Introduction: The issue of violence against women began to emerge into the public arena in 1973 with the establishment of the first five women’s shelters across Canada. In Toronto, women started discussions at Women’s Place – a centre for women’s organizing – when it became apparent that abused women had nowhere to go. The women decided to establish Interval House and Darlene Lawson talks to Rise Up about its creation in Toronto.. At about the same time, 1974, women in Toronto and Vancouver realized that women who had been assaulted had nowhere to turn to for help. Deb Parent, a long-time worker and volunteer at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre describes how this led to women establishing a 24-hour crisis line followed by a physical space where women could get help from counsellors face-to-face. Both Darlene and Deb discuss how Interval House and the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre were at the vanguard of understanding the dimensions of intersectionality in the women’s movement.
Sue Colley: Today we’re going to talk about the struggle against violence against women which has been going on for many years, of course. But the particular aspect we’re going to talk about today is the creation of service centres for women that started to emerge in the mid-seventies. And I’m joined by Darlene Lawson and Deb Parent, and we’re going to first of all let them introduce themselves.
Darlene Lawson: Hi, my name’s Darlene Lawson and I was fortunate enough to be a member of the collective of women that started Interval House in Toronto in 1973.
Sue Colley: Thank you. And Deb?
Deb Parent: Hi, my name is Deb Parent and I was a volunteer and staff member with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre from 1980 to 2005. The centre was started in 1974.
Sue Colley: Fabulous. OK. So I’m going to ask you, Darlene, to start by telling us the story of how actually the Interval House got going.
Darlene Lawson: In a recent book that was published in 2017, Margo Goodhand talked about how the first five women’s shelters in Canada all opened within about a nine-month period in 1973. And none of us were in contact with one another. This was all spontaneous in the sense that the conditions of the time gave rise and allowed for the establishment of the first centers.
For me it was a sort of inevitable path in a way to finding myself at the first meeting of Interval House in Toronto. My father’s family were people who had factory jobs and worked six days a week very hard, and at a very young age I realized that there was something not right when I could see the wealth around me, and the difficulty that these people who I loved and I knew were struggling so hard, were having paying their rent, buying their groceries. And that was my first inkling of what later developed into an analysis of class.
And at the same time my mother was an immigrant to Canada after the Second World War, and at that time the discrimination, the taunting, the jokes – since most immigrants at the time were white-skinned people – were against people who had different accents, different customs, came from different countries. And so growing up there was a lot of that taunting and bullying and so on about my mother’s side of the family.
And that helped me to understand about being a new Canadian from her experience, and also the impact of society’s values on people who were different.
So those two building blocks, I think, were already there. And by the time I was in university I was spending as much time as I could in the old Yorkville Village with the coffee houses and the protest singers and the men who were coming to Canada instead of going to fight in Vietnam. And change was very much in the wind. With Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, we could feel that there was the possibility of things being – even though the words were not very developed at that time – but more equitable and more fair and more open and more accepting.
So that was all happening and I got involved in student politics when I was in university. I was the first person in our family on either side to go to university, which was a really big deal, although I spent a great deal of my time in student activism around a whole range of issues at the time. But we were all reading Marx and Engels and Trotsky and Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg and again, there was that sense of change and possibility. and that you could take action.
And some of the concepts around inequity and injustice were beginning to have more – I had more understanding because there was a theoretical analysis to put the experience that I had had to, and I would say that through all that time, issues of social justice just became more and more important to me.
So in the summer of 1972 I was spending time at an organization that was in Toronto at the time called the Women’s Place on Dupont Street, which was kind of an organizing, drop-in, socializing, we had a bookmobile, a help phone and so on for women in Toronto. In a period where feminism was really starting to become something that young female activists like myself were paying a lot of attention to. So rather than the sort of more class-based work that I had been thinking about and kind of doing as a student, the issue of gender inequity was becoming more and more important to me. And really understanding the depth and pervasiveness of that through Chatelaine magazine and the writers in the States like Germaine Greer and Kate Millett and so on and so forth.
So I’d been spending time at a Women’s Place, and one day I noticed a little sign on the door, or on the bulletin board, I guess, and it said any women who are interested in establishing a distress centre for women, come to this meeting that had been called.
And so I went to that meeting along with a number of women who lived in the co-op that I lived in at the time. And there were a number of other women there that turned out to be 11 in the founding collective. And the sign had been put up by Lynn Zimmer, who for many years worked at Interval House and then became the executive director for a lot of years at the YWCA in Peterborough. And Lynn recently won the Order of Canada award for her work against violence against women, which is really wonderful.
So Lynn had put up this sign, and she had an idea in her head of what she wanted to do. And she also was hanging out at the Women’s Place and had noticed the number of women who were calling and coming in who were talking about being abused and battered and beaten by their spouses, by their husbands and that they had nowhere to go and were in crisis.
And that led Lynn to start thinking that there needs to be some kind of a place for women who are in crisis to be able to find safety and a roof over their head.
So we began meeting in that summer of 1972, the 11 of us, to think about this concept and to start putting it in place and how we were going to achieve this. We were all in our 20s, mostly early 20s. None of us had experience working in social services or setting up social services or anything like that. So everything that we did was trial by error, and step-by-step. And that’s how we started that summer, until we managed to get a Local Initiative Program grant in January of 1973, which was a federal program at the time. And those were the days where you could apply for grants for community-based initiatives, especially for young people who were unemployed.
And that grant ran from January of ’73 until the summer of ’73, and it was in April, as I said, that Interval House opened.
The other important thing, of course, is the context. Not only the fact that we were really doing this with no real experience and no real knowledge, just the awareness of the necessity of a place like Interval House. But at the time the issue of wife assault was absolutely not on the radar. No one talked about it. It was a private matter. The police at the time rarely laid charges when it came to a domestic situation. And at that time for women to get welfare you had to have an address, so that meant that there was no recourse for them to even get financial assistance. So no real help from the justice system, no real way to support themselves and nowhere to go.
And so a lot of what we were doing in those early months was meeting with the City of Toronto, the United Way, other organizations in the city to explain to them what it was that we were trying to do and why we were trying to do it. And of course it was met with a great deal of scepticism that this probably doesn’t really exist, that the volume doesn’t really exist. But there were some key people along the way who were very helpful. One being Mayor Crombie at the time who ultimately helped, later on, helped us to get a per diem from the city which allowed for the continuation of the operation and is now one of the ways in which shelters are financially viable. And we got a little bit of help from the United Way.
