A staff member carries bedding in one of the suites at Toronto's Interval House, an emergency shelter for women in abusive situations, on Monday February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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.

"Jan" one of the first residents at Toronto's Interval House, an emergency shelter for women in abusive situations, is pictured on Monday February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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.

"You had to line up to get a bar of soap. For us, that was the cutoff point."

Women's Place volunteer Lynn Zimmer

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.

A staff member carries bedding in one of the suites at Toronto's Interval House, an emergency shelter for women in abusive situations, on Monday February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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 entre the fourth year of a degree she hated.

From left to right, Joice Guspie, Darlene Lawson, Billie Stone, Lynn Zimmer and Martha Ireland, original founders of Toronto's Interval House, an emergency shelter for women in abusive situations, are pictured on Monday February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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.

By the numbers

Family violence in Canada by the numbers:

33 per cent
Canadians who say they experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse or witnessed family violence before age 15.
93 per cent
Victims of childhood physical or sexual abuse who say they did not report to police or child protection services before age 15.
40 per cent
Aboriginal people who say they experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse.
48 per cent
Canadians who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual who say they experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse.
Canadians who died at the hands of a family member in 2015.
Canadians who reported violence committed by a spouse, parent, child, sibling or other family member to police in 2015
67 per cent
Victims of police-reported family violence who were girls or women.
18 per cent
Decline in rate of police-reported family violence from 2010 to 2015.

Family Violence in Canada: A statistical profile, 2015 — Statistics Canada http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/14698-eng.pdf

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."

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.

The children's play area at Toronto's Interval House, an emergency shelter for women in abusive situations, is pictured on Monday February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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."


Women have made strides beyond social issues. Here’s a look at five Canadian female inventors:

Rachel Zimmerman Brachman
Zimmerman Brachman just wanted to create a great Grade 7 science project. It was the mid-1980s and the 12-year-old had read a book about people with disabilities using picture symbols to communicate. She thought it would be helpful if a software program could convert these symbols into written English or French so that the user could more easily communicate with others. Thus, the Blissymbols Printer was born. Now in her 40s, Zimmerman Brachman works for NASA.
Olivia Poole
Many mothers in Canada have, at some point, used a bouncing harness to soothe and entertain their babies. While many varieties of these swings exist on the market today, the original version was the Jolly Jumper, invented by Poole in 1910. Poole grew up on Minnesota's White Earth Indian Reserve and later moved to Canada, where she met her husband and had her first child. She used the swing to soothe her seven children and was awarded a patent in 1957.
The Jolly Jumper over the years, from the 1950s to the 2000s. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jolly Jumper
Andini Makosinski
Makosinski, who also goes by Ann, has created two acclaimed inventions, won the Google Science Fair for her age category, was named one of Forbes and TIME's 30 under 30 and appeared twice on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon — all before her 20th birthday. Her inventions include the Hollow Flashlight, a body heat-powered flashlight, and the eDrink, a mug that uses the heat from coffee or tea to charge electronic devices. The 19-year-old is now juggling her studies at the University of British Columbia with running her company, Makotronics Enterprises.
Ann Makosinski. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ann Makosinski
Louise Poirier
In an era when some thought the women's liberation movement was sounding the death knell for bras, Poirier designed an undergarment that revolutionized the industry. Her 1963 Dream Lift design for WonderBra — a lacy, deeply plunged push-up that created cleavage — became synonymous with the WonderBra itself and helped propel the Canadian brand to massive international success. In 1994, the Dream Lift made it into the Guinness Book of World Records after selling over 1.6 million units worldwide.
Wendy Murphy
Murphy was watching coverage of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985 when it struck her that there was no evacuation device specifically for babies. The Toronto Hospital for Sick Children radiology technician got to work and designed the WEEVAC, a stretcher designed for infants. Murphy has won three national awards including a prestigious Manning Innovation Award.
Wendy Murphy (left), taken in the early 1990s at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Myrna Maxwell

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."

Women's Lib Group Runs Halfway House for Wives on Own - The Toronto Star

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."

The Rising Wave of Runaway Wives - The Toronto Star

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.

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.

