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Richmond women's centre has long history of social activism

The women's centre is starting up in-person programs again as COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.

In 1976, a Richmond woman wanted to go back to school. But her husband, the father of her young children said no. He wanted her to stay home to look after the children.

When the wife came home one day and found the door locked with her shut out of the family, it was obvious women had a lot of work to do to gain equality in society, explained Marielle Demorest.

At that time, she pointed out, women couldn’t get a mortgage in their own name – they couldn’t even get a credit card.

There was clearly a need for a centre that promoted women’s rights, Demorest said.

Inspired by this woman’s plight, an ad was placed in the Richmond Review by a Douglas College student, Doreen Steiner, and 50 women came out to a founding meeting, resulting in the Richmond Women’s Resource Centre being established.

Fast forward 45 years later, and the Richmond Women’s Resource Centre is still running, and Demorest, at the age of 90, continues to run a Francophone social group and volunteers at the office.

But COVID-19 hit the centre hard with two years of severe restrictions on social interaction.

Like most social agencies, face-to-face interaction is the most effective. Now, with many restrictions lifted, its director Kelly Sidhu is working to reboot programs and create new connections in the community.

Social activism lays foundation for women's centre

Social activism was a big part of the early history of the women's centre. Abortion rights, a Richmond transition house, housing, child care and "native" women’s rights were some of the issues as was sexual assault.

"Rape laws – amend the Criminal Code so that the victim in NOT on trial!” reads an early history of the organization.

In 1986, a women wrote in the newsletter she was “tired of being judged only in the roles of mother and good housekeeper.” She wanted respect and “good companionship without judgement,” something she said she found at the women’s centre.

Kathy Kent, who has also been volunteering with the organization for decades, said they are “fighting for women’s rights to be equal partners” in society.

The Richmond women’s centre was first located at the South Arm Church, after which it moved to the old fire hall across from the former city hall. Next, they were located in three trailers on Park Road, then at No. 3 Road and Cambie. Later, the women’s centre was housed in two different houses on General Currie Road, and a house on Garden City Road before finally settling into the Caring Place in 1994.

The centre has an open-door policy and welcomes drop-ins, whereby women, whatever their age, ethnicity, religious affinity or sexual orientation, are welcomed.

Groups help provide social interaction and connection for women, but much of what the centre does is provide referrals to other agencies, depending on the needs of the women who come by.

This might be to Chimo, which runs the women’s shelter Nova House, or other agencies located in the Caring Place, which Sidhu describes as a “non-profit world.”

Sometimes finding the right resources for whatever you are facing can be a challenge.

“There is nothing worse than getting the runaround,” Sidhu said.

But, as the centre gets going again, Sidhu also wants to highlight the history of the organization with a wall of fame at the women’s centre office.

“I want to start by honouring the history and the members,” Sidhu said.

But she’s also looking to the future – wanting to restart programs as COVID-19 restrictions are nearly all lifted as well as creating new partnerships in the community to bring more resources to women.

They also want to provide support, social interaction and be a safe place for women to gather.

The clientele at the women’s centre come from all over the world and speak many languages, Sidhu explained, and they have an open-door policy.

“We do literally welcome everyone,” she said.

Since starting at the women’s centre two months ago, Sidhu has been working to connect with local organizations and to restart programs after many went online or shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the programs offered include computer training, English conversation, English writing, a grandmothers support group, a single-mothers group and, in tax season, income-tax preparation for low-income families.

One big thing they advocate for is good-quality, affordable child care, instrumental in getting women back into the workforce.

The Richmond Women’s Resource Centre is open Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s located at the Caring Place, 7000 Minoru Blvd.