And so through that period we were trying to figure out how are we going to get a house? How are we going to get furniture? What is the protocol for intake? How long can people stay? What are we going to do with the kids? Where are we going to get food? Who’s going to make the food? Who’s going to clean the place? Who’s going to do the PR and the fundraising? Who’s going to set the schedule for the staff? Everything!
And we basically were working it all out until April of 1973 when the official opening happened.
Susan Colley: That was quite the story. I must admit that I can’t imagine going through all those details and still remaining calm. But obviously you did it. Congratulations. And it’s – you know, it’s stood its test in time, for sure.
Before we move on to some of the other issues coming out of those experiences, perhaps Deb could continue by telling us about the opening of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre and how that happened.
Deb Parent: So very much as Dar has spoken about, the Rape Crisis Centre came out of that same time in that period of the second wave of the Women’s Movement, when women were gathering in consciousness raising groups, talking to each other and discovering that their experiences of abuse, whether it be physical or sexual abuse or sexual harassment wasn’t just an individual experience or a solitary experience, it was in fact a bit of a pandemic. And that there were systematic reasons for that happening which we defined as patriarchy or sexism.
The Rape Crisis Centre began in Toronto in 1974, -as did the Rape Crisis Centre in Vancouver that same year – with a group of women who were primarily if not entirely white middleclass women because the lens for them at that time was the gender inequality that Darlene has referred to. And so at that time women had no place to go to talk about their experiences.
They might if they chose to go to the police or they might go to their priest or rabbi. If they had the funds or the resources, they might go to their therapist. But there was no place to go, and there really was no place to go where women could be assured of a feminist response. And what we meant by that then, and still mean by that, is that women knew that first of all they would be believed, they would not be told what to do, they could direct their own responses and decisions coming out of that assault. And those – I think those two factors, being believed and not being blamed were huge at that time for women. I think it still is huge because we still see in our society that women are largely held responsible for the assaults that happen, and happen to them.
So for the six years before I came into the Rape Crisis Centre the focus was on developing a crisis line, so that women could call 24 hours a day anonymously. Women didn’t have to leave their name and phone number; we worked through an answering service. And then a physical space where women could come and meet with counsellors face-to-face. There was a speaker’s bureau, an education that was being done, both in the community and in schools and in churches and in synagogues and in community centres. And there had been an extensive two-year process of meeting with the police once a week with all of the different divisions and training groups to talk about sexual assault and what women needed at that point, because that was before we had sexual assault care centres in hospitals.
And so the police were often the first point of contact, and the only point of contact that women had – after they had been assaulted – if they chose to report the assault.
So when I came along in 1980 I had just moved to Toronto from Ottawa, and I, like Darlene, come from a very working class family. Because I came out at a very early age, I came out in 1969 when I was 12, I left high school because it was a very untenable place for me to be. I wanted to live my life as a lesbian and so I left school, went to work, moved out of the house, and when I moved to Toronto in 1979 it was to be in that bigger lesbian community. And I had attended a couple of conferences, lesbian conferences. One was in 1976. We had the first Binational Lesbian Conference, and that was the first time that I met lesbians outside of a bar environment and saw that there was a great deal of organizing and consciousness raising that was happening for lesbians at that time as part of the gay liberation movement which started coming out of the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
So seven or eight years later lesbians were also beginning to organize for themselves a little bit separately from organizing as gay people, with gay men. And so when I moved to Toronto in late 1979 I was on strike with Bell Canada for the first time. I walked into the women’s bar, The Fly By Night, and met a group of women from the Rape Crisis Centre who were very, very supportive of the strike and me personally who wanted to come out and picket, which was the first time I’d ever met a group of women or people who were willing to get involved in something that wasn’t necessarily their struggle.
And when I said to them, wow, I like who are you and you’re obvious here as a group they said, yeah, we’re just coming from a training session at the Rape Crisis Centre. And I said to them, what’s a Rape Crisis Centre? And that was my introduction to feminism. I had been active as a lesbian and organizing as a lesbian, but that was my deep dive into feminism.
And so because they were willing to put action next to their theory, that was very compelling for me. And so I started the volunteer training session that year, that was early 1980, and by late 1980 in the fall, a position, a staff position had come up with the Rape Crisis Centre and I applied.
And the Rape Crisis Centre hired me to do public speaking. And they hired me without a degree, without even a high school diploma. And that was significant for me then, and still is because a lot of our work in our services has become very professionalized in a way that I think is very class based and denies the opportunity for lots of women who’ve got all kinds of life experience to contribute.
So the centre never took that position. Still operates in that way, operates collectively. And I think in the next round of conversation with Darlene I want to talk about what started to happen in the 1980s as we started to move from that singular gender lens in our organizing to being much more holistic and much more intersectional, as we would say today.
Sue Colley: Thanks. Darlene. That’s also quite a story.
Maybe the two of you can talk a bit about why it was you got involved in action outside of these particular services that you were involved in. I know there was a lot going on but maybe between you, you can talk about how that happened and why.
Sue Colley: OK. all right. Good. OK. So coming out of your account, Deb, I think that that leads us nicely into how it happened that certain women’s services, and not all obviously, decided it was really important to get involved in activities and actions beyond the scope of the services themselves.
Darlene Lawson: I think one of the things that’s really interesting about social change is that whenever a group of people who do not have access to the mainstream have an opportunity to be together and talk with one another in a safe place, the reality of people’s individual lives starts to become more understood as largely systemic in terms of the conditions that create some of the challenges and difficulties and barriers that people express.
In the Women’s Movement of that period during the ’70s, when women had an opportunity to get together and speak together in safe places, like Interval House, like the Rape Crisis Centre, the magnitude and the range of manifestations of violence against women began to tumble out. When you take it from a time where no one was talking about violence against women, really, in any of its forms, or recognizing its existence, it was women themselves talking with one another that started, I think, an understanding not only of rape and sexual assault and wife abuse, but also child sexual abuse and later, you know, date rape and workplace harassment and so on and so forth, all the manifestations of violence against women which were all cut from the same cloth.
