Jan knew she had to leave.
It was 1973 and her husband spent most days drinking and seething with rage. One afternoon, he smacked her on the back of the head, knocking her to the floor and nearly cracking her skull on a wall. When the police arrived, he was sitting in his chair watching TV as though nothing had happened. Officers questioned him, then Jan, then him again. She remembers clearly what they said to her next.
“They said, ‘You behave yourself,'” recalls Jan, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her children’s identities. “They couldn’t do anything more… It was a ‘he said, she said.'”
In a time when women were expected to keep the peace at home, the 29-year-old had tried everything to avoid her husband’s temper. Her parents were dead and his family expected the couple to work out their marital problems. She had no money of her own and no idea how to start over. Jan knew she had to leave—but she had nowhere to go.
A problem with no name
In the early 1970s, domestic violence was still a problem with no name—a private reality for many women, but not an issue considered the business of government or police. It was in this setting that a group of young feminists set about opening the first shelter for abused women and children in Canada.
The founders of Toronto’s Interval House had to fight for everything they gained and laid the groundwork for the problem of violence against women to be brought to light. Today, Canada has hundreds of shelters that give women a chance to escape abusive relationships.
And it all began with a hand-scrawled note on a wall.
Lynn Zimmer was an idealistic 24-year-old who had worked as a reporter for the women’s page of the Peterborough Examiner. She had also spent a depressing year in law school, where a professor would entertain his mostly male students with “funny” sex assault cases.
In the summer of 1972, she found herself at loose ends in Toronto and began volunteering at Women’s Place, a run-down house on Dupont Street.
Feminists had formed centres like Women’s Place across Canada. They were meant to be locations for political organizing, but to the surprise of activists, women who had been beaten or raped started showing up asking for help. They had no jobs, no income and needed an address before they could apply for welfare.
Zimmer discovered there was one shelter that could take families in Toronto, but it had originally been designed for veterans. “You had to line up to get a bar of soap,” she recalls. “For us, that was the cutoff point.” So, Zimmer tacked a note on the wall of Women’s Place, asking anyone who was interested in creating a women’s crisis shelter to come to a meeting.
There had never been a place like this
Darlene Lawson saw Zimmer’s sign and wanted to help.
The 23-year-old had been inspired by feminist writing and activism and she understood that changes were needed to put women on equal footing with men. “I wanted to be a part of making those changes,” she says.
At their first meeting, Lawson, Zimmer and several other women sat around a table. They included Billie Stone, a 34-year-old mother who worked in an addictions centre and Martha Ireland, a 21-year-old who was about to enter the fourth year of a degree she hated. The group of 11 founders also includes Chris Poulter, Suzanne Alexanderson, Katherine Hanson, Maggie Longdon, Marilyn Tinsley, Joice Guspie and Elizabeth Johnson.
Their idea started to take shape. The shelter needed to feel like a home, with healthy meals and shared chores. It would be a “stepping off” place for women to begin the next chapter of their lives. “There never had been a place like this,” says Lawson. “We learned everything as we went.”
They had no experience with finding space or raising funds, but they eventually secured a grant from a federal government program focused on youth employment. By January 1973, they were each earning a salary of $100 a week minus deductions. “It’s the whole thing about being young and foolish,” says Ireland. “You don’t know that you shouldn’t try.”
United Way chipped in $1,200 for first and last month’s rent on a large house at 173 Spadina Rd. in the Annex area of Toronto. The women had to become amateur painters and contractors, and they needed everything. “We would drive through Forest Hill and Rosedale on garbage night and get furniture that people had put out,” recalls Lawson with a chuckle, referring to affluent neighbourhoods. Finally, the founders all chipped in $5 to stock the kitchen with healthy food.
On April 1, 1973, Interval House opened its doors.
Jan’s husband had slapped her across the face more times than she could count. He’d threatened to break their four-year-old son’s legs. He’d threatened to kill her.
After he smacked her on the back of the head that day, she dizzily stumbled to her feet.
“It’s over. Done,” she remembers sputtering.
She called a marriage counsellor, who told her about a new place called Interval House. She arranged to become a resident, but had to wait to make her escape.
Her husband was watching her. After she told him it was over, he stayed home every day for a month. Finally, on April 11, 1973, he gave in to the urge to go out for a drink.
Jan’s heart pounded as she called the taxi. When it arrived and she began frantically throwing belongings into the trunk, her son stood in the front room and cried. “He was picking up on my panic,” she says. “I was terrified [my husband] was going to come walking in the door.”
She calmed him down and strapped him in a seat next to his two-year-old sister. As the taxi pulled away, she remembered she had left some family photographs on the counter. “That’s all right,” she recalls thinking. “They’re gone.”
“I would talk and I would talk and I would talk”
As Jan walked through the front door of Interval House, she felt an immediate wave of relief wash over her and her children. They moved into a spacious room on the second floor with a sunroom attached. Her daughter still remembers a Fisher Price school house she played with. Her son was finally able to stop worrying about his mom. “There was no fighting anymore,” she says.
During the two months she stayed there, she only got a couple hours of sleep every night. For the first time, she had someone to talk to about how she had been treated. “I would talk and I would talk and I would talk,” she remembers. “I was talking their ear off. They said that’s what they’re there for.”
