Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The conscience of the core
To many of the people she helps and the people she works with, Elaine Bishop is a saint, but the woman who runs the North Point Douglas Women's Centre and lives in the impoverished neighbourhood is just doing her part to make her little corner of the world a better place
There is a tiny home on Austin Street, trimmed the colour of pink, where Elaine Bishop tends to her prairie roses and cherry bushes in a place where dreams are rarely weeded or watered, if at all.
It's a tough neighbourhood, North Point Douglas, where you might reasonably think a grey-haired, 63-year-old woman who lives alone would tread lightly.
"I love my little house," she said. "I love living here."
Bishop believes it was her "calling" in 2006 to purchase the bungalow, just down the street from the North Point Douglas Women's Centre, which she has run for seven years now. In the beginning, both the home and the centre were in disrepair. The centre was an old rundown corner store. The house was infested with mice.
The neighbourhood was infested with worse: gangs that recruited kids to run drugs; single mothers with five kids and few options, all of them bad; children raised on little hope and school lunches; and violence lurking around every corner when the sun went down.
"Don't forget," says longtime North End activist Sel Burrows, referring to Bishop, "she was there when it wasn't safe, when it was as crime-ridden as any neighbourhood in the city."
That's why Bishop came in the first place. Since she was a little girl -- growing up along Grant Avenue in the idyllic '50s and '60s -- she has been guided by an unwavering need to fix a broken planet.
"She sometimes says she was born feeling the world was in danger and that she needed to be involved in protecting it, making things better," offers Bishop's oldest friend, Mary Lysecki. "As early as she can remember, she felt that way."
When they were kids, a half-century ago, Elaine and Mary would walk to school together each day. They would have "intense arguments" about such weighty topics as the existence of God.
"I was against," giggles Mary, now Rev. Mary Lysecki, who serves at Mary Magdalene Anglican Church in St. Vital.
The reverend demurred: "I've come a long way."
Young Elaine, on the other hand, once declared she would positively, absolutely, never subject herself to the rigours of living in the wilderness. After all, she could never start her day without a shower.
Years later, a woman who has devoted her life to fighting injustice and inequality would find herself on a remote, isolated community in northern Alberta taking a stand with the Lubicon Cree in their battle for sovereignty. Four years spent in a home with a wood stove and no running water.
Oh, and that day in jail.
Lysecki didn't always believe in God. But she believed in her childhood friend.
"She's come a long way, too," the reverend says.
-- -- --
Elaine Bishop isn't complicated. It's the world around her that's screwed up.
She doesn't own a car. She walks everywhere, with her backpack, or rides her bike. She hates to shop and is quite satisfied to wear clothes for as long as they serve their basic purpose. If a piece of clothing has a hole, wear something to cover it up. After all, she reasons, "99 per cent of the garment is still good."
Logic prevails. So when it came to taking over the North Point Douglas Women's Centre in 2005, on a part-time salary, Bishop settled on Austin Street, buying a former "party house" that had walls caked with nicotine.
"I feel very strongly about making change, and you live the change that you want to become," she says. "Rather than working with this community sort of as a missionary who came in and out every day, I wanted to live here. I wanted this to be my community."
Bishop comes by her commitment honestly. She was born in England, where her dad was a member of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and her mother was a nurse. They came to Canada in 1951, settling in Winnipeg seven years later.
Both parents were active in the community and dedicated antiwar protesters during the Vietnam War. They would take Elaine and Mary to fundraisers where they paid $10 to eat a bowl of plain rice.
Eventually, Bishop became a Quaker, one of only a few dozen in Manitoba who belong to a pacifist faith. Her only fight is against social injustice.
"Isn't that a gift that Elaine brings to all of this?" says Rick McCutcheon, the dean of Menno Simmons College at the University of Winnipeg. "Because it's not an easy area to be living in, yet she's following a traditional Quaker path.
"What she's trying to do is model. By living here, among the people who have the need, we're better able to do our work. And I think (what's) really significant to understand about Elaine is that her Quaker life and her service and what she does in her personal life are all blended together. It's what we hold in high esteem in the Quaker community."
At first, it wasn't the gangs that kept Bishop up at night. It was her fellow inhabitants.