And so I think that growing analysis of first of all as I said, the magnitude of the problem, but also of the social conditions, the systemic conditions that give rise to all forms of oppression to begin with, but in relation to violence against women, the misogyny and the sexism that permeate every aspect of our culture and cultures around the world.
And I think it was with that understanding of the systemic roots that was the imperative to start doing social action. Because it’s not just a question of trying to rescue this woman or that woman or the next woman sort of out of the river, as they’re passing by, it’s a question of figuring out why everybody is ending up in that situation in the first place and doing something about it.
So whether that’s, you know, changing media perceptions of women, or whether it’s changing police attitudes towards violence against women and rape, or whether it’s public education about violence against women, or whether it’s taking direct action, like we did by 1978 when Women Against Violence Against Women sort of spontaneously came together among feminists in Toronto and in November of 1977 the spontaneous demonstrations in front of the snuff movie on Yonge Street. Women, you know, demanding that this pornographic film be closed down. And it was night after night after night at a time when street protests were hardly ever happening, was one manifestation or one – one action that women felt that was concrete and that we could take that was systemic.
So I think that the activism grew out of the analysis which grew out of the experience and the words of women.
Sue Colley: Deb, would you like to add to that from your experience – on Darlene’s very good analytical point there.
Deb Parent: As Darlene has already mentioned everything we did as a Rape Crisis Centre came out of a need. Whether it was the needs of women who came to see us, or we needed child care, or we needed to get money to pay for child care, or some women needed bus tokens, or maybe if we had a kitchen and we provided some food, because women don’t always have food security or – the personal is political. It was then and it still is.
And so as Darlene said, in order to find that balance between the individual needs of women and meeting those needs, but also the systemic – that larger systemic picture – needs to be addressed. And as a Rape Crisis Centre we always wanted to put ourselves out of business, right? So to speak. I wanted to come to work one day and see a, you know, Gone Fishing sign or something that said we didn’t need to be here. We never started this work with the intention of getting a job, of getting a job for life. And we never suspected at that time that we would still be here and the services would still need to exist 40 years later.
And a lot of the work that we did in the Rape Crisis Centre with respect to social action was two-fold. First of all we needed to do the work, we needed to protest, we needed to do that – put out that kind of energy in the world, or we would go crazy. Subsumed under the waves and waves and waves of women and children who were, and continue to be assaulted. So we needed that protest energy.
And we also, as our intersectional analysis developed in the early 1980s, we knew systemically that there was a connection between violence against women and racism and classism and homophobia and ableism and anti-Semitism. And so in those protests, and in that social action, whether we were creating it, like Take Back the Night, or whether we joined other social movements for change, it was absolutely that coalition work that making the connections and supporting the work of other organizations and individuals much like we needed the support in our work.
We felt like we were outliers. We didn’t fit in our own community as a white woman, because we were talking about issues of violence against women, we were talking about racism, we were talking about classism, we were talking about things that our families and our communities didn’t necessarily understand or support, and that was our work to do. But we didn’t – we didn’t necessarily fit in.
It was also about establishing community for us, right? And the bigger and broader and more dynamic that community could be, the more we believed that we would end the violence. That we would achieve the success that we – I remember being in my early 20s and believing that if I just talked to enough people, because the analysis made so much sense – if I could just talk to people of course they’d understand. And of course people with privilege would give that up.
And yet here we are 40 years later. Things have changed, but we’re still working to make a more equitable society. And sometimes that does take mass protests on the street, as it does to be able to have somebody at the other end of a crisis line at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Sue Colley: And what about the women themselves that were the so-called clients of your centres? Did they understand this intersectionality or the relationship between, you know, between their abuse and the more systemic causes of that abuse? Did they understand that? How did that play out?
Darlene Lawson: Well again, I think whenever women have an opportunity to be together in a safe place and can speak to one another about the truth of their lives; as soon as you meet with four or five, six, seven other women in a place like Interval House or in a support group at the Rape Crisis Centre or with the staff of the Rape Crisis Centre, it obviously begins to emerge that your experience is not singular. It’s not unique. It’s not a one-off. And oh my goodness. You had the same experience of trying to appease, of they’re being so sorry and then all of a sudden it starts all over again with the put-downs and the millions of manifestations.
It became obvious to women themselves that there was something bigger going on than their shortcomings or whatever they had been told about how this was their fault. And to start peeling away that – yeah, we were never encouraged to get an education. We’re kind of trapped in this place with the abuser because we have no way of getting out.
The criminal justice system doesn’t care about us. Women are portrayed as being all the things they’re being portrayed as in the media etcetera, etcetera.
So yes, I think that for most women who found themselves using the services of Interval House or the Rape Crisis Centre and other women’s services, part of the whole point was breaking the isolation and helping – facilitating – women to see that their experience was not unique and it was not their fault.
Deb Parent: Yeah, I would add to that that the Rape Crisis Centre does feminist peer counselling. So the two important aspects of that for me first of all is that as a feminist, as Darlene said, when we begin to reframe a woman’s experience of assault it becomes very clear, very quickly, all the other conditions in her life as a woman, right? Or as a black woman or as a lesbian. So she’s already making those connections when – and all she needs is a somewhat different mirror held up to her so she can see her life reflected to her through that feminist lens.
And so for women who have that experience it’s incredibly liberating, and it’s incredibly powerful because they have a way, just like I did, a way to understand myself: first as a lesbian and understand that the way that I’d been thought to think about myself was because of homophobia; And that the way I was taught to think about myself as a woman was because of sexism; and if I’d been a black woman it would be because of racism.
So that’s a very, I think, powerful transition for any woman, and the Rape Crisis Centre also does, as I said, peer counselling. So here’s where it’s a little different than a transition house or a battered women’s shelter. We’ve trained, as a Rape Crisis Centre, thousands of women over the years to do that peer counselling. And the Rape Crisis Centre continues to be one of the only – or one of the very few organizations, I think, in the city that trains women to do that frontline work and in the process of training, so many women have become radicalized. They may have come in initially because they wanted to do good work. They wanted to help those poor rape victims. But through that process of training, they began to see themselves as a woman, and their own experiences of sexism.
And so for us as a Rape Crisis Centre that was a critical piece of our work was making sure that all of us coming in to do that work could understand and see ourselves and understand that we were working for our own liberation as much as we were working for anybody else’s liberation.
