ANTIGONISH, N.S. - The hugs were many, and memories flowing, as the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association (AWRC SASA) hosted an open house Dec. 12 to recognize their 35th anniversary; as well as the retirement, at the end of this month, of long-time executive director Lucille Harper.
“I will miss the women who use this women’s centre; I have learned so much over the years from the women who have come here,” Harper said, speaking to the Casket the day prior to the open house.
“I’ve learned about resilience, struggle and deep, deep love – what I call the ‘mother-bear love’ these women have for their children in spite of the incredible barriers and obstacles they’re facing. I’ve learned about the journeys these women take.”
Of course the missing and learning extends to her colleagues, Harper noted.
“Such a committed group of women who work here; a group who care so deeply,” she said.
“There is a lot of caring from the women who work here; they care very deeply about women who come here, the work they’re doing, and about creating a community, a world, that is caring, sharing and nurturing for all of us who live here. I will definitely miss that.”
Along with speakers at the event, there were many messages sent from dignitaries who noted they would’ve liked to have been in attendance, such as Senator Mary Coyle, MP Sean Fraser and MLA Randy Delorey. Coyle and Fraser read their messages in their respective chambers.
Among those speaking at the event was Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher.
“When we look back and see what your leadership has done, for our area, and has reached out beyond our community, it’s very heart-touching, heart-warming,” Boucher said.
“Something like this doesn’t grow because someone has a job to do, something like this grows and flourishes when someone has a passion and deep dedication to what they’re doing and that is what you’ve given us.”
Incoming executive director Wyanne Sandler was another speaker during the afternoon. She talked about Harper’s leadership and the work of the AWRC SASA.
“And Lucille has done so without ever losing her keen sense of justice, her incredible compassion and, always, with so much integrity and respect, for her colleagues and all of the women we work with,” Sandler said amongst her remarks.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have Lucille as a colleague, a friend and mentor. I’ve learned so much from her and with her.”
Harper talked about the passion she has for the work and the centre’s support from the community.
“It’s hard to say it without sounding like you’re just using trite words, but it has been both deeply humbling and very much an honour to be able to work with the women’s centre over these years, and the broader community,” she said.
“Antigonish is a great community because people are involved, they do care and will step up when something needs to happen.
“We’ve seen this again and again; whether it’s the Antigonish Emergency Fuel Fund, affordable housing, community transit, all of which we’ve had some involvement with, but it has been the community which has taken it up and, absolutely, made it happen.”
Asked about the AWRC SASA’s 35 years, Harper again reflected on community support.
“It has been a significant factor in the longevity of the centre,” she said.
“And within this community, there has been a community of women who, very much, have seen any number of issues in their own lives and in the lives of their families which has not only brought them to the centre but deepened their understanding for the need of a centre like this.”
She talked about the origins of the centre back in the early 1980s when, “feminism and the understanding of gender issues and concerns were not widespread.”
“It was Angela Miles who came to St. F.X. and what she wanted to do, she wanted to teach an adult class – a non-credit class called Women Today. I believe there were about 30 to 40 women who came and one man,” Harper said.
“It was just about all the different issues in women’s lives and brought together in a way that women could not only see themselves in the issues, but understand the larger societal and world issues that were impacting women.
“It removed women from feeling that this is happening to me alone and, in some ways, I’m culpable for it; to this is happening to women across our community, our province, our country and the world, and if it’s going to change, we need to be involved in creating that change.”
She noted the course looked at issues such as poverty, violence, family dynamics and workplace discrimination.
“All these different issues and it grounded women in understanding that change needed to take place across the board; that was the foundation of women coming together in Antigonish,” she said.
“So, through that foundation, there was an understanding that we needed to two things; a place where women could come and find information and support to deal with particular issues in their own lives, and also a place where women could organize, come together to discuss issues and advocate for broader change.
“Those were the two principles or basis for the founding of the women’s centre and, from there, we have been able to continue working in both, providing that individual support and programming and that has really grown and extended to programs we’re doing in schools, as well as to continue to work for social change and on social justice issues … I think that has been a strength.”
Harper noted the AWRC SASA being the second oldest women’s centre in the province after one based in Pictou County.
“Nine women’s centres [across the province] doing fantastic work,” she said.
“All have been built by their own communities, so each centre is a little bit different because it’s responding to needs of the community, and each community is a little bit different.
“By and large, it’s small towns, large rural areas, we’ve been serving, which speaks to Nova Scotia anyway.”