Manitoba’s first feminists

Sisters faced harsh criticism when they arrived in 1898 to help single mothers. A new wave of 'sisters' is still needed today


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The Sisters of Misericorde arrived from Montreal by canoe in 1898 to help pregnant single women in the booming frontier town now called Winnipeg and planted the seeds of a child-welfare system that's still evolving.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/03/2013 (3555 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Sisters of Misericorde arrived from Montreal by canoe in 1898 to help pregnant single women in the booming frontier town now called Winnipeg and planted the seeds of a child-welfare system that’s still evolving.

They didn’t receive a warm welcome. Their work was as harshly scrutinized as the unwed women having babies.

They struggled to get donations to help the women “decent” society wanted hidden away. When they had enough to buy property for a hospital and home for single moms, they were offered big bucks by neighbours to go someplace else.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Cassandra Cantlon and her daughter, Adrianna, at Villa Rosa. A stigma still remains attached to single motherhood, says U of M sociology Prof. Susan Prentice.

Yet they persevered, building what later was named Misericordia Hospital on Sherbrook Street in 1900. Asile Ritchot, the orphanage in St. Norbert built to house the deluge of babies born to single moms and families who couldn’t afford another mouth to feed, followed four years later.

“The steady stream of tiny arrivals never stopped, and only a few of the babies were adopted,” said a Manitoba Historical Society report on Asile Ritchot.

“Despite the tireless work by the devoted women, the infants spent long hours in their cribs, deprived of the individual attention that only a family could offer.”

The sisters struggled to make ends meet. They relied on donations, produce from the orphanage farm and per diems from the moms, who, after delivering their babies, could also work off their debt at the orphanage or the hospital laundry.

A 1923 Manitoba Board of Health report provides a glimpse into the chronic underfunding: “The graduate nurse in charge of the older children has been moved up to the baby’s ward where she has sole charge of 64 babies under two years of age, many of whom are sick.”

Kathy Strachan, the executive director of Winnipeg’s Villa Rosa, said there is no doubt that sisters who arrived in 1898 were early feminists.

“In full black and white habit, they were bartering on the river,” Strachan said.

They paddled their own canoes and fought for values that included helping the women society wanted to ignore, she said. When times changed, they stuck to those values of mercy and compassion but adapted so they could help where it was needed.

Asile Ritchot closed in 1948, but had cared for more than 2,000 children and 800 single moms. But the work of the Sisters of Misericorde was not done. In 1965, they bought land on Wolseley Avenue and built a new haven — Villa Rosa.

When Villa Rosa opened, critics howled that it encouraged promiscuity. Some complained about the beautiful riverside property sheltering women who should be punished. The sisters responded that it helped moms find their inner beauty.

While a child-welfare evolution was taking place, albeit slowly, it was still common in the 1950s for babies of unwed women to be placed in underfunded and overcrowded orphanages. In the 1970s, single moms were routinely exiled from their homes until they delivered babies.

Today, “unwed mothers” aren’t forced or shamed into giving up their babies in Manitoba, and there are no more orphanages. Villa Rosa, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and the Winnipeg School Division’s Adolescent Parent Program have done much to help single moms.

But, in a culture pushing people to produce perfect children, it’s still especially tough for single moms, said Jody Thomson, the director of the mothers program at the Women’s Health Clinic.

“Everything is related to producing the ultimate, best citizen,” Thomson said. “There’s a lot of scrutiny of mothers in relation to that — if you’re partnered or unpartnered, professional or living in poverty.”

“Think of a single mom living in poverty, either working or on assistance,” she said. “The assumption is she should be going to work (and setting an example for her kids). But for the single mom working for minimum wage there isn’t a lot of support to do that. We tell her she should be doing that to show her kids the value of work. If she’s highly educated, we tell her she should go back to work to use her education — she shouldn’t be ‘wasting’ her skills she’s worked so hard to acquire,'” said Thomson.

A stigma remains attached to single motherhood, said University of Manitoba sociology Prof. Susan Prentice.

University of Winnipeg Archives, WCPI More than 2,000 children from single moms and families who couldn't afford another mouth to feed ended up at Asile Ritchot orphanage in St. Norbert. The Sisters of Misericorde opened in 1904 to house the rising number of unadopted children. It closed in 1948.

Moms will still scramble for daycare so they can work at jobs where they earn an average four-fifths of what men make until they demand equity, said Prentice.

And it’s not that long ago that Manitoba women won their fight for fair distribution of marital property, Prentice said. Back in the 1970s, an ex-wife and children “could literally get nothing” following a divorce.

“Hopefully 30 years from now we’ll have a free, high-quality system of child care and early education,” Prentice said. “We’ll make sure those mothers who raise children and rely on social assistance can afford to keep body and soul intact, not a social allowance that condemns people to poor housing.”

That makes for a transient population and moving kids from school to school. “You can follow the chain of poor outcomes,” she said.

At Villa Rosa, it used to be 99 per cent of single women placed their babies for adoption because they had no means to support themselves, Strachan said. Now it’s only one or two per cent going the adoption route.

But Villa Rosa isn’t a hideaway sheltering pregnant middle-class young women from shame and stigma. It’s now a social agency assisting single moms with lots of challenges.

Seventy per cent are aboriginal, and many grew up in tough conditions or on the street.

More than 70 per cent have no one to accompany them when they go into labour. Some have cognitive delays, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, mental health issues, and involvement with the justice system or gangs.