Sue Colley: And do you think this was true for all of the … battered women’s centres or transition houses or rape crisis centres, or was this something that was unique to a few of them, and if so why was that?
Deb Parent: Well, I’ll jump in on this one. I think there’s a number of circumstances that come into play. First of all in Toronto we had then and we continue to have a very racially diverse city. And so we have women and racialized women and disabled women, all have more opportunity, I think, to step in, and we caught a particular wave, I think, in the Coalition of Sexual Assault Centres. There was a national organization called CASAC, and the work that was being done in Vancouver was also very radical, and so when we came together for our first conference in 1981, there was a lot of work being done amongst staff and volunteers in some Rape Crisis Centres, Toronto and Vancouver specifically, to start making those intersectional connections..
And we did a lot of work in the conference breaking into what we called group and caucus. So a group would be whoever has the corresponding privilege, so straight women would be the group, lesbians would be the caucus. White women would be the group, racialized women would be the caucus. And for the first time for many of us, we actually met in those support groups to be white allies, and in our caucus groups to talk about the experience of oppression. And it blew everybody’s mind. It just – it just opened up things in us that, as Dar said, we hadn’t had a chance to talk about, we were so busy talking about being women, and the experience of sexism, this was the first time really in such numbers that we were starting to look at the differences between us, not just the similarities.
I know in Toronto we came back from that conference in late 1981 and started implementing those group and caucus structures. We implemented constructive criticism as a way to talk about mistakes that we were making with each other. That was very challenging for some of the current volunteers in the Rape Crisis Centre and it probably was about six to eight months later in 1982 that the collective actually split almost down the middle, because women who had initially come to the Rape Crisis Centre with fantastic intentions and were doing great work on the gender inequality felt uncomfortable, felt like this was – that they were being – the work was being sidetracked. Why were we spending so much time talking about our differences? And those of us who wanted to do that work pressed forward and pushed that because we understood two things. That we would never be any different than who we are. We would always be the same type of woman coming to volunteer or potentially apply for a job at the Rape Crisis Centre. And by definition we were working with women who were different from us. We weren’t always working with white women or straight women. And so we needed to understand more not only of that experience, but how we could be better counsellors, how we could be better advocates, how we could be better allies.
And I think that that work was happening in bigger cities, partially because of the circumstances in those cities around diversity, but also access to resources from other groups that were working or writings coming out of the US from racialized women about what was happening – what was happening in their communities.
Sue Colley: So how did that change your practice? What did you do?
Deb Parent: Well, I think what we started to do was to understand first of all that – and it was reflected – I think, in the work that we did when we talked about why women may not want to report to the police. Right? So we were clear about why women may not want to report to the police, but I think we could add a whole section about why racialized women would not want to report to the police, or why lesbians might not report to the police.
I think we understood then – and were in the process of understanding – that we needed to be reaching out to racialized women’s groups who were also doing counselling and who were also doing advocacy, and bringing them into our training. We understood that we needed to make room, really concrete room in the collective, for that leadership. So for example, one of the things that lesbians started to do was to look at heterosexism in the materials. And how heteronormative our training materials perhaps were.
At the same time, the racialized women’s caucus got to look at training materials and rewrite things. They got to take a different role in training. They got to inform the work of the centre both in terms of how we did our counselling, what our materials were that we presented to the community, what our training materials were; where we went to recruit people for our training. Up till that point we had an open door and whoever wanted to come, came, but we started to give much more targeted invitations and building those coalitions because lesbians were coming to the centre because lesbians were in leadership, primarily on staff. So we needed to do that same work in racialized women’s communities and in disabled women’s communities.
We had a lot of Jewish women and Jewish dykes who were also in leadership. So I think it was recognizing and supporting leadership wherever it was in those corresponding groups, much more clearly than we ever had before.
Sue Colley: And Darlene, was that similar with Interval House and other transition houses or not?
Darlene Lawson: Well first of all I would say having been a feminist activist in Toronto during that time, I would say unquestionably the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, as far as women’s services in Toronto go, was at the vanguard of understanding not only the dimensions of intersectionality, but also taking action to make change and ensure that their organization was more diverse and was able to provide the services that they provided to a more diverse community.
Sue Colley: Can I just interrupt you because this may be used by audiences like high school students and undergrads and so on. Can you define the word intersectionality?
Darlene Lawson: Well I think Deb said it when she was speaking, but the understanding that the conditions that create inequity and oppression and racism and homophobia and disablism and all the rest of it, are not only systemic but there’s a whole lot of them and they all intersect with one another, and people are situated within this labyrinth of many intersecting lines as to where their personal experience might fall.
So there was that understanding by the Rape Crisis Centre as well as an understanding of the need – not only the need – but that it was right to become more diverse. And their work in that regard really was ground-breaking in Toronto.
You asked about whether all of the shelters had a social action component in the early days, and I think as has always been true, it all depended on who it was that was forming the organization. So some were groups of friends in various places across the country. And again reading that book, Runaway Wives, Rogues, and Other Feminists is a really good encapsulation of the first five shelters.
So whether it’s church-based, that’s going to the underlying values and principles and understanding of an organization, is what’s going to set everything else about its character. And in Toronto we were clearly coming from a feminist perspective with Interval House in Toronto. And a very white feminist perspective at that early time. And I think that for Interval House and other shelters, the process of understanding intersectionality came a bit sooner because it was just quite so blatantly obvious that all of the conditions that work together to create the situation in which women found themselves in – misogyny and sexism not being the last of them for sure.
But the diversity of organizations, I think, took longer to evolve. I think over time there’s sort of a mutuality of changing your volunteer and staff component and that in turn changes the character and that in turn changes your outreach, and that in turn changes who comes, and so more women of colour, more indigenous women, more disabled women and so on and so forth.
But for now today, for example, Interval House has moved a number of times over the years. I just want to get in that in 2019, I think, the City of Toronto erected a plaque on Spadina Road near the location of the first Interval House commemorating that that happened in Toronto. Which is really nice.
But Interval House has moved a number of times over the years, and is now in a very large facility and services an awful lot – very many women and children every year. And it has a very diverse staff and a very diverse group of women and children who use the services and thank goodness. And you know, that has been more, I think, of an evolutionary process with an understanding, but over time. But it was the Rape Crisis Centre who was on it very early on.