"It was one of those ironic things," she says. "When I first moved into the house it was absolutely infested with mice. But also there was a hole under the porch that went directly into the basement. There's a group of feral cats that in the winter went directly into the basement."
So that solved the mice problem, right?
"No, it did not," she says. "People would come into the community, feed them (the cats), and leave again. So I had feral cats fighting beneath my bed... and the place was still overrun by mice."
Bishop even tried negotiating.
"I said to them (the cats) -- because I didn't have the heart to block them out in the middle of winter and it was 40 below -- that the least they could do was eat the damn mice. But they didn't listen."
Such is life in a parcel of inner-city real estate where the answers never come easy. This is a complicated place, where systemic, generational poverty is woven into the community's predominantly aboriginal DNA. The average salary is $18,000. More than 80 per cent of children are raised in poverty.
At the heart is the women's centre, where a brightly coloured building puts a happy outward face on a never-ending influx of personal struggles that literally walk in the door on a daily basis -- from the mundane to the heartbreaking.
"There's a lot of sorrow, and there's a lot of hardship that comes into the centre," says Jessica Lambrecht, a full-time counsellor. "And it comes in different ways."
Different ways, but always in waves. As Christie Paul, the centre's neighbourhood resource co-ordinator notes, "There's a lot of flux in our day. We never know what's going to happen. We're in a constant state of crisis."
Gritty, serious, emotionally wrenching problems that begin with questions such as...
"The CFS just apprehended my kids. What do I do?"
"My house is full of bed bugs and my landlord won't do anything."
"My boyfriend kicked me out. Where can I go?"
Not to mention the women who arrive at the centre beaten (once a week) or seriously beaten (once a month).
The centre offers everything from free diapers and formula to bus tickets to advocacy in child-custody cases. There are programs for everything from fitness to children's safety and special events such as the annual Austin Street Festival or the inaugural Butterfly Gala Fundraiser on June 28.
A typical morning recently: a handful of women at the centre; one doing laundry (one washer and dryer); two teenage girls surfing the Internet; a meeting for "What would you like from your public health nurse?"; two women rummaging through donated second-hand clothing; another getting photocopies of a resumé for a job application while her baby, in a nearby stroller, munches on a cookie.
In the beginning, the centre received about 4,000 visitors a year. Now that number -- due to program expansion and need -- has swelled to more than 14,000.
But if you're looking for fairy tales, you're in the wrong place.
"You really have to let go of your own expectations of what a life should look like, or what it could look like," Paul says. "You're really setting yourself up for disappointment, and you set up that person for failure.
"If you're looking for a steady projection for someone in their life, that doesn't happen. There's so many tragedies in their lives. It's never been from Step 1 to Step 10, this lovely linear sequence.
"If you're in this to save people, get out right now. We're here to say, 'You're not alone. There's someone who's got your back.' If you can continue to stand with people who attempt to make choices in their broken lives... we're still here.
"And I really learned that from Elaine. There is sort of this 'never give up' attitude, this recognition that everyone has potential. We simply exist at different places. Can you just love them where they are? That's a really powerful environment the women's centre attempts to create."
Success in North Point Douglas is defined by women such as Florence Desjarlais. She's had nine children, the first arriving just after her 17th birthday. She was born and raised dirt poor at the corner of Flora and Aikens, where four sisters and one brother had to make one box of macaroni and two cans of tomato soup last a month.
In her early 20s and single, Desjarlais struggled. Every trip out of the house involved one toddler around her chest, another bundled on her back and pushing two in a stroller.
"It was hell, man," she recalls.
Her modest goal in life: "The things I had to do as a child to survive, I promised I'd never want my kids to have to do."
A couple years ago, Desjarlais, who has long been involved with programs at the centre, was shocked to discover her daughter, about to enter Grade 4, couldn't read.
"She didn't even know how to spell A-N-D," Desjarlais says, realizing the harsh reality of inner-city kids being passed just to move them through the system.
Desjarlais was determined to teach her kids to read. Bishop provided a tutor who taught Desjarlais how to teach her children to read at home.
"Now," Desjarlais says, "My daughter can read five-letter words."
Sitting on the stoop of her house on Prince Edward Street, Desjarlais said the women's centre has been a lifeline for her community.
"I've seen them help a lot of women get into school, get a job. Seen a lot of women get cleaned up," she says. "I've seen a lot less women struggle with babies. I've seen a lot of good things come out of there.
