Transcript: Immigrant Women create the Working Women Community Centre, 1975

Introduction: In response to the recognition that a lot of immigrant women were marginalized either because they were unemployed or underemployed, Tamam McCallum applied for funding to start the Working Women Community Centre in Toronto’s west end. Marcie Ponte – a long time volunteer and staff at the centre – talks to Rise Up about the early days of the Centre, the services offered by the Centre, the immigrant women who used the services, and how the Centre helped to support those immigrant women.
Sue Colley: My name is Sue Colley and I’m from Rise Up Feminist Digital Archive, and today I’m interviewing Marcie Ponte from Working Women Community Centre. Marcie, would you like to introduce yourself and say a few words about yourself, please?
Marcie Ponte: Sure, so, I am the Executive Director of the Working Women Community Centre. I have been so since October of ’99. However, I’ve been involved with the agency or connected to it since about 1976 when I was involved in the first incorporated board of directors. And then, I sat on the board for two different consecutive terms in the 80s and in the late 90s. So, I have a long history with the agency. I’m not the founder, however, I want to be really clear. But I have a history with the agency.
Sue Colley: Thank you, that’s great. Well, you’re the perfect person, then, to tell us about what happened.
Marcie Ponte: I will try.
Sue Colley: [Laughs] OK, so, how and why, then, did the Working Women Community Centre get established?
Marcie Ponte: Well, it was in the 70s, mid-70s, and the founder, Tamam who is now known as Tamam McCallum – at that point was Judith McCallum – is a very creative person, she actually created a number of organizations in the City. But it was just the need to respond to the women who were coming to Canada, immigrating to Canada and seeking employment, and needing the kinds of support that they needed. And at that time, there were women coming from the Caribbean, many of whom were coming as domestic workers, women coming from places like Chile and Brazil. The coup in Chile took a bad turn and so many progressive women came to Canada. And then, women from Portugal, many of whom were coming from the Azores following the coup in that country. And women like my mother, although we came in ’63, came to join my father who’d been here living for a couple of years. So, those were the three principle communities that the centre was originally conceived to support.
Sue Colley: And was your mother from Portugal, too?
Marcie Ponte: Yes, my family’s from the Azores.
I was working at St. Stephen’s Community House, I was all of 17 years old. The centre was created in ’74, conceived in ’74, established in ’75, incorporated in ’76, ’77. And it was really timing – Tamam, or Judith – was a very creative person who was able to really find the niche of what was needed in communities and to service immigrant women. And employment was a big deal, everyone was coming in looking for work and so that was the really important time in the City of Toronto, especially downtown Toronto.
Sue Colley: So, what kinds of services and programs did the centre operate?
Marcie Ponte: Initially, it was employment support, so the original name of the centre was Women’s Community Employment Centre. And it was – originally to help women find jobs, do interviews. I mean, resumes weren’t a big deal at that time, but really it was connecting women to employersand where the jobs were. It was really the crux of what the centre was created for in those days.
Sue Colley: And did you have a lot of luck finding employers to come to you?
Marcie Ponte: Well, I wasn’t working at the centre at the time, but I think because the centre was one of the few, other than Times Change at the time, Working Women – or the Women’s Community Employment Centre – was the only place for women – immigrant women to go. So, yes, if employers were looking for domestic workers, then it was the place to go, absolutely. And at the time, because the centre was located at the St. Stephens-on-the-Field Church at Bellevue and College, it was very close to Spadina Avenue, which was, at that time, the garment alley: a lot of garment factories. And so, a lot of women ended up working in those factories.
Sue Colley: And then, you got the idea or somebody got the idea for the Modistas Unidas Sewing Centre.
Marcie Ponte: So, well, I was on the board from 1980 to about ’84, again. And in those years, we decided – the centre decided – to create a collective – called Modistas Unidas – which was a collective of all Portuguese women at the time – which explains the name, to establish a collective of women who could create garments for sale, as a way to make, generate some income. At the time, we had – the name’s escaped me – I’m sorry – a young designer who worked with the collective, and we had a coordinator who was out looking for buyers. And so, it became a bit of a business for the women to generate some income. And following that, not– long after that, the Women into Electronics was created.