Sue Colley: Right.
Deb Parent: Dar, I think – I don’t know – I don’t know if you had this issue, but I know that at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, Multicultural Women Against Rape, because that is the – or became the full name of the Rape Crisis Centre in the 1990s to reflect that evolution of who we had been.
But I know that particularly in the 1980s we were trying to balance out the reality of being in a Rape Crisis Centre at that time, especially under the Conservative – the provincial Conservative Government of the time, and even the Liberal government, we were so poorly funded. We had four staff positions, a space on College Street that had actually been donated by Women’s College Hospital. It was completely inaccessible. Big set of stairs. And they were waiting for the building to be demolished.
Darlene Lawson: Right, I remember that.
Deb Parent: Remember? And the cockroaches and the whole bit. And so while we wanted to bring in and facilitate racialized women, indigenous women, being in those staff positions, what was also true was they paid shit. And we did tons of work for little money, in fact amongst the four staff that we had, we would rotate going on EI every six months or eight months and continue working in order to just support the small budget that we had, right?
So we wanted to do so much but we actually didn’t have the resources to do that. And I don’t blame women for not wanting to come in and give up whatever jobs they may have had to be laid off every six months and continue working.
So I don’t know if you found that as well too in the shelter movement of the time.
Sue Colley: What was the key to stabilizing funding do you think? What actually made that happen ultimately and when?
Darlene Lawson: Well, again there were very few prototypes for anybody to work from, including funders. At that time in Toronto the only shelter for families in crisis was the Dundas Street shelter, and on the main floor it was a veteran’s wing, and the upper floor was the most decrepit, derelict place you could ever imagine. So the city didn’t have a lot of housing that it was hoarding at that particular period of time.
When we started on the first Local Initiatives grant, which was the six-month grant, the salaries were $100 a month, minus deductions. It was a week, $100 a week minus deductions. That’s right. And then when that ran out everybody went on EI, and as Deb was saying, for a period of time, to keep everything going. But it was really the beginning of the per diem concept from the City of Toronto, which is now used in shelters generally, that began to provide some level of stability, at least pay the rent and the utilities and the not great – Deb’s quite right – salaries of the staff for a very long time.
And look, never mind a very long time, this is still the issue today. Today in women’s services, both Rape Crisis Centres and the shelters, funding is an ongoing problem not only to meet the need. There was a snapshot done – well regularly there are snapshots done of how many women and children are turned away from the shelters across Canada on one given night of the year and the numbers are astounding. They’re awful. They’re always turning people away.
So there’s not only the capacity issue, and being able to pay people a decent salary for people who work there and programs for the children and so on and so forth, but there’s the added complication now of the Charitable Institution Status Number and that you can only do – I don’t know Deb, what is it, 20 percent of your activity or something can be advocacy, or you don’t qualify as a charitable institution.
So all of this definitely has a major impact on how much work these organizations can do, and the type of work they can do.
But the other factor I think is that over time, as is often the case in anything that is cutting edge of social change, over time the system itself begins to absorb that. And so now the kind of services that offer Rape Crisis Centre rape support or run battered women shelters or many other women’s services are situated in hospitals or they’re situated in religious organizations, and so on and so forth. And so the ethos is not necessarily the same to begin with in terms of social action.
Both on a macro scale in terms of systemic change, but also on a micro scale of changing your organization so it is diverse and it recognizes intersectionality and thereby can serve more women.
Sue Colley: What impact do you think being and remaining a collective has had on that ability to be able to maintain those principles and those strategic views?
Darlene Lawson: Well interesting that Interval House and the Rape Crisis Centre are the only two – I’m sure there are others – but they’re the only two women’s organizations I know of in the city, and Deb can correct me if she knows, that are still operating as collectives. And I think that at the time it was exactly in line with our feminist values and our desire for equity. Everybody was in charge and everybody was responsible. And that makes a big difference in how the organization is run and how the people in the organization relate to one another and make decisions and carry out responsibility. And it’s also modelling for other organizations, for the funders, for the women and children who use the facilities that we’re actually trying by our very being to live the principles that we’re actually talking about.
Deb Parent: I would totally agree with Darlene that it’s our values, and it’s living our values. You know, we often used to talk about, does the means condition the end, or does the end justify the means? And I think we believed that the kind of modelling that Darlene spoke about was how we wanted to live our lives as the community that we wanted to create.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about the pandemic (that we’re still in as we do this interview) and the similarities between the pandemic and that second wave of the women’s movement in the belief that we had that this was our opportunity to change the world and change ourselves, change our community, and change the world. And we firmly believed that we could do that.
And we did that by operating collectively. We income shared, so we took turns going on EI. Numbers of women lived collectively with other women, and women and children. We did collective child rearing. We took turns with the mothers in our collective taking care of children. We had non-monogamous relationships in our 20s because that also reflected our values, particularly as lesbians at that time.
So we did our best to live the personal is political.
And I have a lot of pride in what we endeavoured to do then, and as Darlene said, the fact that these two collectives are outliers in a world and in many women’s services that have been forced in part by funding to adopt a hierarchical structure. And I know that when CASAC, the national organization in 1980 applied for federal funding, they gave us a three-year grant, and then at the end they had this whole process in place, the federal government did, as to how they wanted to do the evaluation. And I remember women sitting around that table saying, that’s not how we are, that’s not who we are, that’s not our structure. So they took that process and basically usurped it and did a completely different evaluation than the government would have preferred. And that was the last time the Canadian association got funded.
So as Dar said, it is unacceptable, and criminal in my opinion that the government, while it espouses the work that organizations like shelters and Rape Crisis Centres and many other organizations are doing to support the vulnerable in our communities, and in this case particularly women who have been abused, it’s been an ongoing issue, it’s an ongoing struggle, and to some extent I’m very glad that the Rape Crisis Centre never had a lot of money, still doesn’t have a lot of money, in some ways, because not having that money had allowed us to really kind of do whatever we saw fit in the moment, do whatever we determined was necessary in that moment. And we came up with a number of things that were not acceptable to the status quo. I mean by definition the work that we were doing was not acceptable.
But it became apparent to the government, if we give this group a little bit of money, we can have them do a shit load of work that we don’t actually have to pay for, right? Because we were training volunteers, our crisis line was running, women were coming in. There were consciousness raising groups, self-help groups. So in fact a little bit of money went a long way.
