PO Box 523, Station B,
Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6

PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Monday, 01 January 2024 20:05

The Ottawa Mission Past & Present

Our final speaker series session of 2023 was held via Zoom on the evening of November 29th. We were excited to welcome Peter Tilley as our guest to talk with us about The Ottawa Mission, its history, its role and the ongoing challenges that it and our community face. Given the housing and opioid crisis we are experiencing today, Peter’s presentation could not have been more timely.

Peter is the current CEO of The Ottawa Mission, having joined them in June 2013. Before this, he had spent 14 years as the Executive Director of the Ottawa Food Bank and has been a part-time professor at Algonquin College. Apart from this, Peter volunteers on community boards, including Ottawa Public Health, the Chair of the Ottawa Inner City Health and a Board member of the Alliance To End Homelessness and Soldiers Helping Soldiers as well as being a volunteer at Parkdale United Church. He is far more than an administrator, however, he takes the time to speak to shelter guests, lending them a friendly ear, and calling them by their first names.

Peter told us that there is a big safe in the basement of The Mission that contains a lot of their archives, including many old photos and ledgers. From these, he has been able to piece together the following history of The Ottawa Mission.

The Ottawa Mission can trace its origin to September 20, 1906 when a public meeting was held to discuss opening a shelter for homeless men camped along the Ottawa River. By January 1907, a shelter, The Union Mission for Men, had opened on George Street, moving to its current location on Waller Street in 1912. Peter provided some general context for the opening of the shelter in 1907, reminding us that at that date Canada had a population of 6.5 million of which over 50 % were rural, women and Indigenous people were not allowed to vote, life expectancy was 50 years and the population of Ottawa stood at 110,000. The first Superintendent of The Union Mission, James Joab, established its cornerstone principle by declaring that “No man would ever be turned away the first night they came to The Mission”.

Peter explained that the main focus of The Mission in those early days was “Three Hots and a Cot” (3 meals & a bed), which is still a key component of their services today. Peter shared a photo of the time, showing that the men were in suits with ties and their hats on their laps. Meals were then 10 cents, though you could get a voucher for a free meal. One of the first great challenges they faced was providing service to returning veterans of the First World War, many of whom were suffering from what was then called “shell shock” and what we now know as PTSD, broken men needing help.

On October 29, 1929, the “Roaring 20s” came to a “Roaring Halt” with the crash of the New York Stock Market and the resulting disruption of the world’s economies. Thousands of people lost their jobs and so had no income. This was reflected in the number of meals served by The Mission: in 1929, 73,000 but in 1932, 425,662. This was a time of constant struggle for the staff, with many appeals to the public, just to keep the doors open and stay true to their vow that no one would be turned away. Things were very basic, but they got through it.

Following the Second World War The Mission found that alcoholism was rampant among returning veterans suffering from PTSD. The Mission served as a refuge for those men who could only deal with the brutality of what they had experienced through a cycle of drink and sleep, before they passed on. Peter said that The Mission offered “Soap, Soup and Salvation”.

Canada experienced an economic boon from the 1950s through the 1970s, and The Mission continued to offer its services. It still supported those suffering with alcoholism, but found it was also providing a place for those who just needed a meal and a bed, and in some cases, Americans who had come north to avoid the draft for the war in Vietnam. By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, men dealing with drug addiction became a new population needing support.

Peter explained that by the mid-1980s the boom had ended and governments entered a period of cut-backs and downloading of services that had effects throughout the community. In particular, the Ontario government closed facilities such as Rideau Regional, that cared for individuals living with a variety of cognitive and emotional impairments, forcing many into the community without support. Peter explained that, under the leadership of Diane Morrison, the first female Director of The Mission, they grew by 60 beds in the mid-1990s to meet this new need.

The Pandemic hit The Mission hard. They transitioned some of their services, such as addiction and mental health counselling from in-person to virtual, handed out take-our meals to the community through their loading dock, delivered meals to others in the city through a food truck. Peter said that the staff team worked with little break and no vacation through the first 18 months of the pandemic to ensure that they continued to provide their services. The major projects they had planned were placed on hold and are only now being revived as the heaviest effects of the pandemic wane.

Peter shared a number of photos of The Ottawa Mission as it looks today, including images of the kitchen, dining hall, bedrooms, showers and one of the two apartment buildings they own and run as mixed-market rental buildings. The Ottawa Mission now has its own in-house maintenance team that takes care of its buildings, including the former Albert Inn, that is now the home for their Addiction Program and the former Rideau Bakery, which runs their Food Services training program.

Peter wrapped up his fantastic presentation by discussing the range of services now offered by The Ottawa Mission and the challenges they face. Today The Ottawa Mission offers a wide range of services. Although its overnight and addiction programs remain restricted to men, for reasons of safety, all of its other services are open to both men and women. These include: primary health care, mental health care, dental care, foot care, a wide range of education, job readiness and job training programs, housing support and a food truck program among others. Today, as well, the demand for these services is growing. With the opioid crisis, the housing shortage, the rapid rise in price of food and other necessities and the influx of refugees there is even greater pressure on The Mission and there staff than ever before.

The Ottawa Mission is “ALWAYS OPEN, NEVER CLOSED”, 24 / 7 every day of the year, for over 115 years, with over 1,000,000 hours of service to the most vulnerable in our community.

Its work must continue but for that to happen, they need your help. Only 25% of their funding comes from governments, the rest comes directly from members of the community. To volunteer or donate, please see The Ottawa Mission website.

To watch Peter’s full presentation, please see The Ottawa Mission: Supporting Our City's Most Vulnerable on the HSO YouTube channel.

