Interview of Grace Stapleton
Interview Date: December 2005
Bio: Grace Stapleton was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and moved to Gander as a young child. In 1967 she moved to Labrador City. She is one of the founding mothers of the Labrador West Status of Women Council and was involved with finding and setting up its first location. Grace represented Labrador West at a NAC (National Action Committee on the Status of Women) Conference in the early eighties and was involved with the organization of the Provincial Conference of Status of Women Councils hosted by Labrador West in 1984. In 1991, Grace moved to St. John’s and became involved with the St. John’s Club of the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW). Today she is President of the St. John’s CFUW and the Regional Director for Atlantic Canada.
Interviewer: How did you get involved in the Women’s Movement?
Grace: My earliest memory of being aware of some inequalities that exist in the way men and women were treated was an experience my mother had. When I was in grade 8, she went to work in Eaton’s department store. We didn’t think of it as mom needing to go to work. Mom wanted to go to work. She was working in the hardware department at Eaton’s store and one young man who got hired after she had been there for some time asked her if she would cash his cheque when she went to cash hers at lunchtime. She agreed to do that and discovered that he got paid more than she did.
So of course she came home saying, “I can’t believe it, but I saw it with my own eyes.” This made a big impression on me. I thought how could this be? I knew he didn’t have more experience or training.
But other than that I guess I was raised with the idea that you could do whatever you wanted to do. I didn’t really see discrimination first hand.
When we went to Labrador, it was 1967. Actually, we did have an incident before that. I graduated from university in 1966. My husband had graduated before that and was teaching at Brother Rice when the recruiters came from Labrador City, which was just getting started. The schools there were paying better money, so we went to talk with the recruiter. He said that he had a job for us. We told him that was great, that we were getting married in June, and we would come in September. He said, ‘Oh, no. No job for you if you are getting married.’ There would be a job for my husband, but not for me.
So of course we said that’s fine, we’re not going there. We’re certainly not going for one job. So I applied for a job at Presentation Convent on Barnes Road and got that.
About January of the following year we got a call from Labrador City asking if we were coming that September. We said, ‘No. Not for one job.’ The reply was, ‘Oh, no. We now have two jobs.’ It seems their policy of not hiring married women had been changed. So we debated it. We still had a few university debts and thought it would be a big adventure and off we went.
We were there a couple of years when my sister and her husband came. He and two of his friends started a medical practice in Labrador City.
Our children were born there. I stayed at home after my daughter was born, and didn’t go back to work until after my son was born two and a half years later. My sister was working only part time . So I guess we had some time on our hands.
There were lots of other young mothers in a similar situation. So we started to meet and talk and see what we could do about issues of concern to women. Things were getting going out there and some of our acquaintances were getting involved. So I guess it just evolved from there.
Interviewer: Were there any events that you were watching in the news that were getting you interested in the Women’s Movement?
Grace: I suppose there were. I can’t remember one specific thing. We did have visitors (in Lab West) who were involved in the Women’s Movement in St. John’s. I do remember Jill Schooley and Iris Kirby. She told us there would be funding available to help run a Women’s Centre. There wasn’t funding for any capital costs, but for rent and I guess there must have been for a coordinator eventually.
Camille Fouillard came up as well. These women made us realize that we probably could get a council started.
There certainly were issues in Labrador City as elsewhere. I didn’t realize how much until we got going. Many of the women who came had marital problems and some were abused. It became obvious that this (family violence) was going to be a major concern. Eventually the Council did pursue this issue (and opened a Crisis Centre).
At the beginning I can remember going around and looking for a place (for the Women’s Centre): We needed a space. We didn’t want to pay much for it. But it must be a certain size (big enough for a small group to meet). It must be accessible.
I remember going to the “new mall” in Labrador City. That was late seventies. We did find a space in the Labrador Mall.
That was the first location. I remember one of the members bought a desk and we leased it from her because you weren’t allowed to have any capital costs, but you could have rental and lease. We had some shelving units and that kind of thing. We weren’t there very long. Our next space was upstairs in the old shopping centre. One of our members at the time was confined to a wheelchair, and she couldn’t get upstairs. Obviously that wasn’t good, not just for her but for everybody. So we eventually moved to the place that they (the Labrador West Status of Women Council) still use, on Drake Avenue.