"I've been through a lot, and Elaine's been by my side through everything."
Don't misunderstand. Some days, the women's centre is filled with laughter. There are days when jobs are found, and children are back in their mother's arms.
Just not enough of them.
"Sometimes," Bishop says, "We sit in our office, close the door and cry for a little while."
-- -- --
Oh, yes, the grey-haired lady in the pink-trimmed house.
Finding folks in North Point Douglas to praise Elaine Bishop is like shooting fish in a can of tuna.
"She's like our little Mother Theresa of the North End," says Nancy Dyck, principal of nearby Norquay Elementary School. "She's very compassionate. She doesn't do the thing that a lot of people do -- when someone is struggling or someone is having trouble -- to say it's their problem. She doesn't blame anybody. She just tries to help them."
Gerard Allard worked as a Winnipeg police constable for more than two decades patrolling the inner city, before retiring last month.
"Elaine offers an island of safety," Allard says.
"She's more productive than a platoon of police officers. I can wag my finger (to kids) and move on, but one look from Elaine... there's that certain level of expectation. People such as Sel Burrows and Elaine Bishop are huge. They're 24/7 healers of a community that has issues. She builds relationships. Real ones.
"Thank God we have people like that because there's not enough of them."
Irene Brown was one of the founding board members of the North Point Douglas Women's Centre and a past president. Like Bishop, Brown and her husband moved into the North End and raised three children. She's seen Bishop's struggles to develop the centre first-hand.
"It's very hard," Brown says. "I just don't know how Elaine has managed to hold it together so long. We've just had to really scrounge and make the dollars go as far as we can."
For several years, Bishop got by on a salary so modest that one manager of an inner-city agency suggests, "If you find someone at that salary, you'll get a dedicated person."
Bishop has since taken a pay cut on the centre's tight budget rather than cut programs, on the premise she'd scale back her hours. The latter never happened.
Brown recalls at least one instance where Bishop gave out of her own pocket to help pay for groceries for a mother of five.
"It puts me to shame, really, to see her generous heart."
Word gets around. Perhaps that's why Bishop will sometimes get up to fetch her morning paper and find someone on her doorstep asking for money. After all, everyone in the neighbourhood knows where she lives. Yet, she doesn't rattle.
Nor does she worry about those who might needlessly, in Bishop's opinion, worry about her.
"I would say, 'Dear, live with your nervousness any way you want, but I'm going to live here,' " she says.
Of course, Bishop takes precautions. She rarely walks around after dark. And she'll make a wide pass around the Sutherland Hotel on Main Street if she knows the Hells Angels have congregated for a night of frivolity.
Yet to appreciate the commitment of Elaine Bishop is to soon discover Point Douglas might be the safest place on Earth. As Dyck notes, "God help the person who harmed her."
Besides, while she might be about to turn 64, Bishop is no shrinking violet. The cursing would be the first clue. Not the mild stuff, either, but four-letter bombs that could have peeled the nicotine-stained paint off the walls of her house.
"I knew her for four years before I heard her swear," Desjarlais chuckled. "I was shocked. She said, 'Yeah, I said that. Get over it.'"
Lysecki is familiar with the fiery rants of a frustrated Quaker.
"Oh, she gets angry," Lysecki says.
So it's official: Elaine Bishop is human, after all.
In fact, for a person who bases her life on non-confrontation, Bishop's existence is in an eternal struggle. Against the system. Against poverty. Against the lack of affordable inner-city housing.
"She would be very firm, too," McCutcheon says. "She wouldn't back down. I know her. And it wouldn't matter if there was a person standing in front of her with a knife. She would be just as strong.
"We've been together in government offices. And there's no way a person with a clipboard or a sheaf of paper or a lawyer (would deter Bishop from making her point). Elaine is a little bit of a force of nature. She has a very deep centre and out of that centre a real strong sort of internal fortitude. I think she's able to project a kind of calm that's rooted in a firmness that's very hard to achieve.
"Her moral compass is unwavering. She's very clear about where that compass is pointing and where she wants to go. And then she'll be determined and dogged and do everything she can to go in that direction."
Tellingly, it's not the overwhelming and underfunded issues at the centre that push Bishop's buttons. It's what she believes is an infuriating and immoral tendency of the system -- government, society, whatever you want to call it -- to ignore the human devastation of poverty that walks through her door each day.