And for us, we saw a huge shift from the federal and the provincial funding when the Conservative and Liberal governments of the day were finally defeated by the NDP in 1990, our funding increased 400 percent.
So that’s how little previous governments had given us, and that’s how much the NDP understood was necessary at that time to do the work; that we were serving a population of over a million people at that time. And that money allowed us to double the size of the staff team, and the first women – the five women – we hired were all racialized women, because we could finally, finally do something concrete to put our politics into practice.
Sue Colley: Amazing. That is really amazing.
Darlene Lawson: Marion Boyd was the Attorney General during the NDP government, and she had been the director of the Battered Women’s Shelter in London. And when she was elected, she well knew the situation and the need for funding in women’s services.
Deb Parent: And that’s the advantage, and the necessity, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now would say in the US, the necessity of electing teachers and activists and bartenders and garbage collectors and real people who understand what needs to be done.
Darlene Lawson: All the people who are keeping the economy going through this pandemic, we might add.
Sue Colley: Absolutely true, isn’t it.
Do you think other services other than the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre and Interval House got co-opted in this way by accepting federal money? And I’m not talking about LIP and OFY here because those were pretty loosey-goosey, but after that when the Secretary of State Women’s Program started giving money and all these requirements needed to be fulfilled, as you described, Deb. Was there a debate in your sector about co-optation and whether that was happening or not?
Darlene Lawson: Well I was just going to say that of course yes, there would be – there was a conversation about it, but you know, it’s insidious. That’s the thing. It happens insidiously. So this is what I was talking about before, about the system starting to absorb organizations – or the needs that organizations at the cutting edge were filling starts to get absorbed into the system. And when that happens it’s a change in values, it’s a change in character.
So I felt like we went through a long period. It felt like almost a 20-year period where feminism and issues of violence against women and other feminist issues were not being talked about a lot. And then suddenly about eight, nine years ago, young women started speaking out about a variety of issues, and I feel like over the last 10 years the issue of violence against women and certainly the MeToo movement and some of the very high profile cases of misogyny that have been in the media have started to make a real difference. And I feel like there is a new generation of feminists and I feel like it’s a very different generation of feminists than we were, even though I feel so fortunate for what we were able to do during that time in the ’70s. But it is more diverse, it is more clear about intersectionality. It is very understanding of the importance of being allies and working together with other folks that are working on other issues.
And I feel very hopeful in a way, now, about the feminist movement. In some of the services I think that there are constraints with regard to funding but also the way in which it’s been absorbed into the system has meant that a lot of Interval Houses have not been able to do the kind of social activism that maybe some of the women there would have liked to, but it’s just not the same – the conditions are different than they were in the ’70s.
Sue Colley: And you were involved, a number of you, from – both transition houses and sexual assault centres – were involved in organizations like WAVAW, Women Against Violence Against Women, and LOOT , The Lesbian Organization of Toronto. And IWD, International Women’s Day. And maybe others that you were all involved in right? Can you talk about those alliances and how they intersected with your work in the services?
Deb Parent: As Dar mentioned, in the ’70s and even into the early ’80s we were riding the second wave of the women’s movement. We were also riding the wave of the gay liberation movement in ’69, 1970. And in some ways as women’s services we started because we had to, because there were no other options. And then we kind of became hoisted on our own success.
So for me I think it’s important to distinguish right now that when we’re talking about women’s services, the service element of the organization that is the raison d’etre, that is their purpose is to provide that service. And whatever offshoots of that are necessary to provide that service.
But the idea of political action or social action or protest or, I don’t think it’s fair to expect, service organizations to be able to do that these days. As Dar said, it’s a very different time. I think the demand for service has just grown exponentially over the last 20, 30 even 40 years. And having started those organizations, or created those organizations, we needed money to continue operating them. We needed money to pay the mortgage on the house, to make sure the lights were on, feed the women, pay the staff to stay there. I mean we just needed the money.
And so I don’t – we were always very careful about using the word co-optation because I don’t think that’s fair. I think every group has to decide that for themselves, what’s their line for themselves, right? So however organizations evolved with respect to funding, with respect to credentials, hiring, MSWs, I may have my own personal opinion about that, but I understand that that’s the path that they chose to go down.
What I see is that even when we had service organizations like the Rape Crisis Centre or transition houses operating, there was still, I think, that element of protest because as we’ve been talking about, the systemic nature of oppression was still being formulated, was still being articulated.
I think right now it’s understood that there is that systemic analysis. So in some ways there’s less – it takes more to generate that response. So Lesbians Against the Right, for example, came about in 1980 because Anita Bryant was touring and she was, you know, she was the Sunshine Girl, and she was incredibly homophobic and whipping up all kinds of homophobic sentiment. When lesbians knew that she was coming to Toronto, Lesbians Against the Right started as a direct protest to her visit. And out of that grew the first lesbian march in 1981.
So those kinds of situations I think we still see. When Trump was elected president I was able to co-chair the first women’s march here in Toronto with Kavita Dogra, and a beautifully diverse committee of women, some of who were experienced activists for 30, 40 years, and some who were brand new to activism but knew they needed to protest not only the racism and the sexism and the patriarchy they saw in the US but also here in Canada. Because the Conservatives, don’t forget, were also using a number of sort of dog whistles, as we say, to embed their own form of racism.
So even though that systemic analysis has been articulated for decades now there come moments where it is so horrendous, that are so untenable to us, when the people who are not directly affected by that incident get as angry as the people who are affected by that incident, that’s when change happens.
And that’s what largely comes out of that protest energy. Because we cannot abide any longer to sit by and watch it go on. So from the snuff protest, Dar, as you were mentioning in the 1970s, to today’s issues, whether it’s around the climate, whether it’s around race, whether it’s around gender. We’ve seen moments where more and more and more people, thanks to social media, have come together to raise their voices.
It’s no longer incumbent on service organizations or women’s organizations, and in fact it had to move out of those organizations for it to have any impact.
Sue Colley: Yeah. You’re so right.