Sue Colley: I just have to ask you about the Modistas. Was the designer Linda Moffatt?
Marcie Ponte: Linda Moffatt was the coordinator.
The designer’s name escapes me, she was a very young woman, she went on to become – you know, do her own thing. But, no, Linda Moffatt was the coordinator.
Marcie Ponte: I was the board rep for the Modistas.
Sue Colley: Right, I only wanted to know because I thought, yeah, I remember that. I think we were quite friendly, and our kids went to the same school and childcare.
Marcie Ponte: Is that right?
Sue Colley: Yeah. So, that’s how I knew her really. And then, of course, they went off to Africa. I’ve never heard from them since. I don’t know where they are.
Marcie Ponte: No, yeah, we lost track of Linda many years ago when she left and then Modistas sort of went – folded. But she was wonderful, she was able to take the group from being just a collective – a group of women into something really special where women could actually generate income, she was really quite ingenious that way.
Sue Colley: That’s great. So, why did it fold, then?
Marcie Ponte: I think part of it was just funding. We had a bit of money, grant money. But also, it was when Linda left and there was no – nothing to keep it going, no one to keep it moving, it just folded out. But, you know, the interesting thing is, I live at Dufferin and Bloor, and there was one of the women, pre-Covid,who lives in the same neighbourhood, and I’d forgotten about her, and she would walk by the Working Women’s Centre, which is, like, Gladstone on Bloor, and she would always say hello, and she was one of the original Modistas. And then I, at No Frills at Dufferin Mall where I used to shop, I shop local now during Covid, I was standing in a cashier line and this women tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You don’t remember me,” I said, “No, I don’t,” and she said, “Well, I was one of the Modistas.” And so, you know, it’s been a long time, but people still have memories of it – because it was such a unique experience for the women.
Sue Colley: OK, sorry, I interrupted you because you wanted to tell me about the electronics I think.
Marcie Ponte: Yeah, so, in that same period when I was – on the board and then I continued on, the centre coordinated, again, very ahead of its time, a program called Women into Electronics, immigrant women into electronics. And it was done in partnership with Humber College. And, again, it was recruiting immigrant women to try something – a new career. And I was working in the labour movement at that point, and I was brought in to speak to the women a couple times about their employment rights and it was one of those things where, you know, Working Women was a centre ahead of its time in being creative and ingenious about the kinds of programs that women needed and, really, you know, it impacted women’s lives.
Sue Colley: Right. So, it taught women. And did women get jobs in electronics?
Marcie Ponte: Some women did. Well, that was the whole point, it was to provide training so that they could move on to good paying jobs, because a lot of the women, at least the Portuguese women that I was connected to, were domestic workers; they were cleaners. And so, this was an opportunity to give them a leg up in something totally different that paid better and could – provide benefits. Not much different than what we’re doing today.
Sue Colley: Right, that’s right, you mean still doing domestic work.
Marcie Ponte: Exactly.
Sue Colley: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Marcie Ponte: 40 years later, we’re still doing it.
Sue Colley: I know, we say the same thing of course about childcare [laughs].
Marcie Ponte: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Sue Colley: It drives you nuts. Right. Well, what role did Humber College play?
Marcie Ponte: They provided instruction, they had an electronics program and they provided instruction, and the classroom space for the program.
Sue Colley: Great, OK. All right. And so, and why was this mainly Portuguese women?
Marcie Ponte: Well, in the electronics program it was a mix, it was a mix of women, very diverse. It wasn’t in the Modistas which was just for Portuguese women, but the electronics program was any immigrant woman interested.
Sue Colley: And were you seeing changes in immigration patterns by the 80s?
Marcie Ponte: Yes, absolutely. For 20 years, the centre was primarily Portuguese and Spanish serving, because the women from the Caribbean went off and created their own organization with the support of the centre. But by about 1997, we started to see an influx of new women, and at that point, the centre expanded its services to continental Africans that were coming to Canada, to Toronto. And so, it started to evolve in about 1995.
Sue Colley: That’s interesting, maybe we’ll come back to that, because it’s later in the story. But [there was] the South Asian Women’s Centre and Working School Centre, also, in between, wasn’t there?
