History

The Story of the Atikokan Crisis Centre

The Battered Women’s Movement began in the late 1960s and is reaching its 40 year anniversary.  The Movement is perhaps best described as the mobilization of women in reaction to the increasing vocalization of stories of sexual assault and women abuse.  It is a movement which, while fairly new, has had a resounding impact on the lives of women and children all over the world.

Over the past forty years in communities all across Canada, steps have been taken at the local, provincial, and federal political levels to address issues of domestic violence.  Throughout North America, Emergency Shelters for abused women and their children, Second Stage Housing buildings, Sexual Abuse Support Centres, and Women’s Resource Centres have become integral services within communities.  These agencies, whose primary mandate is to provide service to women and their children who have experienced abuse, have gained some level of acceptance as a necessity for women in our communities.

The story of the Battered Women’s Movement in Northwestern Ontario is one of social accountability.  It is a movement demonstrated by the care, commitment, and perseverance of women who recognized that women and children were suffering from violence perpetrated against them by those they had been taught to love.  The story of the development of Emergency Shelters for women and their children throughout the region is very closely tied to the story of the Atikokan Crisis Centre.  The struggle to establish the Crisis Centre in Atikokan was significant to the mobilization against women abuse in our region.  Situated in the wider Battered Women’s Movement, the story of the Atikokan Crisis Centre illustrates the organization, support, and legitimacy which the movement has achieved in the past four decades.

The story of the Atikokan Crisis Centre is most simply described as one which is highlighted by the development of services from a grass roots level.  The term “grass roots”, refers to the community women who were mobilized based on their own experiences, utilized their shared knowledge, and combined their skills to achieve a common goal.

As was the experience in Atikokan, much of the grass roots work was accomplished through volunteer networks and without the help of financial support from government agencies.  The persistence and dedication of individuals to the movement in the difficult beginning has been rewarded with the official sanctioning and funding today of many Shelters and women’s centres across the country.  This is not to say that success is complete.  These services have not yet been identified as mandated essential services by our provincial government; therefore, funding is not guaranteed annually, budgets must be balanced within each fiscal year, and volunteers within communities must continue to seek funding from other sources such as lotteries and donations.

In June of 2007, the Atikokan Crisis Centre employed eight full time employees, four part-time workers, and several casual relief workers.  The story of the Centre exemplifies the struggle many women faced.  In the fall of 1976, two Atikokan women who had known the hopelessness of having nowhere to go or no one to turn to in a crisis situation, instigated the first crisis network in northwestern Ontario.  Realizing the absolute absence of emergency housing, and the considerable number of women in need, they began a process which formed the basis of the Women’s Emergency Shelter that exists today.

In January of 1977, a crisis housing group was formed.  The group began the task of documenting the need for crisis housing, investigating funding sources and mobilizing community support.  The basis for their work rested in their conviction that there was a need for a Shelter where women could go in order to come to terms with their new circumstances, explore alternatives, and begin to make realistic plans for the future.

Referring back to the minutes of a crisis housing meeting in September of 1977, the 3 member group had outlined their “reasons for crisis housing” to use to solicit community support.  The reasons outlined were as follows:

  1. refuge from an abusive partner
  2. place of quiet, safety, and rest
  3. time to think and reason
  4. base to work from to see lawyers, doctors and psychiatrists
  5. time to plan their next step
  6. a place to establish new contacts for living
  7. re-education

After much discussion, organizing, and lobbying, the group approached the Atikokan Town Council in December of 1977 requesting support in establishing a crisis centre.  The group took with them affirmations in principle from a number of social service agencies in the community.  While the town council agreed in principle with the aims of the group, the council members refused to provide any financial support.  Discouraged, a number of individuals in the group dropped out.  The remaining few decided to continue their work by sheltering women and children in private homes and at a local hotel, whose owners agreed to rent rooms at a reduced rate.

While financial support was limited, the need for assistance was very real.  In the first two weeks of December 1977, 8 women and a number of children were assisted by the group.  Five of those women required Shelter.  The severity of the calls that December encouraged the group to approach the town council again in January 1978.  Again, they were denied financial support.  Again, the reason for the denial was in part due to the lack of understanding by the Council that these women who required the services of a Shelter were not isolated cases.  Despite the statistics from December, Council would not be swayed.  It became clear that the group needed to continue looking for other alternatives including fundraising and the solicitation of donations.  Often times, when a woman had no money, group members paid the bill out of their own pocket.

