|Saturday, November 14, 1998
Last week, following an investigation by Ontario's Alcohol
and Gaming Commission, Barrie police charged Anne Marie Aikins, the former executive
director of the Barrie and District Rape Crisis Line, with criminal breach of trust, fraud
over $5,000, and theft over $5,000. Four members of the crisis line's board of
directors as well as the organization's office administrator face identical charges.
Police allege the crisis line, which provided counselling at a
centre in the city, misappropriated funds when it used charity bingo money to pay for Aikins' legal defence in an earlier criminal matter.
In February of this year, Aikins was convicted of fraud over $1,000
after a three-week trial. A jury heard that she used the crisis line's credit card
to pay for approximately $14,000 in personal items such as clothing, furniture, airline
tickets, exercise equipment, and restaurant meals.
Following her conviction, Aikins, as well as the crisis line's board
of directors, continued to insist she had done nothing wrong. They say she
reimbursed the organization and only used the credit card because she wasn't able to
qualify for a personal one after the breakdown of her marriage.
But at the trial, the Crown said reimburesments to the centre
totalled less than $1,000. And Justice Peter Howden later noted that the existence
of the credit card "became a little secret, completely unrecorded in the minutes of
organization, known to some but not all of the board."
In July, the Ontario government withdrew more than $400,000 in
annual funding from the crisis line, forcing its closure a month ago.
The events in Barrie are not isolated. They are part of a long
history of financial disarray, weak accountability, criminal charges, lawsuits, mass
resignations, and vicious infighting that have plagued crisis centres and battered women's
shelters across the country.
Underlying all of it is the political context in which these
services operate. They are supposed to be safe harbours in the storm. And the
fact that they are run by feminists is supposed to mean that victimized women receive top
But a growing chorus of critics say the highly politicized character
of many facilities means that the clients' needs take second place to the agenda of the
people in charge. In some cases, the critics say, these services are being run by
zealots concerned with dogma who are overtly hostile to men, male children, and
"I can't say what it's like now; I've kept my distance,"
says Madelyn Iler, a former shelter worker in Kingston, Ontario. "But in my
experience, there was a very militant political agenda that came first. The
interests of the client were way down there."
In 1991, when the author June Callwood resigned from Nellie's, the
Toronto women's hostel and shelter she founded in 1974, the nation caught glimpses of the
noxious political squabbles that almost destroyed that facility. Differences of
opinion deteriorated into allegations of racism and homophobia, funds that should have
been used to help unfortunate women were consumed by mediators, and many longtime
supporters withdrew in disgust.
In 1993, a victim of an attempted abduction complained to the media
that staffers at the Hamilton rape crisis centre were anti-police and anti-male.
"They strongly discourage trust and respect in the police and there is no desire to
help a woman continue dealing with men, not even her partner," said the woman, who
questioned the propriety of counsellors expressing "such strong opinions" to
After other women came forward with similar concerns, an independent
review was conducted that identified a litany of problems at the centre. According
to the report, the centre had a reputation among other community organizations for being
"defensive, insular and 'on the fringe.'"
During the review, four members of the centre's board
resigned. They claimed staff did not believe in accountability and were refusing to
answer questions or take direction from the board.
A half-hour drive away, the Niagara Region Sexual Assault Centre was
also in turmoil. During a closed-door meeting in May 1993, the old board was
replaced by a new slate of 12 people who changed the locks and dismissed the executive
director. The province threatened to cut off funding if stability wasn't restored,
and the fired executive director filed a lawsuit.
And the list of troubled centres kept growing. In Calgary, the
board of the sexual assault centre laid off the staff, closed down the agency, and
resigned in 1993. The centre went into receivership, was investigated by city
auditors, had its insurance cancelled, and was closed for 16 months. Among the
outstanding controversies were allegations of breaches of client confidentiality, lawsuits
filed by three former employees, and the improper use of funds earmarked for other
In 1994, the women's shelter in Kingston, Ontario, was in an
uproar. After three damning reviews in as many years, the Ontario government
withdrew $180,000 in annual funding designated for counselling and employment programs,
and put the shelter on notice that another $314,000 for general services was in jeopardy
if changes were not made.
A letter signed by ten shelter staffers, including Madelyn Iler,
alleged that "the workplace [was] used to further extreme militant feminist
philosophy" and that lesbian employees received preferential treatment while
heterosexual ones were told not to "discuss their wedding plans or their wedding days
with their co-workers."
Also in 1994, the atmosphere at Nelson House, a Nepean, Ontario,
battered women's shelter, became so acrimonious that police were called in after a staffer
tried to prevent the chair of the board from entering the building. Residents
witnessed some pushing and shoving.