Marcie Ponte: Yes, so – I wrote down the date. So, the South Asian Women’s Centre was in 1981 to ’82. A group of women came along and wanted to create a centre similar to Working Women for South Asian women but had no place to go. And so, Working Women housed them at our Gladstone site and provided mentorship, organizational mentorship for the centre. And then, eventually in about ’83, ’84, they, again, the women from the Caribbean, went off and created their own – established their own organization. So, yeah, the other Work and Skill Centre was created.
Sue Colley: Does the South Asian Women’s Centre still exist?
Marcie Ponte: Yes, and they’re not far from us; they’re just at Lansdowne just south of Dupont. But, yes, they’ve been around since – they’re still in existence. And then, the Work and Skill Centre was also created in 1978, that was one of the earlier ones. So, the Work and Skill Centre was created through Working Women in about 1978, ’79. And again, it was skills training based where women were training to work in the post office, mail sorters. And again, it was for all immigrant women. The centre then went off and – about 1980, ’81 – went off and established its own organization, with the support of Working Women.
Sue Colley: That’s great. That’s amazing actually. So, how were you funded for all these programs? And the existence of the centre.
Marcie Ponte: You mean, during these programs?
Sue Colley: How did the funding evolve?
Marcie Ponte: Well, there was funding through Skills Development. The original funding for the creation of the centre was from a thing called a LIP program, a funding program, you probably remember that. Many organizations in Toronto were created with the LIP program. But it was just whatever money became available through skills training; that was how these things got started.
Sue Colley: That’s great. So, you were talking about the late 90s and how the base of the Working Women’s Centre had changed. Did you have to change your program and orientation because of that? Or was it similar – you did similar kinds of things?
Marcie Ponte: The centre evolved over the years to include settlement programs as settlement money became available through the federal government. It also – we were one of the first to provide link classes for newcomers to Canada. And so, it just evolved as funding became available. When I came to the centre in 1999, I was actually on the board and I decided to apply for the job. I think we were primarily Portuguese and Spanish speaking, although we had one counsellor who was also providing support to continental Africans in the Jane-Finch community. But we have since evolved into providing services in about 25 languages.
Sue Colley: Wow.
Marcie Ponte: Yeah, in four locations across the City. So, we’ve gone from one little spot at Gladstone and Bloor to at the four corners of the City, providing a myriad of services. But the majority of the original programming continues. So, we have one – a very large link centre with 21 classes, literacy to level seven, day and evening, with child minding for 26 children. We have probably just under 500 people who access that program. We still continue to provide settlement services, we have 12 settlement counsellors. So, and we have other programs that we provide, but, yes, it’s just grown as we’ve seen the needs evolve and communities evolve.
Sue Colley: So, a lot of what you’re doing now is the newcomer programs.
Marcie Ponte: Yes.
Sue Colley: So, what do you think of those? How do you – do you think the money is going to the right place? Are they doing the right things? Are immigrants, both men and women, benefiting from them? I’m just interested to know what you think about them.
Marcie Ponte: Well, I often think if organizations like ours were not available for newcomers, I shudder to think how they would manage. Because what we provide – we treat people as – it’s a holistic approach. And so, when someone comes in and says, “I have an immigration issue,” or “I need to get my OHIP,” I need to get whatever, we’re also able to talk to them about what else is going on in their lives. And so, for women, it might be they’re in an abusive situation, we have counsellors on staff who are able to support that. If it’s a question of getting their children into school and preparing their children for school because they don’t understand the Canadian system, we have programs that provide those services. So, yeah, I mean, I think because we’re able to provide a holistic approach, we look at the whole person.
And I, you know, there are a lot of people who struggle through the system trying to establish themselves in a new country, especially if they’ve come from war torn countries. It’s really difficult if they’ve come for political reasons, – they’ve walked away from all of the – all of their lives, their homes. We have foreign-trained – about two years ago, two, three years ago, I had five doctors working for me. These are people who don’t imagine themselves ever working as doctors again. I have two, actually, who are still working for me as settlement counsellors. You know, like, so, organizations like ours provide that support, emotional as well as helping to manage whatever struggles they’re going through, and paperwork that they need resolved. So, I think organizations like Working Women provide huge benefits for newcomers.
Sue Colley: Yeah.
