In 2020, the West Island Women’s Centre celebrated its 45th birthday, making us one of the oldest women’s centres in the Montreal area. The Centre’s origins lie in a conference on women that was organized by a group called the New Women’s Centre at John Abbott College in May 1975. Participants at the conference discussed the need for a women’s centre on the West Island and from this, with the input of some determined and visionary women, the Centre was born.
The Centre officially opened in the Lakeshore Unitarian Church on Cedar Avenue in Pointe-Claire on November 10, 1975. In the early days, the Centre offered programs three mornings a week, with crafts on Tuesdays, “coffee and chat” on Wednesdays, and discussions and guest speakers on Thursdays.
In 1976, the Centre was forced to close when its Local Initiative Project grant ran out. During this period, one of the members stored the Centre’s very small collection of possessions — a telephone, toy library, and some files — in her basement. This same member posted flyers around the neighbourhood in the hope of once again opening up the Centre. Happily, the flyers worked. A small group of women gathered at Valois United Church for a first meeting to resurrect the Centre as a volunteer-run association. At the meeting, a collection was gathered to pay for a month’s rent and hire a sitter. The group planned programs together and before long, the Centre was up and running once again. Reflecting back on this tumultuous time in our organization’s history, one of the founding members writes: “It was a wonderfully exciting time for us all.” By September 1979, the Centre’s membership had grown to 125.
In 1977, Centraide came to the Women’s Centre’s rescue. Since that time, Centraide has continued to provide our organization with core funding. In recent years, we have also received significant support from our provincial government through the programme de soutien aux organismes communautaires. In addition, over the years, the Centre has benefited from the financial support of local policitians and municipalities. Fundraising has also played a major part; from Premiere Coupon books to bazaars, car washes, dances, fashion shows and now our annual silent auction, members have always played a key role in keeping the Centre financially stable.
Over the years, membership at the Centre has grown and so too have our services. Back in the fall of 1994, the Centre offered 23 daytime courses between Monday and Thursday and no evening classes. In the winter of 1998, the very first evening course was offered, but it was not until the winter of 2000 that evening courses really took hold. The Centre now regularly holds 45 to 50 classes a session with evening courses running four nights a week. Membership tops 600 every year.
In 1997, after undergoing a formal restructuring of the board of directors, the Centre hired its first executive director, bringing the number of paid office staff up to two. Today, our team comprises eight regular staff plus a number of childcare workers.
By 2005, the Centre turned its gaze outwards to the community more than ever before. Up until that point, the Centre’s outreach work consisted of our free evening support groups for women. In the fall of 2005, the Centre began participating in networking groupings of community organizations and introduced “Time for Two,” an arts and crafts program for vulnerable families.
More outreach activities have followed in the intervening years — aided in no small part by our community outreach coordinator, who joined the Centre’s team in the fall of 2007. “Time for Two” has been joined by “New Connections and the Quebec Workplace,” a program to help recent immigrants find their way in their newly adopted country and our highly successful in-school program for teenage girls offering workshops on online issues and safety, sex and sexuality, and self-defence. In one particularly busy year, we provided workshops to 781 students in 12 local French and English secondary schools. Two monthly support groups have also been added and currently support women dealing with miscarriage, still birth or infant death and also help new mothers through the postpartum months.
In 2010, our 35th anniversary year, our organization moved for the first time in over 30 years. Although we moved only a few streets to our new home at St. Columba-by-the-Lake Church, it was a huge milestone in our history. What precipitated this move? Our members, volunteers and staff had long recognized the need for a new home — one large enough to accommodate our ever-growing membership, programs and activities and to allow us to run all our activities under one roof. Prior to the move, courses were being run at three different locations in the Valois area. It was challenging to find a suitable space, but eventually the opportunity at St. Columba presented itself.
Before we actually made the move to our new home, the space needed to be renovated to suit our needs. With very little time at our disposal, the Centre’s staff, board of directors, and other volunteers worked at a rapid pace with our new landlord and building professionals through the summer. Our goal: to open in time for the fall session in mid-September. In the end, the Centre opened on Monday, October 4, 2010, but we still managed to complete a 10-week fall session. Looking back, it is clear that this huge accomplishment was only possible through the dedication and remarkable accomplishments of an amazing team of staff, volunteers and a truly inspired leader: the chair of our board of directors.
Since the move to St. Columba, our organization has experienced a dramatic increase in our membership and programs. The new premises have allowed our Centre to expand our daily hours of operation, evening activities, and to offer a full five-day weekly schedule.
Although we have grown significantly over the years, the same fundamental principles remain at the heart of our organization: we are an organization of women helping women to lead fulfilling lives. From those pioneering women who got everything started back in the ’70s to those who have continued their work through the ’80s, ’90s, and into the present day – the list of women who have given their time and talents to our Centre is a long one. Thanks to their dedication, the Centre has made a difference in the lives of many. Together, we have created a stronger community for us all.
And, of course, our story continues.