Darlene Lawson: Very well said. Well it was interesting for me, just to jump on for a second, later, in the ’80s, to work at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Toronto, which of course was where there are a lot of inmates who are lesbian, who are indigenous, who are women of colour and so on. And you know, obviously a population of women whose oppression is manifested in their incarceration. And the advocacy that happened in the ’80s, particularly, and ongoing, around women in prison and the links between violence against their own experiences of violence and their incarceration, and the work that Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, especially under Kim Pate, who is now Senator Kim Pate who has done a tremendous job in advocating for incarcerated women for decades, was just one more example. Because for a number of years a lot of my energy was going into that particular form of violence against women, and where women were imprisoned and what conditions they were imprisoned in, and what sentences they were getting for what kinds of charges.
So I think that this business of social change, it’s everywhere, you know. And it’s all attached to each other.
An interesting story linking Deb and I in a way, is that again, a number of years later I worked at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic here in Toronto, a very diverse organization that provides language interpretation in, I don’t know, 50 some languages for women. But the very first Take Back the Night demonstration was in response to the murder of Barbra Schlifer, which would later, by her friends, like Barbara Hall and others, become the focal point for creating a clinic that provided counselling, legal services and interpretation for women who experienced violence.
And so the Rape Crisis Centre had its first Take Back the Night in response to Barbra Schlifer being killed in the The Beaches in – what
Deb Parent: No, it was definitely ’80 or ’81 because I was already at the Rape Crisis Centre so —
Darlene Lawson: And then yeah, I was involved with LOOT, which was a great organization in Toronto whicht existed from ’78 to ’80, and was again something that, you know, something that just sprang up. of women who wanted to create a space for women who were coming out, mostly, as lesbians at that point, for support; we had a counselling line; we had social things going on.
But once again it was another space where women who shared certain experiences could come together and talk about the individuality of their lives which we then came to recognize was individual but it was also part of a much bigger whole.
So this was a time when there was a lot, as we’ve said, it was the end of the ’60s, the early ’70s, it was a time of hope and change. But we never in Interval House intended it to be a Band-Aid or intended it to. Like Deb said, I think we believed back then that we were going to be able to eradicate violence against women. That was our belief. In part I think that was probably the motivation that this was something that we could actually have some power to stop. And you know, there’s over 500 shelters in Canada today, there are over 70 in Ontario alone that serve 17,000 women and children every year.
And so while there have been changes in police protocol and housing and you know, women entering the labour force, access to funds for education and a whole bunch of other things, changes to the law, the incidents of violence against women is not decreasing. The supports have increased, the violence against women continues to be a systemic pandemic around the world.
And that, I think, is hard to accept. And that’s in part why it’s so encouraging and heartening to see these young women, these young feminists who are getting involved in many, many different ways, whether it’s in as allies around incidents like the murder of George Floyd, or a million and one other things. Or it’s doing work regarding violence against women specifically, I feel so much happier that there are women like Tara who are doing this work, because it’s kind of appalling, beyond appalling, that violence against women is still such a huge problem in our world.
Sue Colley: So, can you assess how far along you think we are from these early hopeful days, your hopeful days? How far do you think we’ve come? Have we come further or have we gone back a bit? And you know, how would you assess that?
Deb Parent: Well, Darlene and I always tease each other about our stance on this, because I think Darlene teases me about being the Blue Sky Girl, or the optimist, and I think we’re both – you know, we’re both right in the sense that it’s hard to be here 40 years later in moments and realize here we are still. You know, one of the signs in the women’s march was, you know, my arms are tired from holding this sign since 1969. Right?
We are tired. I’m tired in one moment. Like Darlene said, I am buoyed, I am optimistic because not only do we have another wave of young feminists but what I’m most encouraged by is what I see as the intersectionality in our protest movements right now.
When we did that first Women’s March here in Toronto in 2017, in conjunction with the Women’s Marches in the US and all around the world, we had 60,000 people come to that march. The security at Queen’s Park said they hadn’t seen crowds like that since the 1990s when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and came to Toronto.
And what particularly encouraged me was it wasn’t all women. It was a lot of men. It was a lot of families. It was a lot of kids. So I loved that parents brought their kids – because I think that’s an important piece, right? We not only teach ourselves and our kids the analysis and how crucial the intersectionality is, but that we teach them that taking up space and protesting and that action is essential to making that change. All my feelings and all my words, while I do believe there are many ways, as Rumi said, there are many ways to kiss the Earth and come home – while all those ways are important, I do think that taking up space on the streets in peaceful protest is – especially in North America for primarily white people, it’s hard to do right? It’s hard to put your body on the line.
And so I feel the same way now with these waves of protests right now, these anti-racist protests, these police brutality protests, the calls for defunding the police or certainly changing the culture, the police culture, not only is it happening around the world but there are such diverse groups coming out in the middle of the pandemic, risking their own health and their own safety to say enough is enough.
So I like to use the quote that’s attributed to Martin Luther King, which is “the arc of history is long, but it always bends towards justice”. That’s my belief, and maybe I just need that personally to keep going. It’s like Darlene said, whatever personally motivates you to keep up the work, to keep up the fight, I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.
Sue Colley: Fantastic. So what do you think might be most interesting about this story, for activists and researchers in the current period? What you’re talking about is the arc of history and how it’s changing and events that are sort of outside of Interval House or the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre having a real impact on people’s response to injustice and the need for change.
But can you identify things about what happened at Interval House or Toronto Rape Crisis Centre as having elements that would be really interesting as part of the story?
Darlene Lawson: Well I think it’s true. I think everything has to be – everything is in its historical sense, And when we talk about whether things have changed or whether they’re getting better, whether they’re getting worse, again it all depends where you are. There are countries in the world, there are women in the world who are in extremely dire straits with no supports, no recognition, you know, rape is a weapon of war. It could go on and on and on.
In North America are there more supports than there were 40 years ago? No question about it. But as Deb said, we’re in the middle of this pandemic. France had to open special hotels for women and children because there was so much domestic violence during the lockdown. The women shelters in Canada have gotten way more calls during this period of time when everybody is locked down and locked in. We just had a horrific murder in Nova Scotia not long ago which was motivated by femicide.
You know, if you look at North America, yes, there is more to support women who are wanting to leave. But at the same time, as I said earlier, the incidents seem to just be continuing because the structural conditions have still not changed. People are talking a lot in the last couple of weeks about the systemic conditions that lead to the murder of black men in particular by the police. And racism generally. And that they are systemic conditions which people have been talking about now for decades.