Marcie Ponte: And we’re able to ease that immigration process. We’re able to make it a seamless process. We can accelerate it for them a lot quicker than they could by themselves.
Sue Colley: I realized that there’s a lot of acclaim internationally for this new program we have and I wondered how it stacked up in reality. But you’re actually saying that provided your kind of services are available, it’s pretty good, right?
Marcie Ponte: Well, I think that we’re able to ease the process. You know, if you come from a war torn country, you’re coming with a lot of that anxiety, right? And being able to come and sit with someone who may have experienced that same experience, gone through the same experience, it’s a mirror of yourself, right? You’re able to talk about the issues that are affecting you with someone who may have gone through it, as well. But we also do things – we embrace the arts, for example. About 10, maybe 15 years ago, we embraced the arts as a vehicle for helping newcomers deal with their issues as newcomers. And it really does have impact, because it’s not always – people don’t always want to come and just sit with someone and, you know, have one person hear them. But the power of sitting in a room with other people who have gone through the same experience, who can share that experience while they’re doing some artwork, while they’re experiencing – you know, developing and creating something – but they’re sharing their experiences. Sometimes it’s far more valuable than sitting with a counsellor one to one. We embrace a lot of that kind of work.
Sue Colley: And it’s really interesting that in a way these skills and understanding and knowledge you have, come from the fact that you started so early and you worked with women particularly, but also that you’ve got so much experience and ideas under your belt that you’re able to bring that to fruition in a period like this; it’s amazing, actually.
Marcie Ponte: Yeah, well, I was trained by some of the best. You probably – I don’t know if you remember Sidney Pratt?
Sue Colley: Yeah. You did an interview with her, didn’t you? Yeah.
Marcie Ponte: And Brenda Duncombe, Mary Ellen Nettle and Sidney Pratt were three women who for years were my mentors – well, Sidney is the only one still alive and I’m still very close to. She lives in Recife, Brazil. They taught me the value of this work, and the notion that it’s not about us but rather the clients. It’s not about me doing the work, it’s about how it impacts people’s lives. And so, it behooves us to be creative about how we do that. You know, when I think about the arts program, when we started – it was a fluke, we applied for a grant at Toronto Arts Council and we got a resident – artist in residency, and we sent her up to the link centre; she had a group of newcomers, and when they come to the link centre, they’re in Canada generally less than a year, right? And we set up a painting class. And by the time it was finished, we had this young guy – Iranian guy – come to us and say, “You know, I came to Canada, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to paint again.”
He was an artist back in Iran, and he thought he’d never be able to do this again. He was lost as to what he could do with himself, and when the program finished, he said, “Can I run a program?” So, we said, “Sure!” So, we went, you know, simple things, we went to the Dollar Store, got him some canvases, got him some paint, he ran the program, he did a fabulous job, and then, went on and got hired to paint murals in high-end restaurants in the City of Toronto. Sometimes it’s just a little thing, you know. We think it’s, “Oh, it’s cute, and it’s –,” you know, but the impact of some of these ideas can be huge in someone’s life. But – and he was a perfect example.
Sue Colley: So, tell us a bit about advocacy and what Working Women’s Community Centre – what role did you play in advocacy during that period?
Marcie Ponte: Funnily enough, the one advocacy piece that I remember really clearly was again in the early 80s. I was actually the coordinator of Women Working with Immigrant Women at the time. And it was with the International Women’s Day committee. We had to, you know, we had to fight to have a place in the march. And I recall sitting at a room with the IWD committee and myself and a few other women from Working Women, saying, “We want – IWD has to be more than just about white women, it has to include immigrant women, women of colour,” and we had to really fight to get our place in the march. And visibility. Not just our place in the march but be visible.
And that was actually my first act of advocacy within the sector. Scary. It was frightening, because I was quite young. I think I was all of 19, 20. And, you know, it really taught me a lot about how to have these conversations, that it doesn’t have to be adversarial, but that you need to be able to formulate your case. And in the end, Working Women, along with Women Working with Immigrant Women, led the parade, the march, that year. And that was really significant for the immigrant women’s sector in the 80s; it was really significant, because we were no longer just those people over there, and those women working with immigrants. We were part of the movement.