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Friday, 29 December 2023 07:23

Lowertown East: Urban Renewal & the Aftermath

Our final in-person speaker presentation of 2023 took place on the afternoon of November 12 and was again hosted by the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. We were pleased to welcome Marc Aubin, author, community historian, former President of the Lowertown Community Association and member of the King Edward Avenue Task Force, who spoke to the 60 attendees about the devastating effects on the Lowertown community of urban renewal projects that took place between the 1950s and 1970s. He began by giving us a brief history and description of Lowertown.

Lowertown, which Marc explained had first been laid out by Colonel By in the 1820s, is bordered by the Ottawa River to the north, the Rideau River to the east, Rideau Street to the south and the Rideau Canal to the west. It was a working class community, primarily French Catholic, but with a significant Irish Catholic component, along with a Jewish community and the first Italian community in Ottawa. Sussex, Dalhousie and St. Patrick were the major local commercial streets, with the Byward Market and Rideau Street being frequented by all citizens of the city. It was a vibrant community, self-reliant and historically one that defended French language rights.

Following the Second World War, a planning policy known as “Urban Renewal” dominated the thinking around housing policy in the governments of western nations. The war had led to a decline in the condition of the housing stock, due to the diversion of the required materials to the war effort. The end of the war created an increased demand for housing from returning veterans starting families. Urban Renewal promoted the wholesale replacement of buildings in what it deemed as “blighted” areas with new social housing projects. It was believed that the clearing of these blighted areas would also yield social benefits by resolving issues including: immorality, vice, crime, juvenile delinquency, infant mortality, poor health and an apathetic population. The introduction of upgraded roadways was also a strong motivation. Not surprisingly, lower income neighborhoods were those chiefly targeted for these renewal projects. The City of Ottawa initially identified a number of communities, the National Capital Commission also being involved, and the affected communities had little to no options for appeal. One of these communities was Lowertown East.

Lowertown East is that section of Lowertown east of King Edward Avenue, covering about 186 acres and consisting of 3 sub-communities, Bishop’s Lots, (early smaller lots), Anglesea Square, (architecturally more similar to Lowertown West) and Macdonald Gardens, (a later community from the 1920s). In 1968 the population of the area was 9,400, 90% of which was French Catholic. There was also a strong Jewish presence and a study taken at that time found that 75% of the residents wanted to stay in the community.

The first large scale urban renewal project in Canada took place in Toronto starting in 1948. In 1956 Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation modified its policies to approve urban renewal projects, for which the City of Ottawa received funding in 1958. In 1962, the National Capital Commission expropriated the northern portion of Lowertown, destroying some 400 housing units. This was followed by the expansion of King Edward Avenue, cutting down 100 large elms, to support the new Macdonald-Cartier Bridge that opened in 1965. The City of Ottawa began expropriation in Lowertown East in 1967, continuing until 1977. In 1971 the first social housing project was opened in Lowertown East. The community had already begun to organize against these renewal projects, as early as 1965, as did other communities within Ottawa. In 1975 key members of the Housing Department resigned over a dispute relating to demolition policy with them Councillor Georges Bedard and Mayor Lorry Greenberg, bringing an end to Urban Renewal as a policy in the city.

The destruction of city centres across North America led to a backlash, Jane Jacobs being among the leaders of this movement. In Toronto, pressure from the public eventually forced Premier Bill Davis to cancel the proposed Spadina Expressway. Nationally, a 1968 Task Force led by Paul Hellyer concluded that between 70% - 80% of the buildings demolished under urban renewal projects could have been rehabilitated. As a result of these findings, Federal financial support of urban renewal projects ended in 1973.

Unfortunately for Lowertown East, it was the final project approved and one of the largest. Despite the efforts of resident committees to oppose the planned renewal, or to modify it, it proceeded without approval from the community. Between 1967 – 1977 there were 462 expropriations in Lowertown East, an estimated 1,400 families were forced to relocate at a cost of $31 Million ($250 Million in 2023 dollars). Among the issues identified by the community were: inconsistent / inadequate compensation, excessive rents in new buildings, the destruction of the French language character of the community, no provisions for elderly residents, an abandonment of a mixed income strategy leading to ghettoization. These concerns remained unaddressed.

There were a couple of positive outcomes of the urban renewal of Lowertown East. The community countered the planned redevelopment through the construction of three cooperative housing projects, the rebuilding of the Catholic Community centre and through the creation of a new French language High School, De La Salle Academy. There were however far more negative outcomes. These included the loss to the community of many of the more affluent and educated members, who fled to the suburbs or other parts of the city, the loss of the Irish and Jewish communities, the closure of the major churches and synagogues, the creation of a transient population who had little control over their own housing, the segmenting of the community by major roadways, the belief that the renewal had been an organized attempt to destroy the main Francophone community and a lingering distrust of municipal politicians and staff. Today, even though the community has regained much of its former strength through such organizations as the Lowertown Community Association, it still finds it difficult to  achieve its community goals and finds itself fighting similar battles as it had in the past to preserve its heritage. The battle never ends.

Following Marc’s presentation, we were honoured to have Councillor Stephanie Plante answer a few questions. She promoted the idea of creating a Lowertown Museum, similar to those in other communities which are now part of Ottawa. She also spoke of the need for elected officials to obtain input on policies and programs that will affect them. She emphasized the responsibility of Councillors to seek out this input from those who may not normally provide it, due to their age, language, income or other factors.

Marc has written two books that relate to Lowertown:

  • BLIGHT, published by Crow’s Nest Books in 2018 is a “fictional” account of the struggles of an activist against City Hall. It is available at Blight by Aubin, Marc .
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Founded as the Union Mission in 1906, the Mission has grown as Ottawa has grown, supporting our community through the Great Depression, through the postwar years to present day, providing healing and hope to thousands every year.

Peter Tilley discusses the remarkable legacy of The Ottawa Mission.

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Then & Now