St. Christopher House, 1912-2012: a century of social services in Toronto

Cleaners' Action: empowering office cleaning workers

Many of the Portuguese women that St. Christopher House workers had contact with through The Portuguese West of Bathurst Project (PWBP) and ESL classes were building cleaners – women who were exploited by firms offering low wages, long hours, and little, if any, job security. Created in 1975, the Cleaners’ Action program was headed by Sidney Pratt, and held workshops where women could discuss their workplace concerns, examined union contracts, helped them negotiate with unions, and got involved in specific job actions. The Cleaners’ Action Newsletter, started by this group in 1978 and distributed to cleaners in downtown office buildings, provided information on workplace rights and featured interviews with Portuguese cleaners. By 1981, the newsletter was merged with ESL training, as cleaners began to write articles and produce the newsletter themselves; a concrete example of the progress made by some women in the ESL classes. Cleaners’ Action helped Portuguese women win significant labour victories in workplaces such as the Queen’s Park complex, the Toronto-Dominion Towers, and First Canadian Place.

The Domestic Violence program for Portuguese women

The Domestic Violence program for Portuguese women at St. Christopher House emerged from Cleaners’ Action meetings, where women had disclosed instances of physical violence by their husbands. As there were no programs of this kind in the Portuguese community, St. Christopher House workers, in 1982, decided to create the Domestic Violence Group Project, which targeted initially Portuguese women. Outreach for the group was done through existing programs at St. Christopher House such as the Cleaners’ Action program and the ESL program. Individual and group discussions provided support to women as they addressed emotional, legal, and societal dimensions of domestic abuse. Group programs also gave young children a chance to express their experiences, develop insight, and establish mutual support with peers. Significantly, this was the first domestic abuse program for immigrant women in Toronto. This program faced opposition from some of the most conservative groups in the Portuguese community.

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