An independent consultant reported "numerous incidents of
yelling, put-downs [and] disrespect for differences of viewpoints" among
staffers. A second report noted that while the primary purpose of such a facility
should be to help victimized women, Nelson's mission statement "begins and ends with
an emphasis on striving to fulfill the needs of staff and protecting the 'personal power'
By late 1996, two factions at Nelson House were asking a judge to
decide who was in charge, and for a time it was shut down.
Meanwhile, Ottawa's Interval House shelter was also in trouble. A 1994 report
concluded that that facility was so dysfunctional it should be closed down. In 1995,
police were called after a staffer accused a director of assaulting her. One woman was
charged with assault while a stalking charge was laid against another. In June 1995,
the board resigned. The following January, the entire staff was fired.
In Toronto, Shirley Samaroo House -- meant to help immigrant women
-- collapsed in 1994. Resignations, mediators, and concern from provincial funders
were elements there too, as racial squabbles, intolerance, and extremism tore the shelter
In April 1996, the province of Nova Scotia yanked funding and
temporarily shut down Yarmouth's Juniper House shelter after its board resigned -- citing
tension between staffers and the board. Ruth Ann Deveau, the former executive
director, had been convicted of fraud under $1,000, after her successor found funds were
At Kingston's Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, 15 volunteers quit in
protest in 1996. One concern was the fact that the directors had decided to stop
using a local auctioneer for charity events. The reason, in the words of one board
member: "She is married to a Tory and the ramifications of that are
unavoidable." The centre also began to decline free food from a local Domino's
Pizza, because the American founder and then-owner of the chain is a pro-life supporter.
Five days after a summer student revealed these board decisions to
the media, she was fired from her job and told she would not be welcome as a volunteer.
The havoc at two shelters in Edmonton, both run by the Women in Need
organization, stretches back to the beginning of the decade. In 1992, one faction
sought a court injunction over the results of a board election. Amid allegations of
voting irregularities, eight board members resigned. A month later, the provincial
auditor was called in to investigate. Between 1993 and 1995, the organization had
three different executive directors.
Earlier this year, during a bitter labour dispute, a representative
of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (to which staff now belong) alleged that
"53 employees over the past three years have resigned or been dismissed" out of
a "permanent complement of 28." The union has characterized management as
"oppressive and controlling," while workers have told the media that shelter
clients are leaving the facility because services aren't available.
While accountability is a buzzword in the women's movement where male behaviour is
concerned, report after report has stressed that accountability is sorely lacking in
feminist-run social services. Tens of millions of public and charitable dollars are
handed over every year to organizations with long records of financial and managerial
scandal. Rather than attracting people who can put aside differences and comfort the
afflicted, these organizations have become magnets for militants who seem instead to view
such services as an opportunity to proselytize.
Barbara MacQuarrie, president of the Ontario Coalition of Rape
Crisis Centres, says that a client using these services will be urged to "put her
experience as an individual into a larger socio-economic political context where women
experience violence systematically. We try to tell somebody, this isn't just about
you. This is about the way women are treated, and we have a whole bunch of
institutions and systems that reinforce that kind of treatment."
But Jeannette McEachern, who ran the Calgary Distress Centre for 17
years and who stepped into the breach when that city's rape crisis centre closed
temporarily, believes it's inappropriate to mix politics and counselling.
"What tends to happen is that they politicize clients that are
really supposed to be into healing," she says. "I have no problem with
political action, but I think it should be done by other people not working with
McEachern read the rape crisis centre's volunteer manual in the
early '90s and found that "three-quarters of it was [devoted to] strong feminist
Pauline Green is a lawyer who helped set up Toronto's rape crisis
centre in the early '70s, and says, "Every feminist organization that I've been
involved in, there's been a lot of infighting." Green has resigned more than
once because the male-bashing got too blatant and the attacks from colleagues too
personal. "I'm sure women who go for help get this philosophy: that you have to
hate men or you're lost."
As a Toronto social worker in the '70s, Raymond Selbie worked
closely with a women's hostel. Today, two decades after he began practising law in Haliburton, Ontario, Selbie says things are different.
"There's been a drastic change in the mentality that's
controlling shelters. Now what I see with [the local shelter], and what I hear from
other lawyers, is they don't even want you in there to help a client. They won't let
you physically in the shelter. Even if I get signed releases from my client, they
simply will not talk to me."
Yet despite all this strife and disgrace, the people now operating
shelters and crisis centres don't admit their vision might be flawed. In the words
of Vilma Rossi, executive director of the Hamilton sexual assault centre, separating
feminism from sex assault counselling is like "separating Catholicism from a church
service." She believes "it's the feminist philosophy that makes the
service a good one."
Alberta shelter spokesperson Arlene Chapman blames the difficulties
feminist social services have encountered in recent years on government indifference and
poor wages: "There's not a lot of support for women's services in the province of
Alberta, and women's work is terribly undervalued." Chapman says this
"creates some morale problems in the agencies."
