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Author and journalist

Trouble at Nellie’s


The Globe and Mail Focus section, May 9, 1992

June Callwood inspired many Canadians to do more for their communities.  I had heard rumours that there was turmoil among the board members at  Nellie’s, looked up her number and phoned her.  She didn’t want to talk at first, but  my four-month-old daughter Hannah was on my lap while I made the call, and before Callwood could cut me off, Hannah opened her mouth and wailed.  “My,” Callwood said.  “That baby certainly has a lusty cry.”  She began to talk about what she would later call one of the most painful incident s of her professional life.


Last month’s gala fundraising evening for Nellie’s, held at Queen’s Quay Centre on Toronto’s waterfront, was attended by no less notable public figures than Prime Minister Brian Mulroeny and his wife, Mila, who mingled with artists, writers and actors like Fiona Reid and Martha Henry.  The Mulroneys’ highly visible support reflected the drawing power of Nellie’s best-known supporter, activist and journalist June Callwood.  It also illustrated just how prominent the rights of abused women have become on the social and political agenda since the hostel was cofounded by Ms. Callwood and lawyer Vicki Trerise in 1974.

Last week, less than a month later, June Callwood resigned after two decades of planning and working with Nellie’s.  She and other white members of the board have been accused of being racist by women of colour within the organization.

Her departure stems from a racial conflict that is being echoed in other service centres in Toronto, a result of changing demographics and of a struggle for power.

“Twenty years ago there weren’t that many women of colour and native women involved in the staffs of social services, but more have become involved as they have found their voice,” says Trudy Don, co-ordinator for the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses.  As they have found their voice they have begun to question the motives of white women involved as staff and volunteers.

Said Ms. Callwood before her resignation: “In the past there was a general assumption on the part of women of no colour that we were all fine, because we seemed to be one happy family.”  White members of Nellie’s were “among the most astonished women on earth when several women told them they’re racist.”

The dissension that led to Ms. Callwood’s resignation has been building for months.  Nellie’s was one of the first and remains one of the best-known shelters for women in Canada.  Operating out of a turn-of-the-century house east of the Don River in downtown Toronto, the 30-bed hostel provides refuge, medical care, legal services, counseling and food for some 500 women annually, about one-third of whom are abused.  Its $1 million annual budget is provided one-third by Toronto, one-third by Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services and the rest through the United Way, fundraising and donations.

Eight of its 11 staff members are white.  Five of six members of Nellie’s housing project, which is developing longer-term housing for women in need, are women of colour.  The board, which usually has around 20 members, is racially mixed, with the majority being white.

While its clients were once primaril white, they are now mostly women of colour.  The most recent influx has been from Ethiopia and Somalia.

According to one boad member, lawyer Shirley Brown (who is white, difficulties arose last year after several women arrived on Nellie’s doorstep wanting counseling for memories of past abuse rather than safety from ongoing assault.  Nellie’s, named for women’s rights pioneer Nellie McClung, has always prided itself on helping women for many reasons: primarily abuse, but also homelessness, immigration troubles, difficulties associated with moving out of psychiatric hospitals or prisons.

The staff was divided between those who felt women wanting to talk about past abuse should have access to Nellie’s and those who believed their numbers were too great for the shelter to handle.  The two staff groups were divided between women who had been long-standing workers at the hostel and more recent arrivals.  The gropus were also divided by race, with the white women tending to support counseling for past abuse, and the women of colour disagreeing.

Weekly staff meetings quickly moved from talking about who needed Nellie’s to “the power structure and who calls the shots,” says Ms. Brown.  Some issues were solved simply—for instance, by including English as a second language at a planned information centre.  Others were not.

According to Ms. Brown, the women of colour on the staff formed a Women of Colour Caucus.  In a series of letters that were read to the board in November, the group decried what it said was systemic racism at Nellie’s.

This account is necessarily incomplete.  Repeated requests have been made to staff at Nellie’s and members of the Women of Colour Caucus to express their views.  All have been turned down.  “You have your own agenda,” sad a spokeswoman for the Women of Colour Caucus.  “If we need media attention we will find our own way to get it.”  White staff members at Nellie’s also declined requests, saying through a spokeswoman, “Since we’re in the middle of a process we’re not ready to speak.”

Carolann Wright, a community activist who ran for the New Democratic Party in the 1990 provincial election, spends almost all her time working in race relations.  She is a member of the Women of Colour Coalition, a city-wide organization with goals, like the Nellie’s caucus, of racial equality in social services.  Some women at Nellie’s are members of both the caucus and the coalition

Ms. Wright, whoe coalition has met with the Nellie’s board, says racial problems at the hostel encompassed more than mere representation.  “The quota system couldn’t work.  You do have to worry about representation, but it goes beyond that.  Women [of colour] have been hired whose contribution is considered insignificant.”

She then said, “there are cases of women saying ‘I’d rather go back to my abuser than deal with this racism.’” When asked if she was speaking about Nellie’s, Ms. Wright said, “I couldn’t want to speak on the record about Nellie’s but there have been incidences of racism there.”

Ms. Brown says all the staff asked for policy changes such as greater accountability and an open sharing of information.  Other requests were for more philosophical changes, such as an assurance of respect an that all voices at Nellie’s would be heard.