Given the potentially dangerous nature of their work, volunteers kept a low profile.  In providing sanctuary however, they were inconspicuously effective.  During the 4 ½ year period between 1978 and 1983, 139 women and 180 children made use of this volunteer crisis network.  To counter skepticism about the need for a Shelter and resistance from those who chose to believe that women abuse was not a serious problem in the community, efforts were focused on public education.  In February 1978, the group sponsored their first information workshop, which was then referred to as “wife battering”.  Workers and other resource people were utilized from Crisis Homes Inc., which is now known as Faye Peterson Transition House and the Decade Council from Thunder Bay.

In 1979, an Agreement was worked out with the Township allowing the group to use two rooms in the nurses’ residence of the old hospital in Atikokan as a temporary Shelter at a limited cost.  It was a timely move.  When the Steep Rock Iron Mine closed down its operations in 1979/1980, over 50% of the Atikokan work force lost their jobs.  The social impact was devastating.  The loss of financial stability, combined with the drastic change in lifestyle, resulted in feelings of frustration in many families.  As families began moving away in search of work, the Crisis Housing group itself began to feel the impact of the mine closure, losing more than half of their members.

During this period, the operating expenses for the Centre were paid out of monies raised at teas, bake sales, flea markets, and through donations.  Working with a bare minimum budget, the group struggled as best it could to assist women and children who were seeking protection from violence in their homes.  Moral support was also given to other area groups in the District who were attempting to respond to the needs of women in crisis.  As a result of a presentation made by committee members at a workshop in Fort Frances in early 1981, steps were taken to bring interested people together to examine the possibility of setting up a transition home in the Fort Frances area.

Mainstay House in Fort Frances was opened and furnished by community donations in December of 1981.  The night before the official opening, the local police brought a battered woman and her three children to the door.  During the year it was open, Mainstay sheltered 53 women and 63 children.  This means that on average, one woman per week for a year as physically abused in her home and, as a result of the abuse, was forced to seek a place of safety.

In Atikokan, as the demand for services grew, so too did the need for larger premises.  In 1981, the Crisis Centre expanded from two rooms in the nursing residence to the entire top floor, which included 8 bedrooms.  Working in cooperation with the Atikokan Women’s Resource Centre, the group applied for and received funds to hire staff to organize fundraising events and to conduct volunteer training sessions.  In April of 1982, the group had $700 in the bank and had received their first grant to hire a worker who was paid to fundraise and to solicit further grant monies.

While things in Atikokan were going well and the group felt they were gaining ground within the community, the same could not be said for other areas in the District.  In 1982, two years after the opening of the Shelter in Kenora, it was closed due to a lack of funds.  During the short time it was opened, it had provided shelter to 88 women and their children.  In early 1983, only fifteen months after the opening of Mainstay House in Fort Frances, it was closed as well.  As was the situation in Kenora, the House was closed due to a lack of funding.

The continual problem in securing funding was a huge barrier to women working to establish Shelters in the region; however, it did not discourage the women in Kenora any more than it had done previously in Atikokan.  Their quest to secure yearly funding continued.  A year after the Women’s Crisis Intervention Shelter in Kenora was closed, the Kenora Town Council accepted the concept of a Family Resource Centre.  During the same time, the group in Atikokan, along with women in Dryden, Sioux Lookout, and Thunder Bay, were continuing to lobby government agencies and Town Councils for support for their Shelters.

The search for funding had begun to unite women’s groups throughout all of northwestern Ontario.  Decade Council, a volunteer based organization composed of representatives from women’s groups throughout the region continued to be a strong voice in support of the establishment of Shelters throughout the region.  Decade Council, along with the various community Shelter groups continued to bombard provincial ministries with letters and telegrams.  In late 1984, the barrage of calls for financial support resulted in the first provincial money for Faye Peterson House in Thunder Bay and the Atikokan Crisis Centre.

