Origins of the Nelson and District Women’s Centre

By Sandra Hartline

In 1973, Vita Luthmers (Storey), one of the inspirational founders of the Nelson Women’s Centre, came back from Vancouver with $7,600 in federal funds from the Secretary of State. Thus began the Nelson and District Women`s Centre, now the longest running rural women’s centre in Canada.

We were the first Women`s Centre in BC outside the Lower Mainland,” Vita remembers. “We shared an office with other community groups in the old Peterson Building at Baker and Ward, on the second floor. In 1974, we incorporated as the West Kootenay Women’s Association, and the Centre became a program of WKWA.”

The group’s objectives were the same then as they are today: to maintain a drop-in and referral centre providing support and counselling for women, to have a member library and to be a special place where women can organize around their needs.

The Centre became a place where local midwives taught childbirth education classes, where consciousness-raising groups met regularly, where natural birth control workshops were held, where choice for women was always asserted and where the long-running IMAGES– Kootenay Women’s Newspaper had their first meetings. Many groups used the Centre to organize community events – Kootenay Women in Trades, Women’s Access Program, Women’s Advocacy Program, and Women’s Festivals, to name just a few.

The first of many WKWA Women’s Festivals was organized in 1974 by Marcia Braundy at Pass Creek, showcasing women’s talents in the arts. “I noticed so many of my friends singing and playing instruments in their kitchens, I thought they should be up on the stage like men had always been,” Marcia says.

In 1978, the Women’s Centre moved to the old Jam Factory building on Vernon Street. Many useful projects had their beginnings at that location, some of which grew into major projects independent of the Women’s Centre, and still continue.

The first battered women’s support group emerged in the 1980s. In 1988 members of WKWA began the Advocacy Centre, which still exists in our community today,

After years of moving from the Jam Factory to the Front Street Emporium to a suite above Gerick Cycle and Sports on Hall Street, the WKWA House Committee’s Suzanne and Sally Mackenzie, Pat Griffiths and Maggie Shirley found the Women’s Centre a home at 420 Mill Street. Following six months of renovations, many hours of volunteer labour and a CEIC-funded building-training project managed by local carpenter Sally Mackenzie, the Mill Street house opened its doors in January, 1995. The Centre was later named for the Mackenzie sister’s mother, Jean, a dedicated community volunteer, in honour of the commitment of all the women who have worked so tirelessly to provide and sustain a permanent home for West Kootenay women activists.

The Centre still operates with three part time employees and a small budget, but its impact on the community has been mighty over the past thirty-eight years. Members of the volunteer Coordinating Collective welcome the input of the community on any women’s issues, or on any other community activity.

Vita asserts: “It’s wonderful to see the Nelson Women’s Centre still strong, still growing, and still being such a vital service in our community.”

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