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The past, present and future of the Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society

More than four decades of supporting and caring in the Sea to Sky Corridor and beyond.

Now in her 41st year, she has seen a lot. 

She has grown into herself, changed and adapted. 

She has endured. 

There have been challenges and joys, learning and unlearning. 

She is on a slightly different road than she started on, but she is in a good place: a place she could never have imagined when she was younger.

She is needed and appreciated. 

She looks to a future that she hopes will be better than her present and past. 

There are big changes ahead so that the outside she reflects to the world is more of who she is today. 

She may even change her name because it no longer fits her. 

She is the Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society

The society’s board is amid a re-branding that will respect its past while being more inclusive of its role in the communities it serves today. 

Currently, the society serves the needs of adults and children in the Sea to Sky Corridor, including Squamish, Pemberton, Whistler and the Nations of N’Quatqua, Samahquam, Lil’wat, Skatin and Xa’xtsa.

Recently, the Squamish brick-and-mortar centre underwent extensive renovation. 

Ashley Oakes, executive director of the non-profit society,  gave The Squamish Chief a tour of the freshly rejuvenated Squamish centre. 

For about eight months, staff and clients were relocated up the street as the extensive upgrades were completed. The centre now has more offices, washrooms, and improvements have been made to the kitchen and backyard. 

It is now a more functional and pleasant place for clients and staff. 

Due to the pandemic and the renovations, recognition of the 40th anniversary of the organization was pushed to 2022, its 41st year. 

The public is invited to tour the space, celebrate the milestone and learn more about the society’s many Sea to Sky programs on Tuesday, Oct. 25, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 38021 Third Ave.

Organizers invite those with memories or stories they want to share about the society to get in touch by emailing [email protected], calling 604.892.5748 or stopping by the open house. 

The need

Over the more than four decades the society has existed in some form or other, the town has grown and with it the need, but at the same time, intimate partner violence has become less accepted and a less of a taboo topic, Oakes said.  

Therefore, thankfully, donations have grown with the need. 

“Back in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t talk about it. The community wasn’t giving financially to that kind of work because it was behind closed doors,” she said. 

In the beginning, it was women helping women in their homes, Oakes noted, as she sipped coffee in the Squamish centre’s cozy kitchen, rows of freshly canned tomatoes from a recent workshop lined up behind her. 

“Women picking people up outside of their homes to transport them somewhere safe. It was entirely borne on the shoulders of women, many who could have been victims themselves.”

At the same time, Oakes points out that the rate of intimate partner violence has not changed in decades, which is disheartening and why the society continues to be vital. 

The stats

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2018, 44% of women who had ever been in an intimate partner relationship — 6.2 million women aged 15 and over — reported experiencing in their lifetime some kind of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse in the context of an intimate relationship.

Due to intergenerational trauma resulting from colonization and residential schools, isolating the stats for Indigenous women and the facts are grimmer, at 61% reporting some kind of intimate partner abuse.

And over 1 in 10 (11%) of LGTBQIA2S+ folks reported that they had been physically or sexually assaulted within the past 12 months in 2018 — almost three times higher than the proportion of heterosexual Canadians (4%), Stats Can data shows. 

And the restrictions related to COVID-19 made things worse, Oakes said, echoing other such organizations. 

​​Overall in Canada, 34% of facilities reported being impacted greatly by the pandemic, and more than four in 10 facilities were impacted to a moderate extent. 

“Many reported that the number of crisis calls and demand for support or services for victims outside their facilities had increased,” reports The Daily, a Statistics Canada publication. 

Ultimately, Oakes says, until equality is a reality on a global scale, conditions will continue to create oppression within Squamish and beyond. 

“We can tackle the intergenerational violence that could take place; we can work in the schools and support youth ... who’ve been exposed to violence or those who haven’t. But we want to ensure healthy relationships,” she said. “We need this provincial piece and national piece and global piece. The work has to be done across the world of people fighting for this equity and the rights of women.”

Oakes said in the last four years, the society has grown from 32 to 55 staff to match the need. 

“And it’s still not enough,” she said.


The Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society was formed in October of 1981, dedicated to the prevention of violence against women and support for women, children and youth impacted by violence or abuse.

In the early days, locals including Elsie Andersen, Mary Billy, Marie Campbell, Mary Reed and Sandra Bauer were the core of the Women’s Centre.

In 1991, locals Dianne Faux, Melany Crowston and Marie McKinney, who had founded Pearl’s Place Transition House, completed Transition House worker training. 

McKinney, who is still with the centre as a support worker, told The Squamish Chief she got involved in the early 90s to help get a transition house in town.

Reflecting on her more than three decades of supporting women in the community, she said the foundation of the work is built on confidentiality, respecting a woman's right to choose her own path, and being non-judgmental. 