Interviewer: Was that a house then?
Grace: No, it’s a big building. It was once a bunk house, I think. A lot of old bunkhouses were torn down after Labrador City got going. Now companies use some of those that remain for office space. I think that particular one might have been used as a training facility at one time. So it did have fairly large rooms and was accessible. So that’s the space we used.
Interviewer: Did the Council buy it then?
Grace: No, it’s a rental. I think there are other community groups in there. I was talking with a young woman from Labrador City the other night and she said it (the Women’s Centre) is still in the “community centre”. I believe that is what she called it. It may have been called that before I left.
I can’t remember the first coordinator. I think we had volunteer coordinators for some time. There may have been a paid coordinator before Frances Frye. But Frances is the one I remember; she was there for many years. I think she went to university and came back. I believe she’s just retired now.
Interviewer: In terms of setting it up the Women’s Centre, did your group officially call itself a Status of Women Council before it moved into its place?
Grace: I think we called ourselves a Status of Women Council and the place was called the Women’s Centre. And there was also a Crisis Centre that opened while I was still there.
Interviewer: And that was a direct project of the Centre?
Grace: Yes, it was. As few people as possible knew where it was. It was meant to be (a place) where the wife, and children if any, could get out of a (violent) situation right away when there was a crisis. Maybe they could stay for a day or two. I don’t think we had services beyond that.
The police took the calls because none of us were able to do that. This practice may have changed even before I left – but that’s how it worked originally. Somebody in crisis called the police, and they called the volunteers; we realized that it’s often better if it (a call for help) is not associated with the police, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it worked when I was there.
Interviewer: That’s a big project. How many women were involved?
Grace: I’ve been trying to recall names. I know that I travelled to Corner Brook in late seventy-seven or seventy-eight for a conference. That was when I met Anne Bell,Wendy Williams and Mary Lee Pittman and a lot of others whose names I don’t recall. I can’t remember issues at that conference, but it seemed to be that a number of people were really enthusiastic about getting Womens’ Centres going.
(I realize that I did not answer the question. You were referring to those women who were involved in Labrador City. I’m sure our group was small, fewer than 20. Some of those I remember were Dorothy Robbins, Elva Areny, Mildred Vairinhos, Erica Furlong, Linda Thomas, Elizabeth Foster, Ann Miller, Ingrid Caines and Pat Windsor. There certainly were others, but my memory for names is very poor.)
Interviewer: Were you the president, if you were going to these conferences?
Grace: No. I think there was money for more than one delegate to travel to a provincial conference, and I was not working at the time, so I was available to go. In the early days the first president was Heather Duggan. Dorothy (Robbins) was vice president. I had various positions on the executive, then I was president for a while. I was president when we had the conference in 1984.
Interviewer: So Labrador West sponsored a provincial conference then?
Grace: Yes, we had a provincial conference in 1984. Our theme was ‘Balancing the Scales’.
Interviewer: Did you have a good turnout, being in Labrador?
Grace: Yes we did. Better than I expected. I can remember that we did get money to hire someone to coordinate the conference. A young woman, whom I didn’t know very well, came forward, and we hired her for the job. I thought at the time that she was a real godsend because we could never have handled it with just volunteers. I’m pretty sure that we got enough money to at least subsidize transportation (for delegates).
I remember Jennifer Soper was the contact with the Secretary of State. I’m not sure if we received a special grant, but I think so. I can’t remember. It must have been; I do remember completing grant proposals.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful that Labrador played an equal role like that so early.
Grace: There must be records on the conference somewhere I suppose. I remember having a fair number there. We held it at the Grenfell Hotel in Wabush – the only place that was suitable. I think it was a success.
I remember that I had to introduce the main speaker at the dinner, Lucy Pepin. She was a senator and a very elegant lady. Not, I don’t think, a strong feminist, but an excellent speaker, and it was wonderful to have her as a guest.
I remember we had delegates from outside Newfoundland as well; there were some people who came from NAC (National Action Committee on the Status of Women). I know I went to a NAC conference one year before our conference in Labrador City, so it must have been in the early eighties. The conference was in Ottawa and I was very taken aback at how antagonistic some of the women were to other groups. I thought nothing would happen because they were just at odds, just arguing amongst each other.