Women's issues

Ten women's issues that will be front and centre as Canada begins its next 150 years:

Sexual assault and the justice system
The trial and acquittal of Jian Ghomeshi and the "knees together" remark by former judge Robin Camp have renewed questions about how sexual assault complainants are treated in the justice system. Despite legal reforms and the work of advocacy groups, the number of charges and convictions remains low.
Former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, centre, is escorted out of court after being released on bail in Toronto on Wednesday, November 26, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
Missing and murdered indigenous women
A national inquiry is scheduled to conclude in December 2018. Chief Commissioner Marion Buller has said she hopes to produce "concrete, workable" recommendations for governments. Advocates will be closely watching how they are implemented and whether they make indigenous women and girls are safer.
Lorelei Williams holds a eagle feather as she wears a T-shirt bearing the pictures of her cousin Tanya Holyk and aunt Belinda William during a news conference on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, August, 3, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Campus sexual violence
Students across Canada have raised concerns about how they were treated by universities after reporting a sexually assaulted. Many of these young women said they faced an arduous process that often resulted in their alleged attacker remaining on campus. Ontario and British Columbia have mandated that post-secondary schools have specific policies on sexual misconduct.
People walk past large letters spelling out UBC at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., on November 22, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Child care
Thought to be crucial to women's equality and participation in the work force, the federal government announced in its budget in March that it would spend $7 billion over the next decade to help ease child-care costs. Over the next three years, the spending could create 40,000 new subsidized daycare spaces nationwide. But this represents a bump of less than 10 per cent in the overall number of spaces.
Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of Families, Children and Social Development, plays with children at a YMCA daycare in downtown Toronto before announcing federal budget measures to support early learning and child care for middle class families on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim
Wage gap
Statistics Canada data for 2016 says women in Canada earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. Canada was ranked 68 out of 144 countries for wage equality by the World Economic Forum in 2016. Ottawa has promised legislation in 2018 to compel all employers in federally regulated sectors to ensure men and women get equal pay for equal work.
Social and economic equality for aboriginal women
First Nations, Metis and Inuit women are more likely to face violence, unemployment and poverty than non-aboriginal women. Advocates say this issue ranks among Canada's most egregious examples of gender discrimination and deserves special attention.
Reproductive rights
In 2016, Prince Edward Island gave up its long-standing refusal to provide abortions to women in the province, but services are still lacking in many rural and northern communities. In January, the long-awaited abortion drug Mifegymiso arrived in Canada, but it remains to be seen how widely it will be prescribed and whether family doctors in small towns will offer it to patients.
Women take part in a protest as pro-choice demonstrators rally at the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton on Thursday, April 17, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Smith
Domestic violence
Canada's former chief public health officer Dr. Gregory Taylor wrote in a report last year that the statistics on family violence are "staggering." Women are more likely than men to experience family violence at all ages, with 57,835 women and 27,567 men reporting family violence to the police in 2014. Battered Women's Support Services in Vancouver says a woman is killed by her intimate partner every six days in Canada.
Affordable housing
The skyrocketing cost of housing is an issue for women in Canada. The Toronto YWCA says Forty-nine per cent of people living in shelters and temporary housing in Canada are women. More than 75,000 women and children leave their homes each year to escape violence and abuse. Ottawa is working on a national housing strategy and advocates say it's essential it meet the needs of women and girls.
Sarah Simon, husband Julien and their five-month-old daughter Chloe enjoy some family time in their living room at their Kamloops, B.C. home on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. The family has recently relocated to Kamloops from Vancouver for more affordable housing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff Bassett
Corporate and political equality
Nearly half of the companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange have all-male boards. Justin Trudeau made history in 2015 with the first gender-equal cabinet, but women still make up only 26 per cent of parliamentarians. In universities, the majority of young graduates are women, but they are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"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."

"You're not welcome and you need to leave now or we'll call the police."

Interval house staff to furious husbands

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.

"Given the opportunity, these kids and these mothers and sisters and daughters can go on to do great things.

Nader Hasan

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."

By the numbers

Costs of family violence in Canada by the numbers:

$7.4 billion
Estimated total cost of spousal violence.
$545 million
Estimated costs of spousal violence to the justice system.
$410 million
Estimated social services costs of spousal violence.
$20 million
Estimated health care costs of spousal violence.
$179 million
Estimated mental health-care costs of spousal violence

FSOURCE: An estimation of the economic impact of spousal violence in Canada, Department of Justice, 2009 http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/fv-vf/rr12_7/rr12_7.pdf

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 before transferring to the Toronto shelter. He says the shelters 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."