West Neighbourhood House
Older Adult Centre
Multi-service settlement house and community centre
248 Ossington Avenue, Toronto
We have time to speak our own language. But it is extremely important for us to be part of an integrated community. With time, people started accepting it and today we have Vietnamese, English, French, ladies and gentlemen. And people like it, even if they don’t speak English, but through gestures and play it ends up being universal – Odete Nascimento.
Founded in 1912, West Neighborhood House (formerly St. Christopher House) is one of the first settlement houses in Canada. Since the first Portuguese immigrants settled in Toronto in the late 1950s, this organization has worked with this community as clients, volunteers, employees, and executive members. One of its most successful programs is the Older Adult Centre, where for decades now the majority of its members have been Portuguese immigrants, especially women.
In the 1960s, St. Christopher House (later West Neighbourhood House) offered two half-day older adult programs per week. In 1971, its program received “elderly person centre” status from the Ontario government, which resulted in increased funding. St. Chris was able to hire bilingual outreach workers to contact seniors in Toronto’s West downtown neighbourhood, where the Portuguese were one of the largest ethnic communities. By then, seniors were becoming a sizeable demographic in Toronto’s Portuguese community; many of them parents of earlier immigrants who joined their children in Canada after they had become established. This group was especially vulnerable given their greater need for social and health services, which was often unmet because of their lack of language skills and overall unfamiliarity with Canadian society. This sometimes led to alienation, isolation, depression, and further health problems.
In 1973, St. Chris’ senior program moved to the United Church on 761 Queen St. West – the former home of the small Portuguese Protestant congregation directed by the missionary Rev. George Vernon Kimball – where it became a five-day-a-week drop-in centre known as the Older Adult Centre (OAC). Its activities included arts and crafts, bowling, cinema, a Diner’s Club, interpreting, referral services, health education, counselling, fitness, shopping trips, a foot care clinic, and a free income tax service. English language education and citizenship classes were added in 1978 to help older Portuguese immigrants adjust to city life. Regular visits from the children of St. Chris’ nursery school also kept everyone feeling young.
In 1980, as part of Bell Canada’s Centennial, fifty Bell employees volunteered their time to replace the OAC’s gym floor. The Centre re-opened in 1981 with an official ceremony attended by the Mayor of Toronto, Art Eggleton. The following year, a fire caused extensive damage to the facilities, but within four months the building was again operational. In 1992, the OAC partnered with the Portuguese Women 55+ (founded by Odete Nascimento) and introduced an Elder Abuse Prevention and Awareness program. The program offered support groups for victims of abuse and trained participants to provide peer support. In 1995, the OAC moved to St. Chris’ newly built location on 248 Ossington Avenue, which by then was the heart of Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood.
Staff in the Elder Abuse Prevention and Awareness Project realized that educational programs based on written materials or passive learning were not effective with seniors with low English language or literacy skills, and identified the need to communicate in ways that transcended these barriers. In 1997, a group of seniors and community workers participated in a three-day workshop facilitated by Warren Linds, who had used theatre to work on health issues in British Columbia. Linds was inspired by the Brazilian drama theorist and political activist Augusto Boal, author of The Theatre of the Oppressed (1978), who proposed participatory theatre as a tool for social action. This led to the creation of the Health Action Theatre by Seniors (HATS), which disseminated information about health issues affecting older adults, and encouraged people to engage in dialogue and civic action towards improving access to public health care. In 2000, HATS received an Innovation SHARE Award, allowing it to develop and deliver training to seniors of diverse backgrounds. HATS also performed for medical students in Toronto, Hamilton, and Philadelphia.
One of the most interesting characteristics of the OAC has been its community development methods and self-management by its clients, who make decisions about the centre’s programs, supported by St. Chris’ staff.
Hora dos Portugueses
Photos & Video
Artifacts & Records
Short description: Portuguese Women 55+ T-shirt
Date: c. 1991
Description: White t-shirt with the Mulheres Portuguesas 55+ / Portuguese Women 55+ logo stamped on the chest.
Short description: Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Creator: Paulo Freire
Series of records containing: correspondence between St. Christopher House’s Older Adult Centre and the Citizenship Branch of the Secretary of State; internal memo from the federal government; and grant proposal for the New Horizons federal program. July–December 1973. Library and Archives Canada, RG-6-F-2, b127, f3260-P2-2.
Isabel Palmar and Odete Nascimento, “Health Action Theatre by Seniors: Community Development and Education with Groups of Diverse Languages and Cultures,” Generations: Journal of the American Society of Aging 26:3 (Fall 2002): 65-67.