There was a Native women’s group there and they brought their children, which was interesting because most of the rest of us didn’t do that. There were some people who thought that was wonderful, and others who thought ‘how are we going to get anything done?’
They seemed to be at odds about policy and what action to take. I think Doris Anderson had resigned just before this conference. To me it was all rather tense. There were women from the Communist Party of Canada. There were women from CARAL (Canadian Abortion Rights Action League), the abortion rights group. I don’t think it was a very long conference, but on the last day they seemed to agree on the actions they wished to pursue.
Then we all had to march up to Parliament Hill, where we had meetings with Opposition members. I don’t think any government members were willing to meet us. It was very interesting for me to go up Parliament Hill on this big march.
Interviewer: Could you tell me a little bit more about the Crisis Centre in Labrador West?
Grace: I think they may still have one, but I’m not sure whether or not it is a now a Transition House, where the women can stay for a while longer. But back then, there was a house and I cannot remember how we would have paid for it. It may have been a company house that we were allowed to have; that may have been the case. The companies owned most of the houses. Rent was lower than you would have paid elsewhere.
So there were a lot of company homes and if people had moved away, there might have been some that were vacant and they may have allowed us to have one. Because I can’t imagine that we actually had enough (money for rent).
Interviewer: Are there any other issues or achievements over the years that stand out in your mind?
Grace: I remember pornography was a concern. We showed the film, Not a Love Story. I can remember taking it to have public showings. It sparked some great discussions.
The Matrimonial Property Act was an issue of course, and childcare, as always. In those days there were no daycares. My own children went out to a home and a lady looked after them. And that was true of most of my friends as well. We were concerned about the lack of regulation.
For a while we had a morning play group at the Centre. The Early Childhood Development Association was getting some attention, and some of our group formed a branch in Labrador West. I don’t know where we got it from, but we got some funding to open up a little daycare place – just for an experiment. I think we managed to hang on to the funding for a few months. One of the conditions for the funding was that you had to accept children with special needs. Maybe the funding came from some branch of government or association that was concerned for special needs children. I do remember that we had a specific ratio of special needs children to other children. We used a church basement and had only one teacher and several volunteers. Since this was a new idea, we volunteered our own children to make up the required number, and to see if this would work. I don’t think they (the children) attended every day. It might have operated for three mornings a week or something like that. It didn’t last for very long. It really was an experiment to see what difficulties we might encounter.
Interviewer: A step in the right direction though…
Grace: Yes. And as far as I know there are daycares in Labrador West today, as they are here.
Our group also wrote letters (to government) when the Not Withstanding Clause (in the Constitution) issue was a concern for women’s equality rights. I think all of the Women’s Centres and Status of Women groups were asked to do a letter writing campaign. So we did do that.
Interviewer: How did the public react to your group? Was it positive or was it more that you were seen as “one of those women’s libber’s groups”?
Grace: It was the latter. Being a mining town it had many trades people, but very few women working in the mines…probably none. I can remember there was a woman hired as the human resources person. She joined us a few times or we had her as a speaker and she said that she would do as much as possible if there were women who applied. But of course it came back to the same thing – that very few women were trained for those jobs. This was one of the issues we worked on.
Interviewer: What year did you leave Labrador?
Grace: We left in 1991 and came to St. John’s. But we went back to Labrador for one more year of teaching and then came back to St. John’s in July of 1993.
Interviewer: I understand you are involved with the CFUW (Canadian Federation of University Women). When did you get involved with them?
Grace: I think I went to a meeting or two in 1991. They (CFUW St. John’s) were meeting then in the National Research Council Building. A friend of mine from Labrador City had moved to Ontario and had gotten very involved with CFUW there. She said, “When you go to St. John’s you have to join CFUW.” So I started attending meetings and volunteered first as a social convener. Then I was transportation convener for the national conference that CFUW St. John’s hosted in 1996. But I was still working. I worked outside of town for several years. I finished teaching in 2000. Then I got more involved. So it’s kind of gone from there.
Interviewer: So what is your role with the CFUW now?
Grace: President and Regional Director.
Interviewer: That sounds like a full time job!