Nellie’s is one of the last collectives in Canada.  Its decisions are reached by concensus; a discussion cannot be concluded on any topic until everyone agrees.  As a result, while letters of grievance on racial issues were read aloud at board meetings, other agenda items were delayed or abandoned.  The agenda for the next six months became entirely taken up with issues of race.

Several of the women of colour began to feel their white colleagues were refusing to comprehend the extent of the problem.Vu Yiswa Keyi, a member of the Women of Colour Coalition, is health promotion co-ordinator for Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, a community health centre.  “There is a lot of denial by white women,” she says.  “There is a lot of defensiveness by white women.  Their reluctance to change makes women of colour feel that white women are supporting the traditional male hierarchy.”

That, Ms. Wright feels, was the case at Nellies.  “There’s still resistance from board members with power to acknowledge that there is a problem,” she says.  Neither a traditional hierarchy nor a collective works if there is a consistent desire for control.  Within Nellie’s that’s the case.”

Chiyeko Fukushima, president of Nellie’s board, declined to comment.

Friction grew through the winter.  At some meetings, Ms. Callwood says, groups of white women talked in one corner, women of colour in another; other meetings concentrated on mass catharsis.  Some women of colour began to refuse to attend meetings. White women on both the board and staff resigned.  One told Ms. Callwood “she couldn’t bear being called a racist any more.”

Then, in February, the Women of Colour Caucus requested Ms. Callwood’s resignation.  At a board meeting in November she had squared off against a woman who was making what she felt were “quite extreme accusations.”

Ms. Callwood recalled that she had said, in effect, “’Are you the same woman we’ve helped and done things for?  How can you feel this way?’ That was seen as trying to silence her.”

At a board meeting in February, Ms. Callwood was asked to apologize.  “I did, and it didn’t do any good,” she says.  “Someone yelled at me that I was a racist and so I left and that’s the lasat I’ve seen of the board.”

When asked about Ms. Callwood, Ms. Keyi says, “There is a tendency for women in power to see themselves as leading others.  They expect gratitude from women of colour.  June Callwood is not the only person to facilitate change and she has to learn to allow others to participate equally in making change.”

Ms. Callwood felt the women of colour were really looking for a symbol: “In trying to find a face or their anger, they found me.”  She focused her attention on the April fundraiser.  Te gala, sponsored by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, brought in an estimated $22,000.

In February and April, mental-health activist Pat Capponi send letters to Nellie’s asking its staff and volunteers to stop fighting.  “Staff in social services are supposed to be role models, “ she says.  “They talk about empowerment.  The women who use Nellie’s are in desperate straits and they don’t need any extra problems.  It’s high time [the staff] talked about empowering the users of the centre.”

Ms. Wright has a different perspective.  “There’s the feeling that this is a secondary issue and let’s get on with helping Nellies,” she says.  “But the services you deliver are not going to be applicable and useful to the women who use the centre if the structure doesn’t work.”

The events at Nellie’s have occurred with varying degrees of drama across the province and, to a lesser extent, in other multiracial cities like Halifax.  Women’s Health in Women’s Hands has gone through a turbulent year in which relations between staff members and the board became so strained that outside consultants were called in.  They recommended the board fire the staff and change the locks.  Last October, the staff occupied the building for three days before a mediator was called in.

The crisis has still not been resolved.  According to Ms. Keyi, the staff and board are talking to each other only through the temporary executive director, Sue Davey.

Ms. Keyi sees differences over feminism’s goals as being at the root of the problem: “The original feminist imperative was to change society’s structures.  Now with the institutionalization of feminism, women are no longer challenging those structures but trying to fit themselves into them.  It is handicapping in particular women of other races.  There is an African expression that says, in effect, they are trying to turn themselves into male daughters.”

Meanwhile, Nellie’s continues its work, itseves still available to owmen seeking shelter.  Because the staff run the hostel and the budget, Ms. Callwood says, “the board is gree to tie itself into a knot and life goes on.  It seems to me that the same tone of caring and support and gentleness which distinguishes Nellie’s is still there, that whatever anguish is going on is not reflected in the service at all.”

This spring the board and staff managed to hammer through some changes.  A carefully worded statement proclaimed the shelter and its affiliated housing projected committed to a non-discriminatory working environment.  A three-member grievance tribunal was set up to handle letters of complaint.  A staff member from the United Way has been asked to help Nellie’s sort through its human-rights agenda.  Two vacant staff positions currently occupied by relief workers (bringing the total to 13) are to be filled by people of colour.

Shirley Brown has seen in Nellie’s difficulties a lesson for even the most liberally minded.  “I’m pretty much stock Torontonian.  You get to a point you don’t notice what colour is and now I don’t think that’s right.  You lose the variety and the sense of the wonderful mix.  It’s not a bad thing to recognize.”

Says Ms. Callwood: “My presence clearly wasn’t helping matters and I’m happy to step aside.”  Currently negotiating with government officials in Ottawa for money for the resource centre, she is not finished with the organization she continues to love. She says she is willing to do whatever is necessary.  “I’ve resigned,” she says, “in order to help Nellie’s get on with it.”

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