“Today, they’re the most vulnerable women in Manitoba,” Strachan said.

“We’re not working with families in crisis because of a surprise pregnancy, we’re dealing with a 15-year-old who doesn’t have a birth certificate.”

When Vital Statistics doesn’t know you’re alive, you can’t get any prenatal benefits or assistance, she said. It was such a recurring problem, Villa Rosa created a “support worker” position.

Many moms there haven’t attended school for a while, said Strachan.

“One of our main goals is to get them back hooked into the school system and to experience some success. Many never had the opportunity or lived somewhere long enough,” said Strachan.

When they leave Villa Rosa, she hopes they continue their education, have a safe place to live and raise their babies. But, like Thomson and Prentice, she knows they face many more challenges, even in this day and age. “One thing we still need is a feminist movement to take on the needs of women and mothers and build a world that supports and helps women rather than hang them out to dry,” said Prentice.

“We have a lot of public issues we pretend are private troubles — ‘that’s her problem’… Most single mothers raising children are working very hard and doing a very important job — raising the next generation. They deserve to be supported and not vilified.”

Financial ledgers kept by the sisters date back to 1898.

A history of child care

1845 — Grey Nuns build a convent in St. Boniface that was a mission house for education and charity, including caring for the aged and orphans, treating the sick, and instructing children. The oldest building in Winnipeg is the home of the St. Boniface Museum.

1870s — The Mennonite’s Bergthaler Church Waisenamt mutual aid association was introduced by Mennonites who settled in Altona to aid widows and orphans.

1876 — The Indian Act results in thousands of First Nations children placed in residential schools.

1887 — Manitoba passed the Apprentices and Minors Act and established a superintendent of neglected and dependent children.

1888 — The Barnardo Industrial Farm near Russell, Man., is opened. More than 1,660 poor British kids plucked off the streets of London were sent there and trained as agricultural workers on the 10,000-acre farm.

1895 — The Humane Societies Act was amended to provide for the establishment of societies which served children, as well as animals.

1898 — An Act for the Better Protection of Neglected and Dependent Children was passed. It was founded upon the beliefs that many children required protection from callous or inept parents, that society required protection from juvenile delinquents and future criminal or dependent adults

The Sisters of Misericorde arrive in Winnipeg to assist unwed moms and open a maternity hospital.

1900 — Sisters of Misericorde open Winnipeg Maternity Hospital on Sherbrook Street, then rename it Misericordia Hospital.

1904 — Asile Ritchot orphanage is built on land donated to Sisters of Misericorde in St. Norbert. It closes in 1948.

1915 — the Children’s Home of Winnipeg built two orphanage buildings along Academy Road — one for boys, one for girls.

1916 — Mothers’ Allowance is added to Manitoba’s child welfare system. It was intended to help women who were widowed or had incapacitated husbands so they remain at home to care for their children.

1920 — Jewish Orphanage and Children’s Aid of Western Canada built 31/2-storey orphanage on five acres on Winnipeg’s Matheson Avenue East.

1922 — A new Child Welfare Act is introduced, including the recommendation that every child of unmarried parents should be a ward of the province.

University of Winnipeg Archives, WCPI Rows of cribs at the Asile Ritchot orphanage in St. Norbert.

1945 — Monthly Family Allowance is paid to families with children to help cover the costs of child maintenance. It is Canada’s first universal welfare program.

1965 — The Sisters of Misericorde open Villa Rosa on Wolseley Avenue for pregnant single women. The United Way provides operating funds and a new board made up of a cross-section of the community takes over.

1966 — The federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development completed a survey detailing all aspects of life for people living on reserves. The Hawthorn Report found that, with respect to child welfare services, “the situation varies from unsatisfactory to appalling.”

The “60’s Scoop” sees aboriginal children taken into care amd then placed for adoption in non-aboriginal homes — sometimes outside Canada.

1977 — The problems with the way child welfare services were delivered to aboriginal children sparked the creation of the Indian Child Welfare subcommittee, with representatives from Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, the provincial Department of Health and Social Development, and the federal departments of Indian Affairs and Health and Welfare. It called for sweeping reforms to the existing system to serve aboriginal people better.

1981 — Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council established the first aboriginal child and family services agency in Manitoba.

1982 — Tripartite Master Agreement signed in Manitoba laying the foundation to establish child welfare agencies for aboriginal families province-wide. Province bans practice of allowing native kids to be adopted by families outside of Manitoba.

1985 — The Kimmelman report, No Quiet Place, calls the CFS system “cultural genocide” and made more than four dozen recommendations including to establish an office of the child protector, and give control of child welfare for native kids off-reserve to native agencies.

1991 — Aboriginal Justice Inquiry releases report including a series of recommendations for the child welfare system. Main thrust of recommendations was for province to establish a Métis CFS agency, and extend responsibility of aboriginal agencies on reserve to kids from those reserves living off-reserve.

1999 — Province establishes Aboriginal Justice Inquiry — Child Welfare Initiative implementation commission to begin handing over powers for child welfare to aboriginal administrations.

2000 — Province signs agreements with Manitoba Métis Federation and Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs regarding new authority for child welfare.

2002 — Province introduces legislation to create four new child welfare authorities: Southern First Nations, Northern First Nations, Métis and General.

2003 — Child welfare act changes are proclaimed. Process of transferring cases to the new authorities begins.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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