In the summer of 1984, the Atikokan Crisis Centre was officially designated a “hostel” and became eligible to receive municipal per diems.  The per diem funding arrangement, combined with the provincial money gained in partnership with the Atikokan Women’s Resource Centre, enabled the Centre to hire staff to oversee the operations on a daily basis, coordinate public education programs and carry out further fundraising activities.  In the first six months of 1984, the Crisis Centre provided food, shelter, and other services to 20 women and 34 children.  These numbers continued to demonstrate the need to establish a permanent safe place for women and children who were forced to leave their homes due to violence and abuse.

In 1985, the first Director was hired for the Centre as well as several front line staff people to work with the women and their children staying in the shelter.  The intercom and alarm system was installed and the Crisis Centre became a safe and secure refuge.  Visitors were screened at the door and the safety and security of the women and their children housed within was guaranteed.  The toll free crisis line was also added that year and for the first time, the Shelter was staffed 24 hours a day.

With the addition of the toll free crisis telephone line, the Crisis Centre was designated to be the District Transition House.  Volunteers were solicited.  Volunteer drivers were recruited and trained from throughout the Rainy River District so that women from all areas could be safely transported to the Shelter.  Although the group was still working primarily with grant money and per diem funding, the Shelter had finally gained some leverage as a legitimate service provider within the community.

After a nine year struggle to become a self sufficient agency within the community, the provincial government finally agreed to provide stable funding to the Atikokan Crisis Centre in 1986.  This marked a new era of expansion, growth, and stability for the Centre.  Today, the Atikokan Crisis Centre not only operates a ten bed safe and secure Shelter for battered women and their children but has also been able to expand its services to offer longer term housing to women and their children leaving abusive relationships through its Second Stage Housing program.

As it has been from the beginning, securing sufficient, stable funding for the Centre continues to be an ongoing quest.  With the fiscal cuts perpetrated by the Harris government in 1995, a number of important services previously offered by the Crisis Centre were lost.  The Outreach office in Fort Frances was forced to close, single staffing at the Emergency Shelter was implemented, and the full-time child care program was eliminated.   This meant that one staff person was responsible for meeting the clients’ needs, providing counselling, referral information, assisting with child care, cooking and cleaning, and answering the 24-hour crisis line.  The position is more demanding than ever before; however, according to the dedicated staff, the rewards continue to outweigh the challenges.

Funding problems have faced women working in the field of violence against women from the beginning.  They follow a long story of financial road blocks; however, the dire need to continue to speak out against violence and to provide support for women is evident from the following recent statistics from the Government of Canada:

  • More than half of all women in Canada experience at least one incident of violence as defined under the Criminal Code of Canada in their adult lives.
  • On average, 3 to 6 women are murdered each month by their current or former partner in Ontario alone.
  • A woman is killed every six days in Canada, often in a private home and by someone she believes loves her.
  • In 2004, 33% of all victims of spousal violence reported that children saw the violence in the home.  Children who witness this violence often suffer elevated rates of depression, delinquency, aggression, lowered school  achievement, and have fewer social skills.  (Health Canada, 2005).
  • On May 31, 1995, there were 2,361 women accompanied by 2,217 children living in Shelters across the country.  25% of these women had injuries that required medical attention and 3% required hospitalization.
  • Only one-third of women entering Shelters in 1995 reported the incident to the police.(Bunge and Levett, 1998).

Emergency Shelters, Sexual Assault Centres and Women’s Resource Centres remain a vital community resource, necessary for the safety of abused women and their children.  Women abuse is a crime and it results in very real victims.  We now know today, in 2007, that many of these women suffer post-traumatic stress disorders, similar to prisoners of war, although the war existed daily with unpredictability in their own homes.  There was no sanctuary for these women.   Until the sexual, physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual abuse of women is stopped, there will be a need for a safe and secure place for women and their children who experience abuse.

Originally Written:   September 1998

By:   Charene Gillies, Executive Director

Updated:  June 2007

By:  Donna Kroocmo, Executive Director

Sources:

The History of the Battered Women’s Movement in Northwestern Ontario (Northwestern Ontario Women’s Decade Council – Women Against Violence Subcommittee)

Minutes from meetings of the Atikokan Crisis Centre Board of Directors (1985 – 2007)

Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses Web-site and newsletters

Statistics Canada Web-site

Health Canada Web-site