05 G84
Guelph Women’s Centre, Virago, Guelph, Ontario, vol. 2, Issue 4, [p.1],
April 1974, Archives and Special Collections, University of Ottawa,
WOM-PER, provenance: CWMA collection, HQ1909.05 G84
A small group of feminists (referred to only as ‘the group’) living in Guelph (Ontario) in the early 1970s organized local community initiatives that supported women in Guelph and the surrounding areas. This group included members of the established Guelph Women’s Centre, students attending the University of Guelph, and women living in and around Guelph, some of whom were mothers. A feminist newspaper called Virago, a voice for local women, was published by the Women’s Centre and distributed regularly in Guelph and outlying areas.

The following outlines some of the activities that were either organized by this group or in which some members actively participated. This is not an exhaustive list. However, these initiatives and events promoted consciousness-raising among women, and offered grassroots supports for women in all walks of life. These small steps in many communities in the 1970s paved the way for services and supports available to women in Ontario today.

A Shelter for Assaulted Women

The shelter for assaulted women was the second shelter to open in Ontario; the first was Interval House in Toronto. The first challenge to establishing this new shelter was to secure funding. We applied for and received temporary federal funding through the Opportunities for Youth program. Then we needed a house. We asked the City of Guelph to waive zoning on a home in a residential area and to designate it a “halfway house.” We met with great resistance from the local community and our request was denied. But we got press! An article published in the Guelph Mercury (8 May 1973) said “Mayor Will Help Group Find Home”.

Finally a real estate agent offered us a home located at the end of Woodlawn Road East. It was vacant, and the area was slated for a “man-made lake”. That lake exists today. We named the shelter The Fourteen Day House. At that time, we were naïve about how much time women (and their children) would require to sort out the next steps in their lives after leaving an abusive relationship.

We opened the doors in early June 1973. A representative from Interval House, the first shelter for assaulted women in Ontario, attended the opening ceremonies. The purpose of The Fourteen Day House was “to provide temporary housing for women and their children in crisis situations where alternative housing is not immediately available”. The house was open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We had ten paid staff and around 14 volunteers. We were always full!

There was great resistance to this house. The general attitude was that we were tearing families apart. Our best friends were the Guelph police who were thankful to be able to support and remove women and children from domestic violence situations when they believed women’s safety (and/or their children’s) was at risk. The local MP came to the house twice to see if we were really working and it was really being used! The press was often unkind to us. But we made a difference to many lives during that short period of time.

Sadly, what we learned was that women fleeing a dangerous situation would often return home. This was the beginning of our understanding of the “cycle of violence” women often endure before they finally leave permanently.

By September the money was running out. We had to close the house. We were unable to maintain a shelter that required staffing 24 hours a day without funding, and unfortunately, the community and government supports for initiatives such as rape crisis lines and shelters for assaulted women were not yet available. Today over 40 shelters for assaulted women are core funded in Ontario through many funding streams including the Province of Ontario.

Guelph Women’s Day Festival, Saturday May 26th, 1973

This festival was organized by a group of women who met at the YM-YWCA in Guelph. The Y offered its building to host the festival. The purpose of the day was to
bring Guelph (and area) women together in a relaxed and educational milieu to explore common needs, interests and problems; dispel the myths about women’s liberation and its effects; and encourage participation in follow-up plans for further programs and get-togethers.

The by-line for the festival was “Join us – in a sane look at us women. All women welcome.” The free festival was for women only, and free childcare was provided. What an exciting occasion! Over 200 women from many small towns, farms, and near-by cities attended. In addition to discussions, workshops, demonstrations, and displays focused on local talents, Dr. Jeanine Pratt, a developmental psychologist from York University, spoke about the “socialization of women” and Kay Livingston, Chairperson, National Black Coalition and Board Member of the National YWCA, addressed issues of “racism and sexism”.

The evening entertainment included local singers and Rita MacNeil,  who was then living in Toronto and who sang her own feminist songs acappella. An evening meal was provided at the cost of $2.25 per person and $1.25 for a child. A video was produced of this event.

Meeting with Mary Two-Axe Earley, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, Quebec

Mary Two-Axe Earley was fighting for equal rights on behalf of Aboriginal women who lost their Indian status under the law, and the rights and benefits to which this status entitled them, when they married non-Indians. We invited her to meet with the group in Guelph to discuss her concerns and explore how the group could support her. After our meeting with Mary Two-Axe, we all marched in solidarity to the most visible federal building in town, the local post office! We kept in touch with Mary Two-Axe for some time to lend support where possible.

Establishment of Big Sisters Of Guelph

In September 1972, a Notice of Meeting was sent out by the local YM-YWCA about establishing a Big Sisters in Guelph. This initiative was in response to numerous calls from prospective Big Sisters and needy little sisters and their families looking for this kind of support. About 30 people attended. Eight volunteered to be on the steering committee to establish Big Sisters in Guelph. The committee conducted research and surveyed local schools and agencies about the needs of families and young girls.

“Unlike Big Brothers (who basically provided one-to-one counselling), Big Sisters ranges in services from overnight residences, personal counseling, small group work to one-to-one relationships. Big Sisters are not affiliated from city-to-city and operate according to the perceived needs of the community where they are located. Big Sisters not only operates within motherless homes, but also aids girls who are experiencing difficulties in the families, in school, with their peers and where mothers understand, approve and give their permission for Big Sisters to operate.” A Report for the Guelph Community Service Council, 26 April 1973.

Big Sisters organizations already existed in other places. Big Sisters in Hamilton ran a group home; Oakville, a one-to-one program; Toronto, a counselling service; and Kitchener, a one-to-one program and some group work. Big Sisters of Guelph selected the Kitchener model for their start up programs

A local lawyer incorporated the organization and suggested members for the first Board of Directors. A brochure was developed, approved, and printed in 1974. Also in 1974, the Guelph Y applied for and obtained an LIP grant (federal funding) that included a staff person to start up Big Sisters of Guelph. Judy Stanleigh was hired as the first paid staff member, whose tasks included a fund-raising campaign and coordination of activities within the organization.

“I ran a little sisters group weekly. I also assisted in forming a new ‘teen program’ launched the summer of 1974. A part-time social service student who volunteered part-time interviewed prospective Big Sisters. There was an acting Director. We received funding from the City of Guelph and an OFY (Opportunities for Youth, a federally-funded initiative) was approved which facilitated the formal hiring of the first full-time Director. In October, 1974, Big Sisters of Guelph was accepted as a member agency of Guelph United Way.”

Judy Stanleigh, Guelph, 1971-74

Judy was involved in the initiatives listed above. She invites other Guelph activists to add to this history.

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