Grace: Well, some people have said, including the Atlantic Vice President, that I didn’t do it in the right order. I became Regional Director when I was vice President of the local (St. John’s) club. That seemed to be fine because I could manage both of those roles. I knew that I should go on to be president; that’s expected when you’re vice president. I was still Regional Director when the role of President began, so at the moment I have both jobs.
But there is only the one club here (in Newfoundland ), although a Corner Brook club is getting started again. Since the major duty of Regional Director is to coordinate with the clubs in your region, that task is quite easy if you’re the president of the only club!
As part of my role as Regional Director, I tried to get a club started in Conception Bay North. I thought that would be a good area because it was a little too far for women to come in to St. John’s for meetings and a lot of professional women and others might be interested in starting a club there. I did a lot of campaigning over a couple of years to make people aware of the purpose of a CFUW club. We had three meetings in CBN. There were a small group of women who were interested, but none of them wanted to take executive positions. So we were not able to establish a new club in Conception Bay North.
Corner Brook was the next contact. It took several months before a group formed who were willing to try to form a club. They met through last winter and spring. I went as Regional Director to be guest speaker at their meeting in April. Since then they’ve written their constitution, and will receive a charter this summer.
Interviewer: What would you say the CFUW’s role in the Women’s Movement has been in this province? Would you describe it as a feminist organization?
Grace: Not as a grassroots organization. I think all of the women, or almost all, have university degrees – which doesn’t mean that they had full-time careers or got well paid. But I don’t think the perspective of most of the women in the group is quite the same as that of the members in the Status of Women Council in Labrador City. They are not so politically motivated.
But members are very interested in certain causes. Each year we study the resolutions that were passed at the National AGM. Then clubs are supposed to consider the policy and see what they can do - how they can lobby or what they can do to put that policy into effect.
Interviewer: Is the policy on women’s issues or on more general societal issues?
Grace: Well, last year we took on one concerning the loss of libraries and full time librarians in the schools. That was the one that we wrote letters about to the Minister of Education and the MHAs. We got letters back from some of them saying, ‘Thank you for your interest. We’re doing what we can.’ That’s to be expected. At least we were on record, and government ministers knew of our concerns. We have not discussed any issues that would be considered to be under the heading “status of women” for some time.
But we really haven’t done much recently in the area of political action. At our November meeting we had a brain storming session to come up with ideas of where CFUW should go from now, because at the sixtieth anniversary we focused on all members had done in the past. I noticed that one of the suggestions was that we do more lobbying. In January we’ll see if we can narrow down our focus to one or two projects that we can realistically accomplish.
Interviewer: Having just had the sixtieth anniversary of the St. John’s CFUW, you must have found out a lot about the organization’s history. How would you say the CFUW has contributed to the Women’s Movement over the last thirty-five years? I know, for instance, that they were one of the few groups that presented a brief to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
Grace: We’re still going through some of our archival material, but we’ve found a lot of interesting things. In the past they (members) have done all sorts of projects. Diane Siegel would know about that because she was involved over the years. The Children’s Film Project was one. They operated a “Head Start” type of program for a short time. They also donated money (which they must have raised by one of their fundraising events) to Memorial Stadium, since this was a community project. We have a copy of the cheque that they presented. This is interesting in light of the controversy about the city of St. John’s selling the stadium now.
Some of the CFUW members who wrote briefs and/or made presentations were Janice Moores, Faith Balisch, Barbara Lewis, Kathleen Knowling, and Fran Innes. I’m sure there were others who took on special causes or projects.
It was mentioned at the sixtieth anniversary dinner that very often CFUW got projects started and then other groups carried them forward. Apparently, the CFUW was involved in the early days of starting the Michael Donovan and Marjorie Mews libraries. CFUW St. John’s also operates the NAPS (Newfoundland Art Posters in the Schools) Project. Posters are circulated in the schools in the St. John’s area; the intention is to expose students to the images created by artists in our province.
One of the major goals of CFUW is to support education, particularly for women and girls. Since it began in 1945 CFUW St. John’s has been raising money for scholarships. These scholarships are for women who attend Memorial University. Today, we still do major fundraising projects (one is the annual used book sale) to keep the scholarship program going.