Nor does MacQuarrie [president of the Ontario Coalition of Rape
Crisis Centres] accept that mistakes have been made. Her organization has been known
to demand that government officials step aside until allegations of sexual harassment
against them have been resolved. But the fraud charges laid in 1992 against Anne
Marie Aikins, the Barrie crisis line's executive director, did not stop her from serving
two terms, from 1992-1996, as the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centre's president.
"Bodies make their own decisions," MacQuarrie told the
National Post. "And it doesn't really matter, most times, what external people
think about that." In her view, the charges against Aikins were
"I think she has been targeted as a high-profile
feminist. I think she was seen as a woman who has a certain amount of power and
influence, and given her strong feminist perspective I think that was not appreciated by
elements of the male-dominated establishment."
MacQuarrie believes Aikins is innocent and that she was convicted of
fraud because she lives in a small town. "I don't know if you know
Barrie. I don't know if you know what Barrie thinks of rape crisis centres,"
says MacQuarrie. "People in Barrie don't like feminists, or the jury didn't
Battered women's shelters are supposed to be caring, and supportive facilities. But
women who seek refuge in them often tell a different story. Those below all
requested anonymity. Some fear personal or professional reprisals, others wish to protect
their own privacy and that of their children.
In May 1996, Shirley knocked on the door of a Winnipeg battered women's shelter with
her two teenage daughters. The then 34-year-old aboriginal woman says she turned to
the facility not because her common-law husband had been violent, but because they'd had a
fight, it was late, and she had nowhere else to go. "He didn't beat me up or
nothing, we just had an argument," she says. "It was just a time
out. I needed a place for my kids to stay and sleep and eat."
Because the shelter serves battered women, it would have been
understandable if Shirley had been re-directed to a hostel. Instead, she says, the
workers who took her in ignored her actual situation and pressured her to conform to their
"They asked me if I was abused, and I said, 'No.' They
wanted me to get a lawyer, and I said, 'For what?'"
Shirley says shelter employees tried to "trick" her into
making incriminating statements about her husband. Everything negative about him,
they wrote it down. If I said something nice about him, they wouldn't write it
down. I kept telling them, 'No, he didn't hit me.'"
She says she was offered incentives such as housing and furniture to
leave her husband. "They said, 'If you leave him, we can help you find a place
right away.' But I said, 'I don't want to leave him.'"
Two years later, Shirley is adamant she wouldn't turn to a shelter
again. "For me to leave my common-law, they wanted that so bad. They were
trying to break up a family, and I didn't want that."
In fear of her violent ex-husband, Judy stayed in a Halifax shelter six years ago
before fleeing the province. She describes it as "an experience from hell. I
couldn't wait to get out of there." The workers in the shelter, she says,
attempted to browbeat residents whose views differed from theirs. "Many of
these women had come from situations where there was inappropriate control of them by
somebody else in the household. And what I saw was that they were now being
controlled by a feminist ideology. [The message was:] 'You believe what we believe, you do
what we say, or get out of here.'"
Laura received counselling at a Southern Ontario shelter in 1989. "The
counsellor I had was convinced I had suffered some kind of sexual abuse as a child,"
she says. She was told that she had repressed the memories and that she would heal
if she could remember the identity of her abuser. "That was a really dark
year. If I had kept with her I don't know what would have happened. This woman was
bound and bent that she was going to convince me I'd been abused. It was a dangerous,
dangerous thing to do."
Lisa, an unemployed social worker, sought refuge at a Toronto shelter earlier this
year. "It was awful," she says. I lasted two days. I will
never do it again." She says she needed assistance putting her life back
together, but that shelter staff wasn't much help. "If you wanted to talk, you
had to stand in line and buttonhole them. Staff stayed in the office and residents
stayed in the living area. If this is supportive housing, they've got a lot to learn
about the word 'support.'"
Samantha says the RCMP had to break down the front door to pull her abusive husband off
her so often that "it got to the point where you couldn't even close the door any
more." But after fleeing to a Winnipeg shelter in 1994, Samantha says she
returned to her abusive husband rather than remain at the facility.
"My experience was it was a horrible place. It's such a
cold atmosphere in there; you're treated like cattle."
She says shelter staff were unhelpful, inattentive, and
inexperienced. "They don't assist you at all. Once they allow you into
the shelter, as far as they're concerned, they've done their job."
Copyright © Southam Inc.
[Donna Laframboise is the author of
at the Window, an account of the narrow-minded views and sex politics of the feminist
sector of society]
Neo Nazis and other overt hate groups are amateurs. THE HATE
MONGERS explains how some elements of the women's movement use lies
and hate to make big money for themselves, and how they harm our
culture and our economy.
Read THE HATE