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YWCA Building, 21 McGill Street, June 23, 1929. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Mary Beaton instructs a YWCA swimming class, 21 McGill Street, 1908. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Ladies of Ontario House, 698 Ontario Street, circa 1915. Image by William James. Courtesy of the YWCA and Library and Archives Canada.

Members of Toronto's YWCA, Muskoka Lakes, July 1, 1909. Image by Frank W. Micklethwaite. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

  • The Young Women's Christian Association

    The Move to McGill Street

    In 1891, the YWCG opened its location at 21 McGill Street with facilities to serve its growing membership. It was situated next door to the much larger Young Men’s Christian Association building. 

    The YWCG also founded The Haven, a reintegration program for women recently released from prison, and maintained a summer cottage on Toronto Island at Hanlan’s Point, referred to as “The Rest”, for members desiring a holiday getaway. The Guild also published a newspaper, the Guild Gazette. 

    Local churches and influential supporters, including Samuel Hume Blake, the Eaton family (of Eaton’s department store fame), and the Gooderham family (of the Gooderham & Worts Distillery), helped to pay for the Guild’s sizable operating and rental costs. This allowed members to access diverse offerings at a low annual membership fee, provided their “good standing” in church and at work. 

    In 1895, the most popular courses included Instrumental Music, Millinery (hat-making), and Penmanship. The library was also very popular, as well as community events such as a New Years’ party in 1888 for the city’s female newspaper sellers. 

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  • The Young Women's Christian Association

    Conflicting Values

    The YWCG was one of many affiliated groups of the Young Women’s Christian Association operating independently across Toronto in the late 19th century. The Toronto YWCA and the YWCG began as small women-led initiatives. Created in 1873, the Toronto YWCA provided similar offerings to the YWCG. In 1892, it opened facilities at 18 Elm Street.

    Over time, the conflicting goals of religious evangelism and responding to the secular realities of life in the city challenged the YWCA’s leadership. These tensions sometimes alienated the organisation from the women they attempted to serve. The Association received backlash from the women living in its boarding houses because of the strict house rules, such as a 9 PM curfew and a “Beau Tax” charging up to 50 cents for male visitors.

    Despite the boarders being adult, financially-independent women, the middle-class leadership of the Toronto YWCA (as well as many other social organisations at the time) felt a moral and religious obligation to enforce strict values of piety and domesticity. However, over time, the YWCA became a fully non-denominational institution with varied programming responding to the needs of women and girls across the city.

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  • The Young Women's Christian Association

    The YWCA Today

    The 21 McGill Street YWCA continued its operations until 1973. For ten years afterward it held the McGill Club, a private club for business women whose membership included the novelist Margaret Atwood and the musician Sylvia Tyson. Since 1994, 21 McGill Street houses the administration offices of Covenant House, which offers community services, support centres, life skills courses, sports activities, and other programs across the city for youth from 16-24 years old.

    The Toronto YWCA evolved to provide a wide range of training, employment, newcomer support, housing, and emergency shelter services to women and their families across the Greater Toronto Area. It is committed to assisting marginalised and racialised women, girls, and gender-diverse people.

    In 2012, the YWCA opened the Elm Centre at 87 Elm Street, the former location of the House of Industry and Laughlen Lodge. The Elm Centre provides 300 affordable and supportive permanent apartment units for women and their families, specifically Indigenous women, gender-diverse people, women fleeing domestic violence, and those with mental health and substance abuse needs.

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  • The Young Women's Christian Association

    Additional Resources

    Hall, Margaret Ann. The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016

    Mitchinson, Wendy. “The YWCA and Reform in the Nineteenth Century”. Social History. Vol. 12, No. 24., November 1979.

    Muir, Elizabeth G. An Unrecognized Contribution: Women and Their Work in 19th-Century Toronto. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2022

    YWCA Toronto website.

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