Sue Colley: Right. And this was ’81 I think.
Marcie Ponte: Yes.
Sue Colley: And after that, didn’t the immigrant – Women Working with Immigrant Women take over the leadership of IWD?
Marcie Ponte: Yes we did.
Sue Colley: I didn’t realize that you were involved in it, because I’ve got one interview left to do – actually, two – and I’m going to do it with Judy Persaud and Carolyn Egan, talking about exactly what you’re talking about. So, this is fabulous, because it sets the context and brings it in from another angle. But I would – I’ve thought about it, you could have done it, too, I’m sorry. This is good anyway, this is quite nice. Any other kinds of advocacy that you remember over the years?
Marcie Ponte: I’m sure there is, but, you know what, my 64 year old mind is dwindling. Yeah.
Sue Colley: Yeah, I know that at some point, the family allowance issue was a big one for immigrant women, wasn’t it? No? Or maybe that was before your time.
Marcie Ponte: I think that was before my time. There was also wages for housework that was a big issue. That was, again, before my time.
Sue Colley: Yeah, we interviewed Judy Ramirez about wages for housework.
Marcie Ponte: OK, yeah. You know, the thing – I was looking through lists of women who have been in the sector, and there aren’t very many from that generation who are still active and working in the sector. So, it’s interesting to go back and have these conversations.
Sue Colley: It’s really important actually. It’s very valuable.
Marcie Ponte: Absolutely. And I was five to 10 years younger than most of them. So, you know, but they – a lot of those women – were the real fighters for the sector.
Sue Colley: Yeah. Wasn’t Judith MacCallum also involved in establishing the alternative primary school?
Marcie Ponte: She was involved in establishing the [unintelligible] Children’s Drop-In Centre. And, yes, she was involved in that, as well. She was involved – she created the Turtle House program, which has since dissolved. We’ve taken over the family program. But she was a very creative person. Always on the cutting edge of what communities needed. Yeah.
Sue Colley: No, first of all, let me ask you if we’ve left anything out here that you really would like to talk about.
Marcie Ponte: Well, you know, the other thing that is really interesting is, the Working Women Community Centre was one of the first agencies to become unionized in the sector. And this was – I was on the board, as I said, from 1980 to ’83. And on the board were people – fabulous women like Barb Jackman – who I’m sure you remember – Diana Abraham was on the board, Arlene Moscovitz and we had heard rumblings amongst the staff about, you know, there was just some rumblings about how work was happening. And so, we, as the board, which is so – when I tell this story now in the sector, I get laughed at. It was the board who invited Barb Linds – I don’t know if you remember Barb Linds from OPSEU -, who I’m still very connected to, invited Barb to come to a meeting to talk to the board of directors to say – to tell us, what’s the advantage of having a union? And after about an hour speaking with Barb, we said, OK, here you go, here’s the list of staff, go and organize.
When I tell that story to my staff now, because we – we’re still unionized with OPSEU, we have 130 staff, about half of them are unionized, and when I tell them this, they just – they don’t believe it, because it’s rare that it’s the employer who invites the union to come into a workplace. But, you know what that says is that it’s significant of the time, of the people who were involved, women who were involved in the sector. We were women who believed in what we were doing, had a social conscience, and believed in social justice, and we did it for those reasons, we didn’t do this work, and I still don’t, for the money. We did it because we believed in equality, we believed in equal access and social justice. And so, bringing the union in was a no-brainer, it was, like, yeah, sure, why not?
Sue Colley: A similar thing happened with childcare centres, actually.
Marcie Ponte: Yeah, well, we were very lucky with OPSEU, and I still – and every now and then, I remind Barb that she said this to us. You know, she said, “You know, the last – the worst thing you can do as employers is be afraid of unionization and be afraid to have conversations with the union. So, you know, go into these conversations like equals.” And so, when I go to the bargaining table, I start – because I negotiate all of our agreements, I start with that. It’s, like, we’re here as equals, right? And it throws them off because it’s just so unheard of. But I come from that generation, right? Which – and so, it was great training for me. It forever stays with me.
Sue Colley: Right. So, that is an interesting story, I agree. Why are only half of your staff unionized today?