The founders of Interval House were shocked by what residents told them. “From the very beginning, every woman who came to us was experiencing some kind of horrendous level of physical and emotional violence,” says Zimmer. “We started to realize that there were all these stories but they were all very quiet. It was a completely unknown social issue… There wasn’t even a word for it.”
Over the next nine months, shelters for abused women opened in Abbotsford, Calgary, Saskatoon and Vancouver, says Margo Goodhand, who has chronicled the movement in an upcoming book, Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists. “It was spontaneous combustion,” she says. “It was pre-Internet. They didn’t know anyone else was doing this.”
By 1980, there were 63 battered women’s shelters in Canada, and by 1987 there were 264, writes historian Nancy Janovicek in No Place to Go: Local Histories of the Battered Women’s Shelter Movement.
The women’s movement changed the discussion around violence in the home, she says. Before the 1970s, experts thought of abuse as a symptom of family dysfunction and poverty. Feminists rejected this because it placed equal blame on the perpetrator and the victim. But convincing politicians it was the community’s responsibility to help abused women was an uphill battle, says Janovicek.
Lawson says often when they approached organizations or government officials to ask for funding, people were taken aback by Interval House’s mission. People thought “we were creating an issue where there wasn’t really an issue,” she says.
The early media coverage also illustrated how the public thought about domestic violence.
On July 21, 1973, the Toronto Star ran a story about Interval House with the headline “The rising wave of runaway wives.” While the story detailed the violence suffered by some of the home’s residents, it portrayed the shelter as building a “brotherhood of deserted husbands.”
“That’s the best indication of what the prevalent sensibility was about this issue at the time,” says Lawson. “If they’re runaways, they should never leave in the first place, no matter the conditions of their lives and their children’s.”
It was in this environment that the City of Toronto provided funding to Interval House after its federal grant ran out. Lawson praises the city for agreeing to help.
Turn around and walk away
After her time at Interval House, Jan and her kids moved into a cockroach-infested rooming house before landing a three-bedroom apartment with Toronto Community Housing. She credits the shelter with giving her hope and a sense of control, but says the most important lesson was learned by her children.
“They knew from my actions that when people tried to aggravate them, to torment them, they could just turn around and walk away,” she says.
The founders learned lessons too. Zimmer recalls with a laugh how they first stocked the kitchen with whole grains and soybeans, thinking the families should have healthy food. “Women were quietly … going up to the corner greasy spoon and buying hamburgers with the very few dollars they had, because they just needed to eat comfortable, familiar food,” she says.
The founders also learned how dangerous their jobs could be. Furious husbands would show up at the door and female staff members, often working alone, needed to defuse the situation. Staff would look men in the eye and say: “You’re not welcome and you need to leave now or we’ll call the police.”
“These men were astonished that there was anybody who would help their wives,” Zimmer recalls. “They afforded an authority to us that we weren’t even sure we had.”
But the husbands didn’t always walk away. Once, a man threw himself through an open window and bolted up three flights of stairs. A staff member ran after him, grabbed him by the collar and threw him on the porch.
Zimmer was once confronted by a man wielding a baseball bat who got in because some children had left the door unlocked. He demanded to see his wife, but Zimmer calmly and firmly told him to get out. He agreed, but wouldn’t let her close the front door. When the police arrived and he was distracted, Zimmer, charged with adrenaline, slammed it shut. She remembers thinking: “Oh my god, I can’t believe we just pulled that off.”
Every police officer who responded to Interval House had to be educated about its mission. Many became supportive, Zimmer says, but it took time. “They were the same as everyone else. They would say, ‘He’s your husband, you should go back to him.'”
In the 1970s, Lawson truly believed the women’s movement would end domestic violence.
“[The shelter] wasn’t supposed to be a Band-Aid … It was a step in the journey to eradicating violence against women,” says Lawson, who went on to hold executive director roles at Toronto’s Elizabeth Fry Society and the Ontario NDP.
Rates of police-reported domestic violence have fallen over time, like most other violent crimes. Still Statistics Canada figures show 163 Canadians were killed by a family member in 2015 and 86,000 reported family violence to police.
Stone most recently worked at Beatrice House, a shelter that closed in 2015 after the Toronto District School Board put the land up for sale. The 27-room shelter was constantly overflowing, she says.
“Shelters are turning women away because they’re full,” she says. “Nothing’s changed.”
Zimmer is the only founder who continued to work at Interval House for years, before leaving to become the executive director of the Peterborough YWCA in the mid-1980s. She says women have more options now and if they do experience abuse, their family and friends are more likely to support them. “There’s more help available,” she says. “But the behaviour doesn’t seem to be changing.”
Toronto’s Interval House has moved into a sprawling home with more programs. Last year, it sheltered 166 women and children.
Nader Hasan, a 27-year-old Bay Street lawyer, stayed at Hamilton’s Interval House as a toddler. He says the shelter gave his family the feeling of safety and support they needed. Hasan says he can’t thank the founders enough. “They’re heroes,” he says. “Given the opportunity, these kids and these mothers and sisters and daughters can go on to do great things. Hopefully, they realize that because it is really true. Canada is a better place for it.”