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In early 1972, a group of women formed the Ottawa Women's Centre Association and drafted a proposal for a centre which would allow women to meet and pool their skills and resources. The Ottawa Women's Centre (OWC) was the result of their proposal. The Centre offered a space for meetings, counselling, training and education, and it became the hub of women's liberation activity in Ottawa from its opening in July 1972 until its demise in 1980.
Like many grassroots feminist organizations of the 1970s, the Women's Centre wanted to avoid traditional methods of organizing; the aim was to leave as much power as possible in the hands of the members themselves. Consequently, the OWC was structured as a collective, run by staff, volunteers and members together, and using consensus to decide on centre policy and direction. However, as the Women's Centre grew, the need for more structured organization became apparent, and while the collective structure was maintained, in 1974 a Policy Committee was elected to be in charge of the major decisions. It was also decided, in 1973, that the centre would be off limits to men.
The Women's Centre offered various services which revolved mainly around crisis help, counselling, information and support of various kinds. They were also very active in the community, helping to organize a number of events, such as the Native Women's March to Ottawa in 1979, protests against federal cutbacks affecting poor women, and "reclaim the night" parades. They inspired, supported and helped to organize many other women's organizations in the Ottawa community, such as the Rape Crisis Centre, Women's Career Counselling, Interval House and Upstream, a women's newspaper. In 1975, the scope of their programs had grown so large that it was decided to split the two components of service and action. At that time, Women's Info, Referral and Counselling became a separate organization while continuing to share the same space and Policy Committee.
Financial support for the OWC came from a number of sources, including individual donations and support from other community organizations such as the Ottawa Women's Business and Professional Club. A major fundraising drive and benefit events were held in 1973, 1974 and 1976. The OWC also received grant money through the International Women's Year Program, the Local Initiatives Program and the City of Ottawa. In 1975, they were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Regional Municipality on the condition that they incorporate and register as a charitable institution. However, this decision was strongly opposed by some members who saw the potential for serious problems in reliance on government funding. These problems were illustrated the following year when the same grant was revoked. Although the decision was later reversed, the OWC was temporarily thrown into a funding crisis by the controversy.
In 1978 an open meeting was called to discuss the future of the OWC and it was decided that they would work towards becoming self-sufficient. A Business Committee was formed to help with this goal, and the result was the creation of Chez Nous, a small cafe which opened on the premises in February 1979. It was hoped that revenues from Chez Nous would allow the centre to survive without government support. Unfortunately, difficulties connected to their application for a liquor license threw them into even deeper financial trouble and they were forced to close in May 1980.
The Women’s Place / Place aux femmes (fonds 10-020) was opened in 1986, after extensive feasibility studies and community surveys to determine exactly what type of service should be offered in Ottawa. The basic organisation, philosophy and services of Women’s Place were very similar to those of the previous Ottawa Women’s Centre, but there was more emphasis on meeting the needs of diverse groups of women in the community, and on working together with other organisations and agencies.
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