Marcie Ponte: Well, because we have programs where staff are part-time, and there are cut-offs. And so, staff, if you work 21 hours, you’re immediately – automatically – in the union. If you work less than that, you’re not. And so, it’s funder dependent.
Sue Colley: Yeah, that’s right. I can understand that. I think you’re lucky to have funding, I wish we could get it. Alright, so, how do you think this story will go down in history? What was its importance to the history of the struggle against, for instance, violence against women or against lack of opportunity for women, for newcomer women, and so on?
Marcie Ponte: Well, I think the centre set the stage for how this work can be done and should be done. That, you know, we’re about protecting women, we’ve always been about protecting women from violence. And, you know, our reputation precedes us. I mean, we, you know, we’re creative, we’re risk taking, we, you know, I’ve always come into this work thinking, we try everything once. If it works, great, let’s carry it on, let’s make it bigger and better, if it doesn’t, well, we learned something. And so, I think that’s [laughs] – that’s really worked for our – to our benefit. It’s allowed us to be creative. And I’ve also taken the view that, you know, funders, they’re just people. You know, if we treat them like the enemy, they’re going to be the enemy. If we are able to say to them – explain what we’re doing and the impact that we’re having on women’s lives, it really worked to our benefit. I think funders have really believed in what we’re doing and see it for what it’s worth. And so, I think historically we’ll go down as a centre that was innovative, creative, but had impact and had meaning – meaningful impact on women’s lives.
Sue Colley: Great.
Marcie Ponte: And, you know, we have – Sue, we have a couple of donors who are – were children of families who, when they came to Canada, Working Women was the place they came to. And these two donors remember that. And every time they come and they donate products or money, it always comes from that – it always starts from that perspective that this centre saved my family’s life.
Sue Colley: Wonderful, that’s fantastic.
Marcie Ponte: Right? And that speaks for itself, as far as I’m concerned.
Sue Colley: Yeah. So, and this is an interesting story for activists and researchers as you just said I think. Is there anything else we’ve forgotten here?
Marcie Ponte: I don’t think so. Just to say that, you know, I continue the tradition of hiring people who – it’s about – 30% of our staff are people who came to Canada as immigrants. And came to us as clients, became volunteers, and now work for us. And that – I’m very proud of that, because, you know, it’s important that people – clients see mirrors of themselves when they walk into the centre, that we’re not just, you know, here to fill out your form, but we relate, we are able to understand and can relate to the client sitting in front of us.
Sue Colley: That’s great, fantastic. That’s actually really an important point, certainly. It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to do that through the years, yeah. Yeah. But it makes complete sense.
Marcie Ponte: And it’s important to value people’s experience. And, you know, if we can provide employment on top of it, [laughs] so much the better.
Sue Colley: Yeah, because some of these organizations have sort of become mirrors of themselves
Marcie Ponte: Yeah, well, and I’m also – one of the things that Sidney has reinforced with me over the years is it’s, you know, I’m the ED, but it’s not about me. Right? What’s important is the organization – that I work to establish the organization so that it carries on, right? And that carrying on has to be with people who understand what it’s like to come here and what it’s like to immigrate and have to find employment and have to go through that whole settlement process. That’s what makes it successful and that’s what gives it its dignity and its heritage.
Sue Colley: Great. I’m going to ask you one more question I just thought of, because I remember [reading] in this booklet about one woman’s statement about how much more funding you got under the NDP government in – back in 1990. And I was just trying to – I mean, maybe you could tell us about that, but also, do you think your existence is ever threatened by government or that you feel being able to carry on, et cetera, is very influenced by government, given that’s who funds you?
Marcie Ponte: So far, not so much. I mean, we’ve been very successful in, as I said, developing those relationships and maintaining good relationships with funders. You know, we don’t treat them like the enemy. We treat them like partners, and that’s worked to our benefit. The funding during the NDP government, I think a lot of us got funding under the NDP government. And, you know, the fear is when the government – when the NDP government lost, we went through those horrible years of, what’s going to happen next? But we survived it. I mean, I think it speaks to the resiliency of the sector. You know, we are a resilient organization that can – has been able to weather political storms.
Sue Colley: Yeah. That’s fantastic.
Marcie Ponte: Thank you.
Sue Colley: You’re welcome, thank you very much.