Those pillars are why the society has endured, she said. 

While burnout is a real threat to those in caring professions like McKinney's, she said not taking things personally has helped her not feel overwhelmed. 

Things have changed in terms of how folks view intimate partner violence — which used to be called, more euphemistically, 'domestic violence' — McKinney noted, and the transition house played a part in shifting that dial locally. 

"I think what [the] transition house did was take the blame off the women and put the blame where it belonged," she said. "You know, we never necessarily wanted to get in these predicaments."

McKinney noted that violence can be generational. 

The trauma is passed down, and the cycle continues. 

She has seen women, then their daughters and then granddaughters caught in the cycle. 

Part of the issue is society casts abusers as evil monsters that anyone could recognize, but in her experience, the truth is quite the opposite. An abuser can be charming and popular, which is how partners get drawn in. 

And while the focus is often on physical abuse, there's a lot of emotional and financial abuse that does damage as well. 

Even with all her years of experience, McKinney said the pandemic was really awful in terms of the upheaval it caused.

"So many people broke up. So many people saw the other side of the person," she said. 

While she has recently rolled back to four days a week, McKinney said she still has a passion for the work and doesn't see herself stopping. 

She sees her role as "providing a soft landing" for those in need. 

She said she continues to be honoured that people can share their journey with her. 

"That's the most important thing about this work," she said. 

Looking back on where the society started — a few local women doing what they could for other women — to where the society is now helping folks, including children, throughout the corridor with counselling, transition housing, and other resources is amazing, McKinney said. 

"We are in such a good place now," she said. 

"When I started there, we never owned anything. We had this little dream of buying this transition house," she said. 

From that dream grew the Women's Centre. And what started as a little pop-up shop to sell some donated items turned into Pearl's Value and Vintage thrift shop, which helps finance the society's many programs. 

"It is just amazing," McKinney said.

Future and growth

Looking forward, Oakes said she is excited about upcoming initiatives that will allow the society to help more folks in need. 

The transition house, for example, is being expanded. 

Currently, it is a three-bedroom facility. Five bedrooms are being added. 

Two rooms will be fully wheelchair-accessible spaces.

This will allow the society to be less dependent on hotel rooms as a stop-gap for those fleeing abuse.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been occupying multiple hotel rooms, at least three at a time, up to five. And even still in this sort of pseudo-post-pandemic, we’re self-funding two hotel rooms in the community on a permanent basis,” Oakes said.

As it has always been, the vision for the society is a community where people live free from violence.

“If we’re envisioning a community that has a population of 40,000 people in 20 years, how do we ensure that we have capacity to deliver the services we know are going to be needed?”

Oakes said she would like to see the funding to expand in-school programs offered by the society. 

The society’s current strategic plan expires in December of 2024 and so starting this January, work will begin on a new plan.  

“With the hopes that January 2024, will launch a new five-year plan that will see us pivot and grow and respond, just as we have for the last five years, even with the pandemic,” she said. 

And the society is working with Mothership Marketing in a re-branding process. 

“We’ve been engaged in that work formally for about six months now, but we’ve been talking about it for three, four years,” Oakes said. 

“It’s really around ensuring our space is visually accessible and inclusive of the people we want to serve. And so not only is it around serving all the communities ... but also supporting trans non-binary and gender-diverse folks in the LGBTQIA2S+  community. So making sure that they know not just when they come into this space that they’re safe, but that we are intentionally including them in our work,” she said. 

The re-branding will include a full name change in the coming year, Oakes said, noting there has been consultation and workshopping of potential names. 

Currently, the name isn’t accurate, Oakes said. 

The society serves beyond just the Howe Sound Region; serves more than just women and isn’t only a physical centre.

Oakes said while the society’s work remains tough, the need is great and the storms weathered are many, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. 

“It’s a really exceptional place to work. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. I can’t imagine working with anybody else besides this amazing team of 50 women and gender-diverse folks and men ... I am just really proud of where we’ve been, and where we’re going. And where we are now. And the way we’ve weathered some of the storms, whether that’s funding, crises, or pandemics."

Find out more about the Howe Sound Women Centre’s history, programs and anniversary Open House celebration by going to, Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society on Facebook or @womenscentre on Instagram.


2021/22 Howe Sound Women Centre Society services:

  • 2,675 bed nights at the transition house 
  • 230 days in the transition house were over capacity
  • 605 persons supported through Gender Diversity Inclusion Outreach
  • 902 persons supported through Multicultural Outreach
  • 490 children and youth supported with one-to-one counselling
  • 277 children and youth supported with groups
  • 2,688 drop-in centre visits for adults and children
  • 899 support calls answered


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