And the same is true with violence against women. We have been talking about it for decades. So what’s the issue? The issue is that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the structures of our society. And many people have been saying through this pandemic when it’s become obvious who the people are who are keeping us going, who are the bus drivers, the grocery clerks, the staff in hospitals, all the people who are doing – the essential workers – is it about time that they start being paid properly? Is it about time that they start having a voice at the table as Deb said in electing people whose real lives reflect the barriers that the systemic conditions are creating?
And so I think what people need to look at then, and what people need to look at now, what all of us need to look at all the time, is what are the systemic conditions and why are the systemic conditions not changing. And that’s the protesting on the street, that’s the standing up against the interests that the status quo is working for, which some would say is the one percent.
Sue Colley: Well you’ve both given fantastic summaries there. I do have one more question to ask you if you’re comfortable with it. And that is whether you were ever a part of any organized political or activist group in the ’70s to ’90s. And if so which ones and the dates. And how your activism in the political arena impacted on your work with Interval House and/or the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre.
Darlene Lawson: Well I can go first because my history has been – my work history – has been that I’ve worked in women’s organizations and for the NDP. So there have been periods of times when I’ve been working, you know, as I said, at the Elizabeth Fry Society, and the Barbra Schlifer Clinic and so on and so forth. But I worked for the NDP during the time the NDP was the government. And then in the last number of years – Deb will speak about that too – we’ve both been involved, again, in the NDP and – you know, it’s interesting, I often say to people that it’s a fantastic opportunity because on the one hand I’ve spent a lot of time in organizations that are doing political work, but as Deb said, also in organizations whose main service objective is to help individual women and children.
And then to have the opportunity to work at a government level, or a political party level, the NDP was the government during that time, where you are actually making policy decisions that affect everybody. It’s like the policies and procedures that everybody operates under so you’re on the macro level. And it’s really interesting to have seen both sides. And after a while doing the individual level, I would want to be doing something that had broader implications for change. And after doing that for a while I’d feel like they were taking an awfully long time to implement these – not any particular party – just the way it happens – these broader changes and I wanted to go back to doing something to make a difference in the lives of individual women.
Darlene Lawson: But Deb had something to say about that too.
Deb Parent: I also want to just go back to the previous question, Sue, that you were asking that what can researchers glean from this period of time that we’re describing. And I’d like to think that the seeds of intersectionality, as it’s now being called, were absolutely planted during that time. And we stood on the shoulders of our grandmothers and grandfathers who also did labour organizing and feminist organizing and the civil rights movement. Nothing is ever unto itself.
But the ways in which we as feminists at that time were able to connect the dots, so to speak, or connect the different oppressions and look at liberation in a holistic way, you know, whether it was dealing with racism in the lesbian community or homophobia in the black community, looking at all the ways in which our respective communities understood one aspect of oppression and liberation but trying to broaden that.
So here we are 40 years later talking about intersectionality and that’s something that some of us, many of us I think, were talking about at least 40 plus years ago.
When it comes to political organizing I didn’t have that opportunity until 2008. But one of the things that I did undertake in the 1980s was to become a Wendo women’s self-defence instructor. And I just wanted to say that I did that in part because I needed to balance out – I needed something more proactive. It gave me a great opportunity to do a lot of yelling, which was very happy making. It also helped me pay some of the bills, which was also important. But it seemed like a very good fit with the work that I was doing at the Rape Crisis Centre to bring that analysis and bring everything that I was learning there into my work as an instructor.
And I’m still doing that 33 years later because I love that sense of empowerment in a three- hour class or 12-hour class – the ways in which it doesn’t take very much for us as women to come into ourselves.
I want to, you know, thank Darlene and Gisselle Yannis and Andrea Horvath for the opportunity to work on Andrea’s leadership campaign in 2008, 2009. We came together as a very small team to elect the first provincial – the first woman as a provincial leader of the NDP. Our slogan was “It’s Time”. Because we felt it was time for a woman to step into that role and take up that leadership. And that’s really been emblematic, I think, of all the organizing that Darlene and I have done over the years and hopefully will continue to do is the belief that it’s time. It’s time for liberation, it’s time for diverse leadership. It’s time, and I believe the pandemic is that time too, that’s right, to see and be and make the changes that we all so desperately want to live.
Sue Colley: Thank you. Thank you so much, both of you. That’s absolutely amazing.
Darlene Lawson: I’d like to just say one final thing if we’re closing up.
Sue Colley: Of course.
Darlene Lawson: Oh I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wanted to say three things in closing.
The first one is that I want to mention the women of the founding collective of Interval House for the record. Lynn Zimmer, Suzanne Alexanderson. Martha Ireland, Joice Guspie, Katharine Hanson, Maggie May O’Brien Longdon, Elizabeth Johnson, Marilyn Tinsley, Christine Poulter, and Barbara also known as Billie Stone and myself.
And yeah. I just wanted to put their names in the record, Sue, thank you.
And secondly to give a big shout out to all the staff and the volunteers and funders and everybody who’s involved in Interval House now, they’re doing, like, amazing, amazing work.
And this is so great, the project that you are doing, this Rise Up archive. I think it’s just absolutely fantastic and I’m so honoured to be a part of it here with you and Tara and Deb. So thank you.
Sue Colley: Thank you. We’re — I mean I’m completely honoured to have you participating in this because you have such a fabulous history and such an important one with ideas to tell us about where things have been and where they’re going to. So thank you for that.
Deb Parent: I’d also like to add my thanks to all the staff and volunteers of the Rape Crisis Centre over these past 40 – almost 50 years now. And to all the women who came to the Rape Crisis Centre for trusting us, to hold you and your experience and to – all of the things that we learned from those experiences. And I’d like to thank all of the – everyone including the Rise Up collective for documenting our history. We were so busy doing what we did, we had no idea we were making herstory, we had no idea that we needed to record it or note it in any way.
And for all of the gaps and all of the mistakes that we made at that time, I’m proud of where we’ve put ourselves, where we put our hearts, where we put our passion, and I do believe that we have contributed some small piece over the millennia to the world that we now see. And like Dar said, depending on where you are as a woman, your experience is going to be quite different. And I won’t see the change that I had hoped to see in my lifetime. But I absolutely believe in the power of the people.
So thank you again.
Sue Colley: Thank you. Thank you very much.