"I would love men not to buy sex from women. I would love us not to damage people so badly (that) they act out violence. But that's a responsibility of all of us," she reasons.
"For me, the heartbreak is seeing good people damaged by the world they live in. That means not having enough money to live decently, not being able to live in decent housing. Seeing young boys grow up thinking it's OK to be violent.
"That's the way I actually see the world," Bishop adds. "People doing desperate things not because... they're bad people. They're locked out of resources they should have. To me that's wrong. It's been wrong all my life, and it will probably be wrong long after I die.
"That I find far more enraging than anybody in this community. I mean, why are we spending how many billions of dollars on (F-35) attack fighter jets. Like, one fighter jet ($85 million) and we could do a lot of good work in this community. We could build a lot of housing."
Maybe Allard, the retired cop, has it right about Bishop.
"She's a small lady," he says, "but dynamite comes in small packages."
Perhaps the cop who put Bishop behind bars had the same sentiments. That was 1988, during the height of the Lubicon blockades in northern Alberta. Bishop was a member of the Quaker Committee on Social Justice at the time and joined the Cree tribe in solidarity.
Just before dawn one day, the RCMP arrested Bishop, along with 26 others.
"I was sitting cross-legged and two police officers just picked me up and put me in a police car," she says. They were all taken to Peace River and put in jail.
Finally, Elaine Bishop was behind bars.
"It didn't happen until I was 40 years old," she says. "I must have been doing something wrong."
-- -- --
Once, they were young girls walking to school, debating the world's mysteries and eternal questions.
Not much has changed, other than time, Lysecki says.
Bishop admits her memory fails her. For example, Lysecki has to remind her about some of those debates from years past.
"But," Lysecki notes, "she seems to remember everything that matters."
Other than that...
"Oh, she's pretty much the same person. Fairly intense. Passionate," Lysecki says.
"She thinks of herself as a normal person, and sometimes she's a little puzzled when the rest of us don't dive in in the same way. But she understands that people don't. You can almost see her having the argument with herself to excuse you for not being there. But she very much thinks of herself as a normal person doing the best (she) can.
"Humbling is the word. And I come back to our nice house in Riverview and our collection of single-malt Scotch and try not to think about it too much."
The reverend is only half-joking.
To know Bishop is to understand humility. Call her naive, as some would, or an idealistic dreamer, but to question her commitment is folly.
"I've never seen someone be able to -- I don't even know what the words are -- she understands how little she needs and gives the rest to everyone else," says Jessica Lambrecht, the full-time counsellor.
"But it's not like she gives everything. She keeps what she needs to stay strong, but would do anything for anyone who walks through these doors."
Lambrecht, 28, graduated from Menno Simmons College with a degree in conflict resolution. Bishop is not just her mentor. Last September, Bishop married Lambrecht and her husband Kevin at a ceremony by Falcon Lake. They are currently house-hunting for a place in North Point Douglas.
Asked what Lambrecht has learned from her four years at the women's centre, she answers: "That people are essentially good. And I don't know how people manage in their daily lives. Like just the amount of stuff they have to go through. And to think if they had to do it without any support here, I can't imagine. Even just a listening ear. More often than not, people come in, they've been overwhelmed with whatever is going on in their life, and we just sit and listen to them and go from there.
"That's one thing Elaine is amazing at. To see her work with anybody, even when I'm having a bad day, when she sits down with you, you get the feeling you're the only person in the world and everything you do in that moment is OK."
Adds Paul: "It's her faith. And I don't just mean religion. She has a constant faith in people, a hope that things can change. That rubs off on people."
Next September, Bishop has plans to retire. At least that's what she's saying now.
"That's a scary thing for all of us," Lambrecht says. "It will be a big hole. But no one's going to replace Elaine."
What would Bishop be most proud of? Simple. "That the centre survived," she says.
One day soon, Bishop plans to be puttering around her flower beds, tending to her tulips and lilies. But she's not planning on leaving her house on Austin Street.
"I'm just trying to leave it better than I got it for future generations," she says.
Elaine Bishop has always believed the world was in danger, and it was her duty to protect it.
A little pink trim never hurt.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 J1
Updated on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:25 AM CDT: adds photos