YWCA Toronto has been a turning point in the lives of women and girls for over 141 years. We have gone from a small group of local women who came together out of concern for the safety and well-being of young, single women in their community to an ever-growing Association of over 350 employees who work everyday with women facing the challenges of violence, poverty, poor health, access to education and discrimination.

Since 1873, YWCA Toronto has worked to improve the lives of women and girls by providing housing, encouraging community involvement, offering training and educational opportunities and advocating for systemic change. We provide 30 programs in 12 communities across the city extending from Etobicoke to Scarborough. All of our programs help women and girls build skills, confidence, leadership, and resiliency.


Late 1800s

In the last part of the nineteenth century the new industrial economy emerged and it became increasingly acceptable for young women to leave their homes to pursue independence and waged labour in Toronto. However, it also meant exposure to the dangers and vices of city life – and of course, to exploitative and unregulated factory work. 

Many of the young women who came to the city were enticed into what were deemed immoral activities such as drinking alcohol as well as frequenting movie houses, gambling dens and social clubs.   

The first meeting of YWCA Toronto was held at Shaftsbury Hall on February 20, 1873. The meeting was the result of the work of a number of philanthropic women’s organizations and churches. Through the educational, spiritual, physical and social programs established by YWCA Toronto, young women were given the opportunity to participate in social activities that were deemed "appropriate."

 “… it is our vocation to lift up the fallen, or unfortunate, especially those of our own sex…”
(YWCA Annual Report, 1880) 

In August of 1873, YWCA Toronto opened its first boarding houses at 19 and 33 Duke Street (now Adelaide Street at George and Frederick Streets). Average rent paid was from $1.50 - $3.50/wk. Of the 190 boarders who stayed there in 1874, 57 were dressmakers, seamstresses, furriers or shroud makers, five were saleswomen and nine were mechanists. Miss Blythe was the first YWCA Toronto employee; she was the matron of the boarding house.

Some of the earliest social work pioneered by the Association included the 1877 Western House Committee, which was formed in response to predicted increases in immigration to Toronto. In 1878 the Prison Gate Mission was created in order to meet and offer support to female prisoners immediately after their discharge.

In 1884 the YWCA was ahead of its time. We taught “non-traditional” trades for women including phonography, stenography and typing. In 1887 the first YWCA Employment Bureau was formed to assist women in finding work that complimented their skills. Adult education classes were offered to increase women’s skills in reading, writing and spelling and in the 1890s physical culture classes instructed women in everything from basketball to swimming to fencing.

In 1892, the YWCA officially opened a new, larger location at 18 Elm Street (today, the Elmwood Spa). The lot was purchased for $16,000.

“We will be the greatest and strongest group of young women ever formed.  I mean of women, by women and for women.” (Adelaide Hoodless, President of YWCA Canada, 1895)

In 1898 a Beau Tax was instituted at the boarding houses which charged young men 25 cents to visit with a young lady in the open lounge or 50 cents for conversation in the more private parlour.

In 1910, a YWCA cafeteria was opened at 209 Yonge Street to provide a decent, warm meals to the young women who were working in the factories and not provided with a lunch break. During the Depression of the 1930s, two additional cafeteria locations served even more meals to city workers as budgets tightened. These cafeterias remained in use until the mid 1950s, by which time large numbers of restaurants had opened to meet the needs of Toronto’s rapidly growing multi-cultural population.

During WWII, the YWCA ran Hostess Houses at military camps where mothers, wives, children and friends could wait for and meet their men. The Department of National Defence asked the YWCA also to prepare lists of approved boarding houses for women relatives of service men and to arrange weekend and holiday billets for English, Australian and New Zealand airmen training in Canada.

In 1929, the Eaton family donated the Georgian Bay property on which YWCA Toronto’s Camp Tapawingo was built. The original building (White Cottage) is still in use.

In 1950, the first Take-A-Break program was established to help single mothers by providing childcare while they participated in classes or social programming. Within ten years the following programs would also be offered: Incest Survivors’ Group, fitness and yoga, life skills training and children and teen’s leadership development. The first International Boutique was also established, with proceeds going to fund work in developing countries.

The purchase of Woodlawn House was finalized in 1950. Woodlawn Residence, a residence for single women was completed in 1957. By 1958 Woodlawn House was  renamed Bongard House and became the head office for YWCA Toronto. It will remain our head office until the 2011 opening of our new YWCA Elm Centre.

In 1965, the YWCA advocated for birth control and sex education programs. We continue to believe reproductive choice and control over our own bodies is essential to women’s equality.

During the 1970s, YWCA Toronto engaged in significant social action. We established a pro-choice position in 1971 and started advocating for lesbian rights in 1973 and Aboriginal rights in 1975. YWCA Toronto declared its commitment to providing emergency and affordable housing in 1976; released an Anti-Apartheid statement in 1978; endorsed and supported the establishment of International Women’s Day in 1978 and protested cutbacks to social services in 1979. We started speaking out against violence against women in 1980; and we were actively involved in the work to win the equality guarantee for women in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1981.

In 1984, the Working Skills for Women program was developed. The goal of the program was to help women prepare to enter non-traditional and emerging occupations.

In 1986, YWCA Well-Being was a new program designed to address factors that contribute to wellness including stress management, good nutrition, increased physical activity and smoking cessation.

YWCA began advocating for universal childcare in 1986 and began the campaign for Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value in 1987.

In 1991, the YWCA Breakthrough Program began providing support, education and counselling groups to women who have survived violence or abuse.

In 1997, YWCA Toronto began working in support of gun control; in 1998, YWCA Toronto issued a statement supporting the rights of transgendered individuals and began working to determine how we can best support trans women.

In 2004, YWCA Toronto, in partnership with the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Metro Toronto Action Committee on Violence Against Women and others, won the battle to ban religious-based arbitration from family law courts; and in 2005, we supported the fight for same-sex marriage.

In 2008, the FLEW (Family Legal Education for Women) project was launched as a result of the 2004 battle for no religious arbitration. FLEW is a public legal education project funded by the Government of Ontario that aims to provide accessible information to women in Ontario who may be vulnerable and isolated. The project helps women understand their rights under family law. The materials are available in 13 languages.

In 2012, we opened the doors to our new YWCA Elm Centre. It is a 300-unit affordable and supportive permanent apartment complex for single women and women with children in Toronto’s downtown core. YWCA Toronto is now the largest  provider of women-focused housing options in Canada and the YWCA Elm Centre will more than double our permanent housing capacity.